Playhouse artistic associate chronicles Cincinnati's King Records in new play

KJ Sanchez, founder and CEO of American Records and current artistic associate at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, has spent years finding valuable stories that chronicle our time in the form of plays, musicals and performances.
Through American Records, which is based in New York, she has told the story of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in a play called "ReEntry," the story of middle school students in Florida in "Like in the Middle" and explored the idea of equity in the arts in "Duck Soup," among others.

Last fall, Blake Robinson, Artistic Director of the Playhouse, commissioned her to write a play about King Records (tentatively titled "Cincinnati King") and its inimitable founder, Syd Nathan.
“I’ve known Blake for a good 20 years, so when he contacted me about working on a project together, I was into the idea, even before we decided what the subject matter would be,” Sanchez says.
Both Robinson and Sanchez recognized the need to gather input from the community to find a story that not only would make good theater, but also would include and be relevant to diverse groups not always covered in mainstream theater.
“It started when I got to town last July and I wanted to do a community art project through the Playhouse that would build up a dialogue,” Robinson says. “We needed a starting point for discussion, and I think it was about the time that I stumbled upon the King Records radio series on WVXU.”
“Once I read up on King and listened to those radio programs, I was hooked immediately and also stunned that I’d never heard of it before,” Sanchez says.
The King Records Story
A little context: Syd Nathan founded King Records in the Evanston neighborhood of Cincinnati in 1943. Having little education or money, he was nonetheless able to build King into a successful and innovative business within the music industry. Nathan is famous for making King into one of the first vertically integrated record labels; his headquarters on Brewster Avenue included a studio for recording talent, a record pressing plant and a distribution center, all under one roof.
King also set itself apart by having not only a racially diverse lineup of artists, but also an integrated staff, well before such practices were common. King was most famously the home of Soul Brother No. 1, James Brown, but also featured early doo-wop and R&B artists like Hank Ballard and Freddie King, as well as bluegrass artists like the Stanley Brothers and Cowboy Copas. By the late '60s, however, Nathan’s health was failing, and when he died in 1968, the label changed ownership several times before ultimately becoming defunct.
A Fresh Pair of Eyes
Though King’s history has been lying dormant for some time and indeed, many of the efforts to bring its legacy to the forefront have been previously documented on Soapbox (here, here and here), when Sanchez discovered King’s story, she knew she had to get to Cincinnati to learn more.
“Blake brought me out and connected me with some key community members,” Sanchez says. “From there, we cast as wide a net as we could and began doing interviews, which lasted about a year, until we were able to comb through everything and I made a draft.”
“It was up to me to gather a team of people for her to work with, comprised of staff members, board members of the Playhouse, community volunteers and CCM drama students,” Robinson says. “They became her working theater company to take on the research aspect.
In late August, the Playhouse hosted a free, public reading of the draft of "Cincinnati King." The Playhouse scheduled a second reading during the same weekend after tickets for the first reading quickly sold out. Momentum had begun to build as excitement around the project grew.
“The best thing to come out of the reading was a sense of enthusiasm and appetite to hear about King and its story,” Robinson says. “That, and a whole new list of people to interview.”
A Story Worth Telling
From the inception of this project through the initial readings of the play, Sanchez and Robinson, who both arrived in Cincinnati less than two years ago, have grown increasingly enamored of not only the King Records story, but the story of Cincinnati and its people.
“Honestly, I knew very little about the city,” Robinson admits. “We’ve come to love it in a very short period of time.”
Robinson has a great deal of respect for the position he holds at the Playhouse and the opportunities it affords him, “I’m eager to help lead the conversation and think about what stories we are going to tell. … I’m extraordinarily encouraged by the enthusiasm for "Cincinnati King." so I expect that more of a community aspect and non-traditional plays will be a part of that.”
“The first trip that Phil Pickens, the music coordinator, and I took here, our jaws dropped for five days,” Sanchez says. “We couldn’t believe all of the great things going on in Cincinnati. It’s just so great to be in a city with this much culture, this much to offer, where people are actually nice.”

Sanchez is hopeful for what the future holds for "Cincinnati King" and is asking those who would have a part in telling that story to reach out to the playhouse through Public Relations Director Connie Yeager.
At least in some ways, it appears that after 40 years of neglect, the legacy of King Records may receive a portion of the spotlight it rightfully deserves. At the same time, much work is still being done to ensure that more of this story is not lost.
To learn more and/or get involved with preserving this history, contact the Cincinnati Music Heritage Foundation.
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