All the World's an Empty Stage

For the locked-out founder of Eulipions, the playís still the thing.

When the lights dim over the crowd, a child clad in African robes ascends the stage and in a slightly nervous voice introduces The Black Nativity. The cast gathers on stage one by one until one becomes forty, and for the next two hours, one powerful voice after another belts out rollicking gospel tunes -- toe-tapping, hand-raising, Praise God! tunes. The show, written by Langston Hughes in 1961, builds a bridge between the culture of historic Africa and that of twentieth-century black America by depicting the birth of Christ and the vitality of the modern black church. There is no narrative to speak of, just a pervasively uplifting spirit that feels like church -- only better, because the seats are more comfortable.

But for all of the passion in the performance, this year's tenth-anniversary production of The Black Nativity is a pale imitation of previous efforts. There were only twenty people in the audience -- half the number of performers on stage -- when there should have been one hundred people singing on a much bigger stage. The performance should have been held in a downtown building of heroic proportions, not in the small El Centro Su Teatro, north of I-70 in a tiny strip of neighborhood sandwiched between the highway and a belt of factories. The show should have run six weekends, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, not just the two before Christmas. There should have been sophisticated lights and an honest-to-God organ instead of a synthesizer. The Sunday-afternoon crowd should have been 200 or 300.

The story of why things weren't as they should have been makes for pretty good drama itself.

An unhappy exit: Eulipions founder Jo Bunton Keel.
An unhappy exit: Eulipions founder Jo Bunton Keel.
Unreal estate: Eulipions' current building, the former El Jebel Shriner Temple.
David Rehor
Unreal estate: Eulipions' current building, the former El Jebel Shriner Temple.

"Either you're gonna be a cultural center or you're going to in fact be a real estate management company," says Hiawatha Davis, head of the city's Department of Human Rights and Community Relations. Davis is one of several city officials who have had front-row seats in what has turned into a disastrous production involving Eulipions.

From its founding in 1982 as a small black theater group largely off the Denver radar, by the mid-'90s, Eulipions had grown into one of the city's best theatrical companies. For more than a decade, it had put on a half-dozen shows a year, everything from musicals to cutting-edge plays. But the group had also bounced from space to space in north Denver. With its own building, the company would have stability. It wouldn't have to worry where to store costumes and sets and tools and props. "If you own your own space," says Eulipions founder Jo Bunton Keel, "it makes much more sense economically."

So when the opportunity came to buy the historic El Jebel ShrineTemple, the magnificent Moorish hall at 1770 Sherman Street, company members scoured the city for help. The community came through with $40,000, mostly in small donations. In a rush of optimism, the Colorado Historical Society chipped in $5,000, as did the Trillium Corporation. Colorado National Bank (now US Bank) threw in another $40,000, and the down payment was set. The bank and the city loaned the group more money for renovations, and so did the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The deal closed on Halloween 1995.

The purchase of the temple was the largest acquisition by a black-owned nonprofit in Denver in decades, maybe ever. But the temple was way too much building for the tiny arts troupe. Eulipions stopped putting on shows. It defaulted on a loan. As part of an agreement to bail out the group, the city demanded that Eulipions cast a whole new board of directors. The new board helped get the group on firmer ground, but also fired Keel and changed the locks.

Davis thinks the building should be sold, and so does the city, says Myrna Hipp, head of Denver's Community Development and Planning Agency and the city's point person on the debacle.

Not ready to play dead just yet, Keel and her supporters, who call themselves Friends of Eulipions, are waging a legal battle to save the building and oust the new board. Last fall they lost a motion for an injunction against the current board, known as Eulipions Inc., to prevent the building from being sold, but a trial to settle the matter is scheduled for the spring. Just last month, the interim board, through attorney Tyrone Holt, filed a motion to have the case dismissed, but Keel's attorney, Alison Maynard, regards the motion as frivolous.

Both sides have been ordered into mediation, and Maynard is trying to locate a judge outside of Denver to handle the matter. She says she wants the mediation to take place outside of Denver because City Attorney Dan Muse and Mayor Wellington Webb influenced the selection of the current board.

Meanwhile, Keel is still trying to put on the local theater productions that the building was supposed to have facilitated. At the end of January the group is scheduled to return to Su Teatro to stage a play called Talking Bones, about how the young ignore the messages of their ancestors. In May it's slated to present a tragedy called Waitin' in Vain, about a young Harlem girl's struggles to become a writer.

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