All the World's an Empty Stage
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.
"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.
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.
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.
Keel had always wanted to find a permanent home for Eulipions. Since the mid-'80s, she had crawled through the attics and walked through the basements of more than a dozen buildings. By the time she returned from Harvard, it was obvious the group needed a new building.
"We were down on Welton in an old Safeway store, and it was jam-packed," says Beverly DeCluette, a former boardmember. "The people couldn't see."
That wasn't true of Keel's plan, however. "Everybody bought into the vision," says Hiawatha Davis.
And not just members of Eulipions. The following year, the Colorado Historical Society gave Eulipions a $75,000 grant to study whether purchasing and renovating the temple at 1770 Sherman Street was feasible, and the Mayor's Office of Economic Development kicked in $25,000 to draw up a business plan. Keel and company also received about $100,000 in free consultation from a local law firm specializing in real estate. By 1994, the group's operating budget had grown to half a million, half of which consisted of small donations from the community.
Yet financial troubles were already looming. The group was incurring debt, says Walker, owing about $14,000 in back rent at 2425 Welton. Another $36,000 in rent would later come due at a temporary storage building the organization had been using. But Keel and her staff weren't thinking about that -- they were too close to fulfilling their dream.
Lenders thought Eulipions could make a go of the space as well. US Bank loaned the group $500,000, MOED added $344,000, and the National Trust loaned $100,000. The Colorado Historical Society tossed in another $98,000 grant and promised another worth $484,000. (That grant has not been issued but is still promised, says Keel.)
In 1995 Eulipions purchased the temple for $1.775 million. "It was a solid business deal," says Keel. "For the city, it was a guaranteed source." Interest on the bank loan was 9 percent; the National Trust's loan was 7.5 percent, and the city's loan was 3.5 percent. Along with the building, Eulipions also bought the adjacent parking lot at 1754 Sherman, negotiating a deal with a parking management company that would bring in $75,000 per year. That revenue would pay off the bank and city loans. "The whole loan structure was one of almost certainty, except for the National Trust," says Keel; that loan would be serviced by renting the building's ballroom for proms and parties.
Still, the loans and grants had specific purposes -- such as purchasing the building and making renovations. Eulipions still had to pay operating expenses, and income had to be generated from putting on shows, renting out the space and continuing to raise funds.
After Eulipions purchased its building, most of the eleven-member board of directors felt as if they had accomplished their goal of finding a permanent home for Eulipions and departed. Throughout 1995, new faces came and went, and the following year, the board held only three meetings. Eventually there were only three boardmembers.
Despite the unstable leadership, the theater group underwent an ambitious expansion. Before the move, the organization employed four staff members; by the end of 1996, there were 22. Most had no connection to the arts. Instead, they were job coaches and crisis counselors.
Washington had left the board years earlier, and when she came by to check out the new place, the changes made her uncomfortable. Staff members were applying for a city grant to start up a culinary arts school in the kitchen, she says, "kind of 'cause the kitchen was screaming for it, and that would have been great. But is that what we're supposed to do?"
And people began to grow disconnected. "I'd walk into the building and someone would say, 'Hi, how can I help you?' They didn't know me and I didn't know them. It was a real hard thing for me to swallow."
"At the smaller space, the focus was on just the play," says Andre Freeman, who managed the temple. He had worked as a volunteer at Eulipions since he was a child. At the new place, he says, there were more business opportunities to work with -- more ideas about what to do. Too many ideas. By the end of 1996, the group was crashing.
"We tried to expand too fast," says Keel -- mainly, by hiring too many people. "Our revenue did not keep up with our expenses." Very quickly, the guiding principle of Eulipions shifted from artistic performance to simple survival.
"I take responsibility for that," Keel continues. "We thought, 'Yeah, this building is the answer. All we need are the people to put in place and we'll go.' One, that was false. Two, we got into an area we should not have gotten into, which was more in employment and training."
Problems compounded. Because the building had been vacant for years, Public Service Company had not been able to provide an estimate of monthly utility costs before the group moved in. Eulipions figured the utilities would cost around $2,000. The first bill was $9,600.
Moreover, Davis says, "they hired a white fundraiser with a good track record, but he'd never raised money for black folks. He didn't raise a quarter. But [Keel] kept him on contract well past what should have been his drop-dead date." The job grant from the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training to start up the culinary school fell through because the kitchen, it turned out, needed extensive renovations. "[Keel] started running into all these issues that were slowing things down," says Davis. "Anyway, the sky fell."
Though the MOED loan and the US Bank loan never defaulted, the loan from the National Trust did, in March 1997. "There was no way we could keep pace," says Keel. "We had to lay folks off. We still owe people about $40,000 in back salary." By the end of the year, the Eulipions ballroom had gone into receivership; early the next year, the group amassed an additional $116,000 in debt to vendors and ex-employees.
The city, too, had leverage against Eulipions. When the organization set up its loans with the bank, the city and the National Trust, it entered into a cross-default agreement. That meant if one loan defaulted, the other lenders could declare their loans in default as well. The National Trust was threatening foreclosure, says the Community Development and Planning Agency's Hipp.
As if Keel didn't have enough troubles, in July 1996, her oldest son died of AIDS, and the loss greatly reduced her focus. She says that she did not "come out of being dysfunctional until last August." Keel trusted her board to take care of things, but the board was too much in flux to keep Eulipions out of harm's way. Her world collapsed, and she could do nothing about it.
But Mayor Webb could. Keel met with Webb one day toward the end of 1997. As she recalls, Webb said, "I want to help you with this, but you're not thinking clearly. Why don't you be the artistic director and we'll find a business director."
Keel stepped down as executive director to become the group's artistic director. But the city wanted a whole new board. "We encouraged them to change the board structure because of the increased liabilities," Hipp says.
According to Walker and Keel, City Attorney Dan Muse told the members of Eulipions in unsparing terms what was going to happen: The city would bail out the theater group only if the current board exited stage left. "The heavy-handedness from Dan is just Dan. That didn't come from the mayor," says Keel. "Still, the mayor and the city haven't been very helpful."
The original boardmembers did not like the idea that they were being replaced, but Beverly DeCluette and Adrienne Benavidez both resigned on January 23, 1998. Gerie Grimes, however, managed to resign and reappoint herself to the new board on that same day. "It really all came down to Gerie Grimes," Keel says. "They were all supposed to resign, but somehow Gerie stayed on. She had convinced the powers that be that she held some kind of historical continuity." (Grimes declined to comment to Westword.)
The key figure among the replacements seems to be Venita Vinson, a consultant and former Webb chief of staff. Vinson had been a member of Eulipions' board of directors back in 1982, but had been off the board for years. When she heard the rumors that Eulipions was in trouble, however, she'd gone to Keel to offer her help. Vinson recalls that in the fall of 1997, she and Keel met with state representative Penfield Tate, banker Jumetta Posey and local activist Yusef Karouma to discuss solutions. "I only did this because she was a friend," says Vinson. "Just like wanting to save Eulipions now, this was a labor of love. If we could bring in people with a different expertise, it made sense to do that."
And so Vinson, Posey, Grimes (an administrator at the Hope Center in north Denver) and attorney Darrel Nulan were brought in to replace the old board. Vinson says it was Keel herself, and not the mayor, who gave her blessing to all of the new members. The final boardmember was Ernestine Smith, whose daughter was a member of Eulipions. "She brought something the rest of us didn't bring," says Vinson. "She brought a sensitivity to the problems of an artist."
The others were not theater people; they were suits. "I think she certainly could have offered alternatives, but you have to realize Jo was in a crisis," says Davis. "If someone comes and says 'I'm in investment, and I think we can pull this thing together,' that's an area where you feel you need somebody with that kind of skill."
At first, relations between Keel and her new board were cordial. And the new board got some things done: It secured the city's $109,000 bail-out loan, which enabled Eulipions to pay off the National Trust, and renegotiated the parking-lot contract (whereas the original deal had brought in $6,250 a month, the new deal upped that to $11,000).
"They did solve some problems," Davis says. "They did do a large piece of what they came in to do."
Darrel Nulan agrees. "The prior board was unable to run Eulipions," he says. "The present board's initial charge was to look everything over and come up with a viable plan to save the building."
What is at issue is whether the new board overstayed its welcome. Keel and her supporters say it was an interim board only, charged with digging Eulipions out of the money pit and then, after 120 days, appointing a new board. The resignation letter signed by outgoing boardmembers DeCluette, Benavidez and Grimes appointed their replacements "as the interim board for 120 days."
Nulan doesn't doubt that there was a 120-day deadline. But, he says, "After 120 days, the board decided to continue. The bylaws of the organization allow that."
Actually, the bylaws of the organization say nothing about interim boards, so it is unclear whether they even permit one. And the old board's resignation letter doesn't address how a new board was to be selected after the 120 days were up.
(The bylaws do mention that the board of directors is supposed to hold "an annual meeting of the members," who are defined as anyone who pays a membership fee, set at $5. Nulan says there is no membership, and therefore no need to meet with it. Keel, however, insists that the membership of Eulipions has hovered between thirty and sixty people since the early '80s. She says that testimony of longstanding members and ex-boardmembers who have hosted membership parties in the past will eventually bear this out.)
The new loan with the city and the new parking deal were completed in June, about a month after the 120 days were up. With the board casually entrenching itself, relations between its members and Keel deteriorated. At first Keel felt that the new board brought badly needed skills to the table, but by the fall of 1998, she began to hear questions from the community: Where were the shows?
When Eulipions moved into the temple, it completed its 1995-1996 theater season. Through the end of 1996 and into 1997, its actors toured the Front Range. In 1998 the company presented only one show -- The Black Nativity -- and when a cast member overheard talk that the board was planning to cancel that show, even though it always recouped the $20,000 to $30,000 it cost to put on, battle lines were drawn. In a letter to Nulan this past June, Keel complained that the '98 production was marred by "complaints of rudeness to our longtime supporters and others, rudeness to the cast, long waits in line, shows starting late, no credit card services and confusing ticket procedures, all resulting in lost revenue."
Vinson blames Keel, saying that funding she had promised for the show fell through, and boardmembers "had to raise money by strong-arming friends" at the last minute to keep the show from folding.
Even though the show went on that year, it would be the last one at Eulipions. The backstage drama, however, started to heat up. Long-term members of Eulipions increasingly viewed the board as insular, aloof to the arts. "All these people have other jobs," says Andre Freeman. "This was not a priority. Grimes came in and asked me where the cabaret [one of the temple's performance rooms] was. You're on the board of directors and you don't know where the cabaret is? And you're making the decisions?" He says he rarely saw boardmembers at the building, and some of them didn't even show up to the few performances the troupe staged. "I never even saw those people. It got to the point where it was ridiculous."
Nulan says he attended The Black Nativity in 1998, and he doesn't apologize for canceling the 1998 and 1999 seasons. "You have to do what you can do. You can't do it without money."
Vinson says Keel must take her share of the blame for the absence of shows. "The role of artistic director was to develop a proposed season for the board's approval and fundraise so that the season could run," she says. "There was a proposal, and when we got to 'How do we fund it?' that's when it broke apart. She's being unfair to blame the board."
For its part, the board focused its efforts on repairing the building's steam system and fixing its roof. Keel and her supporters took that as a sign that the board wanted to sell the building, although Nulan and Vinson both say the decision to sell wasn't made until early 1999, when a vendor tried to file a lien against the building to reclaim $40,000 in unpaid bills. "It did not make sense for Eulipions to lose the building over $40,000," Vinson says. A loan was taken out to pay off the vendor, but they knew other creditors might get the same idea.
"We decided after a year and a half that the best course was to sell the building and set up an endowment," says Nulan.
This summer the board officially announced its plans to sell the building for $4.6 million. Keel and Walker formed the Friends of Eulipions and gathered 1,800 signatures to contest the sale. "Certainly on paper, it would appear the building could be sold," says William Nelsch, one of the Friends. "Debts could be paid and there could be some kind of endowment. What that ignores is that some other location is going to be as expensive to acquire, or less desirable." They called for a meeting at the temple and invited Nulan and the other boardmembers to attend.
Nulan declined and instead sent a letter questioning the group's authority to meet in the building. He called the meeting "an unauthorized space rental," and said that "the Director of Administration knows nothing about it." Moreover, he wrote, "The [new] Board has seen no rental contract or deposit...There are operating rules and procedures in place in order to protect the asset and the organization. You are well aware that these rules and procedures require a space rental fee, cleaning fee and the provisions for fire and security coverage at all space rentals."
"That really set up the whole environment of 'What are these guys talking about?'" Keel says. "When we opened [the letter], everyone's mouth hit the floor."
Nulan says the letter speaks for itself and declines to discuss it. When asked why he didn't attend the meeting, he points out that he had been "invited by people I didn't know from a membership I didn't know existed. It didn't seem like it would be a friendly meeting."
Keel's group met again, and Keel then sent a letter to a Coldwell Banker agent notifying him that the sale of the building would be contested. The letter and the meetings were enough to convince the board that Keel was a liability, and she was fired.
"They felt like I mau-maued them," she says. "Maybe I did."
But that worked both ways. On July 29 Keel held another meeting of the Friends of Eulipions, this time to elect a new board of directors, only to discover that the locks to the building had been changed. This board was elected on the steps of the temple during an open meeting in which fifty or so people showed up.
The Friends of Eulipions filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against Eulipions Inc. on August 23. But their request was denied, leaving Eulipions free to sell the building. In a final move to stall the sale, Keel and company in late August filed a notice of pending litigation, which attorney Maynard believes will prevent the building from being sold before litigation is resolved. It would be, Maynard says, "very stupid for anyone to buy it or for a title company to insure over it."
Hipp says the injunction filed by Friends of Eulipions has already sunk several potential deals to buy the building.
Some Eulipions members try to put a positive spin on this sad story. Former boardmember Benavidez says buying the building was not a bad move. "I think it was a great deal because of the purchase price and the facility itself. Even now, selling it, the increase in value would be enough to pay off debt, and they should have enough to have some money left over. I wouldn't say it's all a bad thing."
"You can always second-guess your decisions, but at the time, we thought they could make that building work," says Bill Lysaught, head of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development. "If they could have, it would have been very good for Denver." He calls Eulipions' financial quagmire disappointing but says he still would have made the same decision. "We're in the risk-taking mode. We're prohibited from using the HUD dollars if there isn't some risk. You're gonna have failures when you try and improve the neighborhoods."
But no one can calculate the lost value of nearly two seasons with virtually no theater, and Hipp admits that maybe Eulipions wasn't ready for the bright lights of Sherman. "I don't think they ever realized how bad the crisis was they were in," says Hipp. "In hindsight, it was unrealistic to think any community theater group could raise the money to do the repairs needed and raise money to operate the building without subsidies." The Community Development and Planning Agency gave Eulipions a $150,000 grant for improvements to the building in 1999 -- but it was a conditional grant and will have to be repaid if the building is sold.
And reconciliation between the players doesn't seem likely. "We don't have an artistic director, and we're reluctant to fill that position," Nulan says. "It's been hard fundraising. [Keel] was our point person at identifying stuff. Folks would like to see the organization get its financial house in order."
Which may be the only thing everyone agrees on. "It's gonna take two years to get any credibility," says Davis. "They're pretty much dead in the water for a few years, because nobody's going to look at them for any serious funding."
"You can't write for season support when you're not having one," Walker adds.
Neither Vinson nor Nulan caught The Black Nativity, presented by the Friends of Eulipions at El Centro Su Teatro.
At the end of that show, the audience gave the cast a standing ovation -- which wasn't too loud -- and the cast applauded itself, and the band kept playing, and the theater was flooded with sound.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.