Jeff Church, the former longtime Artistic Director of the Coterie Theatre, was found dead in the early afternoon on Christmas Eve just days after allegations of sexual assault and abuse surfaced.
He worked at the children's theatre for more than 30 years while also directing and advising with productions at The Unicorn and UMKC. The Coterie, because of Church's work, was named one of the best five theatres for children in the US by the TIME magazine.
However, his legacy has now been tarnished by abuse allegations.
A former local KC actor took to social media on December 20 to detail and account a traumatic experience of alleged sexual violations committed by Church. Dashawn Young, in a nine-minute video, recounted an incident from the summer of 2017. He alleged that a pool party at Church's residence ended in a sexual encounter. Young, who was 22 at the time, said the experience went from confusing to uncomfortable to pleas for it to end. He shared that after the party ended, he couldn't find his street clothing or possessions which had somehow shifted from the poolside to Church's bedroom. The young man alleged that when he went to the bedroom and began to change out of his bathing suit, Church unexpectedly initiated a sexual encounter.
Traumatized Young Man
Young said he chose to come out about the incident now because of Harvey Weinstein's conviction on rape charges on December 19. "I couldn't get Jeff's face out of my mind. I knew I had to say something. All I can see is his face, when he was on top of me, with this disgusting grin. I tried to laugh it away, and asked him to repeatedly to stop, but he kept laughing while saying 'I don't care what you want'."
He said this was The Great Jeff Church, who he had looked up to since he was a kid. Young also shared that he and Church had previously been flirtatious and had gone on two dates. He added that these interactions had concluded by the time of the alleged incident in Church's bedroom.
Young has received support from the community and has encouraged others who consider themselves victims of similar predatory behaviour from Church to publicize their incidents. Mark Manning, KKFI 90.1 radio host, spoke up about an alleged sexual encounter with Church, somewhat similar to Young's story. Manning said the incident occurred when he was 27 in the summer of 1991. "I was so embarrassed and I felt like it was my fault for allowing this to happen," the radio personality said.
Some have come forth on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisal. Reports reveal repeated patterns of behaviour. Most first person encounters show Church as a person in position of power who uses the promise of career advancement, social, professional and physical pressure to enact predatory behaviour on young male actors. An ongoing investigation by The Pitch describes Church's activities as "Kansas City theatre's worst kept secret".
Coterie Board of Directors Shocked
The Coterie Board of Directors expressed shock at the allegations coming up. It took to Instagram to voice its concerns. "This week, we learned of serious allegations against our producing artistic director. These are very troubling allegations that must be fully and robustly, investigated," it said. "We have placed the producing artistic director on administrative leave and engaged an experienced outside investigator to conduct a thorough review of the facts."
Meanwhile, detectives and the police are conducting a death investigation. A cause of death is yet to be established. Police officers found a dead body at Church's residence on Saturday. They were called by an unidentified person who had discovered the former artistic director's body.