All the World's an Empty Stage

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

After that, Keel will find out whether she can ever get back into the building that was briefly hers.

Jo Bunton Keel came to Denver from Ohio in the late '60s; a few years later she joined the New Dance Theatre, which was run by another future arts stalwart, Cleo Parker Robinson. In 1977 Keel started her own dance troupe, the Movement Free Dance Company. In those days, black theater revolved around the old Bonfils Theatre on Colfax. When its owner, Donald Seawell, launched the Denver Performing Arts Complex, he deemed the old theater inadequate; the Bonfils later became the Lowenstein and then closed in 1986.

In the early '80s, Keel already was looking for something new to stake her claim to. Recently divorced, she used the proceeds of the sale of her Park Hill home to help rent, along with actor Jimmy Walker, a storefront on Colorado Boulevard between 28th and 29th streets. They christened the space Studio E. And while black theater performances at Bonfils had mostly been musicals, the imperative of the new theater was to prove that black people could produce serious theater.

Dramatic movement: Eulipions' former home at 2715 Welton.
David Rehor
Dramatic movement: Eulipions' former home at 2715 Welton.
Eulipions' former home at 2864 Colorado Boulevard.
David Rehor
Eulipions' former home at 2864 Colorado Boulevard.

It was a shaky start. The group's first play, Wine in the Wilderness, almost fell apart after the director and the cast walked out two weeks before opening night. "The director had some major issues of control, and he kind of talked up this mutiny, but we regrouped, and with a whole new cast put it out," says Roslyn Washington, one of the replacement actors and a longstanding member of Eulipions.

There were no grants or loans or corporate sponsors. A core group of volunteers built sets, raided their own closets for costumes, held rehearsals and worked other jobs to pay the bills (Keel, for instance, commuted every day from Denver to Greeley to run the Marcus Garvey Cultural Center at the University of Northern Colorado). Crowds were small.

"We would sometimes do shows with one person in the audience or no people in the audience, and we'd call it a dress rehearsal," Washington says. "We'd do shows for one person, and it would just trip them out. If they wanted a show that night, we'd give it to them."

Performances didn't keep the organization alive, however; classes did -- aerobics, karate, dance and acting. "It became a center of artistic synergy," says Keel.

But in 1984, it became a center without a home. While their storefront was zoned for adult entertainment, it was not zoned for staged theater, and the city forced Studio E to close its doors. Keel and Washington packed their bags and reopened the following year at 2715 Welton Street.

The two-story building had once been a dance hall and, later, a home for the American Legion. But the place had been empty for years, and owner McKinley Harris promised the group a year of free rent if they spruced the place up. There was no electricity in the building, so volunteers worked only on warm weekends that winter. The top-floor theater sat at the end of 26 very steep steps, and without elevators, getting supplies up there was an adventure.

Armed with masks, goggles and hip waders, Keel and her cohorts shoveled out dead cats, dead pigeons and tons of pigeon droppings. "The dust coming out the door was so thick, somebody thought the building was on fire and called the fire department," Washington recalls. But there was community support, albeit from unusual sources -- such as the old man who put money in the street meters to keep the group's cars from being towed. Or the drug dealers who vowed not to sell drugs around their building.

The theater was renamed Eulipions, a term used by jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk that meant "author of love." Naysayers told Keel and the others that black theater couldn't survive in a town like Denver. But Eulipions thrived in Five Points. The theater was left unlocked, and many times tickets were free. Audiences grew.

Eulipions finally took off in 1989 with August Wilson's bluesy drama Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which started out as a four-weekend run and went on to play for almost three months and win the Denver Critics Circle award for best theatrical production. The show was so successful that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts acquired the rights to future Wilson plays. "Every year, that was their black show," says Washington, "so we couldn't do those things."

Where Washington was resentful, Keel was stoic: The move by DCPA showed Eulipions was being taken seriously, and Keel points out that DCPA didn't do its own version of Ma Rainey until 1998.

Still, despite their hard work, the building at 27th and Welton was raggedy. When the roof started caving in, in 1988, Eulipions moved to an old grocery store at 24th and Welton. In the new space, the group returned to its musical roots, putting on Gospel at Colonus, a black take on the Oedipus tale. The community loved it.

And slowly, Eulipions had started to bring in money. In the early '80s, the group's budget had been a paltry $15,000 a year, but word of mouth generated larger audiences, more ticket sales and increased grant support. By the mid-'80s, when the group moved to Five Points, the budget had grown to $75,000, and by the early '90s it stood at about $300,000. In 1990 Keel quit her job to run the organization full-time, and Eulipions hired a staff member. Two years later Keel was one of ten people nationwide selected by the Harvard University School of Business to participate in a prototype seminar called the Denali Initiative. The monthlong workshop was designed to teach arts groups how to become savvy entrepreneurs. The classes, she remembers, were "very intense," and when she came back, she was juiced with the idea of a multi-use facility that could generate revenue and sustain the organization over the long term.

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