Westword Book Club: donnie betts on reading from the bottom shelf of the library
Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature that celebrates the books that inspire Denver artists.
donnie betts (lowercase intentional) is the proprietor of No Credits Productions, founder of City State Ensemble and the Denver Black Arts Company, and a multiple award-winning filmmaker, performer and theater director. He also works at the History Colorado Center and can be heard on KGNU. As befits a man with so many titles and interests, betts has several key books that that inspired him to pursue his various callings.
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Westword: What are you reading now?
donnie betts: The book I'm reading currently is called While the World Watched, by Carolyn Maull McKinstry. It's a fairly new book, and we had Carolyn come speak here at the History Center Colorado this year on the fiftieth anniversary of the Birmingham church bombings where four little girls were killed and several others injured. Carolyn was a fourteen-year-old girl working at the church at the time. So it's her story through the eyes of a child, which is just fascinating. I read other books for fun and, of course, I read a lot of play scripts because I direct plays as well. In fact, we just opened a musical adaptation of The Color Purple which I had not given a full, in-depth reading before, so I read that while researching the musical and it's great. That book has a real sense of history, and the way destructive behavior can cycle through generations. There's also a movie, which took a lot of liberties with the book but still had outstanding performances by Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.
So is there usually some historical component to these books that have influenced you?
Obviously, I'm really into history and I like reading things of historical significance, either fiction or non-fiction. I love history, I love finding out things I didn't know before.
What kind of books did you like to read as a child?
Growing up, I used to read comic books, too. Superhero stuff, Batman and Superman, of course, but I always enjoyed the Silver Surfer, who is this benevolent alien with this sense of zen about him. Graphic novels have become more literary in recent years, but I'll always admire the craft and artistry on display in comic book drawing. I'm a visual person.
Do you think reading a book at a particular age can change the impact it has on you?
I think it impacts you a lot when you read something at the right age. When I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a young man, it had a profound effect on me. Same thing with To Kill a Mockingbird.
It's a classic for a reason.
Right, it's taught in every school now -- but I was growing up, until my sophomore year in high school, I went to all-black schools in the segregated South. I honestly didn't want to go to an integrated school; I liked where I was and I liked my teachers. Once I went to an integrated school, a lot of what I was reading and learning before wasn't available anymore. It wasn't until I went to college and discovered what I like to call "the bottom shelf of the library" and discovered Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin that reading became personal for me again. The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin, had a profound effect on me, and it was completely tied to that time in my life, freshman and sophomore year of college. Those books, in concert with my development at the time, still have a lot of influence on what I do today. I realized I loved history, but I also realized that I love teaching people and sharing what I had learned. I wanted to be a history teacher at first, but what I ultimately decided was that I could present that history through film and performance as well. I was in my first play my senior year of high school and I loved it and wanted to keep doing it. I don't remember what play it was, but I do remember having to wear a white powdered wig, and that none of the other football players were interested in theater.
Are there any other books you'd recommend?
There's one more book I want to tell you about, by a great author who recently passed away. I won't try to pronounce his name because I'll just butcher it...
Is it Chinua Achebe?
Look at you. You're all over it, aren't you? Things Fall Apart. Wonderful book. Not only was that my first experience with African literature, I think it may have been the first book I ever read from that bottom shelf at the library.
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