Soon after his Oscar-nominated turn as Tina Turner's abusive husband in What's Love Got to Do With It?, actor Laurence Fishburne decided that no matter how well-paid or sought-after he became, he wanted more creative freedom and control over his career. So, like many high-wattage actors, he bypassed Tinseltown's power circuit and started his own production company. But rather than fire things up with a cinematic vanity project, Fishburne wrote, produced, directed and acted in a three-character play called Riff Raff, which became an off-Broadway hit after its L.A. premiere. A year later, Fishburne won a Tony award for his work in Two Trains Running, and this past season, he starred in the Broadway revival of The Lion in Winter.
While Shadow Theatre Company artistic director Jeffrey W. Nickelson doesn't expect to duplicate that string of successes, he's optimistic that the group's regional-premiere production of Fishburne's play will have similarly liberating rewards. Set in a Lower East Side crack den on Halloween night, Riff Raff examines the shifting alliances that occur between a trio of partners in crime -- including a pair of half-brothers -- and the forces that compel them all to accept their bleak destiny. Directed by company member Hugo Jon Sayles, the production features Nickelson and local actors Kurt Soderstrom, Cajardo Lindsey (who delivered a captivating portrayal in last season's Slow Dance on the Killing Ground). The opening-night performance on September 23 will be a fundraiser for the African-American Leadership Institute, an organization that Nickelson credits for giving him the impetus to quit his job and start Denver's only for-profit African-American theater company.
A 1997 graduate of the AALI's training program, Nickelson says his experiences there helped him focus on his own blind spots and taught him that any ambivalence he might have about giving back to his community was a shortcoming instead of a phobia. "Oftentimes, we despise that from which we came," he says. Describing a class project in which all of the students were instructed to survive a particular situation, Nickelson recalls that the class as a whole died and that he alone lived. "I realized for the first time that by not speaking, by not contributing to what's taking place in our society, I could be a hindrance."
After producing two seasons' worth of shows that proved as entertaining as they were provocative, though, Nickelson and company could hardly be considered part of the proverbial problem. And neither are the staff members at the AALI. Their determined efforts have made a clear convert out of Barbara Stephens, who, as an employee of the Colorado Department of Transportation's Construction Development Center, shares office space with the group in a building located a stone's throw from several renovated structures in Five Points. "They left doing it for themselves," says Stephens, "and came back doing it for the community."
Despite the fact that the characters in Riff Raff don't communicate those ideas in an equally heartwarming manner, Nickelson suggests that there's a valuable message underlying the play's adult themes and raw language: "By taking a spiritual approach to what is a rough play," he says, "maybe people can stop pointing fingers." Especially those that curl back in the direction of victimhood.