All the World's Her Stage
Lucy Walker, the 74-year-old founder of EDEN Theatrical Workshop, sits sipping her coffee with measured grace. At this breakfast banquet extolling the benefits of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which apportions sales-tax money to arts and cultural organizations throughout the Denver metro area, arts enthusiasts offer skits, fancy slide presentations and self-aggrandizing announcements. But as the rest of the audience cheers and claps with appropriate gusto, Walker clutches her napkin in her lap with both hands.
Before the program began, one SCFD official had approached her about making a few statements regarding the arts in Denver - if there was time, of course. In response, Walker handed him a piece of paper. "This is my statement," she said. "You don't want me to speak." Her letter, addressed to the SCFD board of directors, protests that after 37 years in Denver, her theater group "has been declared worthy of only $2,100 out of a $30 million budget to operate for a period of one year."
Later, a presenter tells the enthusiastic audience that SCFD supports institutions as diverse as the Butterfly Pavilion, the Denver Art Museum, El Centro Su Teatro and, yes, Walker's EDEN. Maybe her organization is included because SCFD officials know Walker is mad at them; although she's hardly said a word to anyone, her dark face and cool gaze are conspicuous this morning. At the mention of Walker's name, people at her table turn to nod and smile. Walker doesn't smile back, though.
Her aloofness may not be an act, because Walker can't really hear what the speakers are saying. (She refuses to wear a hearing aid.) But then again, maybe it is an act. After all, the script Walker's followed for most of her life is essentially this: If she can't hear you, what you're saying is not important.
EDEN's office is a yellow house on Gilpin Street. For years, rehearsals have been held in the cramped living room, where costumes hang from the wall, spare furniture crowds against the corners and pictures of penguins are everywhere. A fluffy black-and-white cat named Twine, who responds only to the sobriquet "Cat," hangs out on the windowsill at the front of the house, near a fat grant application package addressed to the Anschutz Foundation. Walker is constantly working on grant proposals, trying to secure funds, trying to keep the show going. "Nobody works harder than me," she says, and she can't stop working. "Ain't nobody gonna give a job to a 73-year-old woman who's already eligible for retirement."
She's apparently chosen to ignore all the birthday cards in the room wishing her a happy 74th.
If Lucy Walker didn't work, she might as well be dead. She said so herself after she appeared with her daughter, Lynne, at an SCFD board meeting in Parker last month. Walker had gone to complain about funding; boardmembers responded with dry reminders about procedures and rules and paperwork, promised to have someone get with her to make sure she understood the requirements, and sent Walker on her way within five minutes.
The money - and the lack of money - is what bothers Walker. EDEN has received funds from SCFD every year since the organization was founded in 1990 after voters in six metro counties voted into existence the .01 percent sales tax for the arts. Walker's take of the tax totals $45,340, an average of $4,100 a year. But this year, for the fourth year in a row, her award was reduced, this time to $2,100, the lowest amount she's received since 1994. (The smallest grant Walker ever received was $750 in 1992; the largest, $9,000, was awarded in 1996.)
That same year, SCFD gave a generous $27,000 to Eulipions, another black theater organization, which received an average of more than $14,000 a year in SCFD funds from 1990 to 1997. And, among the smallest arts groups in Denver that received funding, the year 2000 average is $12,000.
"I don't expect them to care about me and give me what I think I deserve," says Walker. But at the very least, she'd like to get some respect for her famously unknown theater. EDEN, one of the city's only black theaters, has been around since 1963 and has staged more than forty major shows on shoestring budgets. If EDEN is not Denver's best theater group -- and it isn't -- it is probably the group with the most heart.
Walker is "really bent out of shape about the process," says SCFD spokeswoman Ellen Dumm. "It has gotten more technical over the years. She has not particularly liked that." There is more paperwork to fill out, a more exact accounting of funds demanded. SCFD requires that grant recipients turn in reports on how they spent the previous year's moneys before they can receive this year's take; EDEN has not done that.
Walker acknowledges that requirement, but she doesn't like having to spend so much time on administrative matters, or to prove, again and again, that EDEN is worthy of support. She would rather work on theater. "They don't dislike me, they don't like me," she says of funders in general. "I just don't do anything for them: 'If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.' Well, I don't scratch."
Nevertheless, the largely one-woman show that is EDEN carries on. The group celebrated its 37th anniversary recently at a well-attended banquet. And while money is in short supply, the theater has received financial support -- however limited -- from more than forty individuals and organizations, including many of Colorado's major corporations, foundations and banks.
Last year Walker received help with her grant applications from Regis University students. Directors of three arts organizations visited Mark Bruhn's literature and economics class to meet with students, who were then placed at these organizations' disposal. The first two directors gave formal presentations. Walker's was much more casual, and she won the kids over with her personality. "She's coy and clever," says Bruhn. "She's funny, humble, proud. She's this stunning mix. She's a real character." She was the oldest of the three, and the darkest of the three, in a class full of white students. Her differences attracted them to her.
The original city of Memphis was located on the west bank of the Nile River, just south of present-day Cairo. It was the capital of ancient Egypt more than 4,000 years ago. "It somehow seems my birth in Memphis, Tennessee, connects with my African descent," wrote Walker in a booklet commemorating EDEN's 25th anniversary, "although for artistic reasons, I identify with the tall, graceful Watusi."
Tall and graceful herself, Walker looks made for the theater, although the truth is, she doesn't particularly like being on stage and prefers the security of working behind the scenes. Her earliest performance consisted of reciting four-line poems at East Trigg Baptist Church in Memphis; she also saw plays there. And at home, she and her sister sang church songs. "There was a church across the street from our home," she wrote, "and we learned many of the songs we heard while sitting on the porch or playing in the yard on those nights when it was too hot to sleep."
Walker's father was a Pullman railway-car porter. After he heard he could get more work in Denver than in Memphis, the family moved, as did other Pullman families. Walker was eleven. At Zion Baptist Church in Denver, Lucy was "transported" by reenactments of the Bible performed by her Sunday school teachers.
Walker didn't try out for a play until she attended Wilberforce University in Ohio. The director shouted "Next" before she had even finished her lines, and she never tried out for another speaking role at school. Besides, theater was less important to her than her goals of getting married, having children and being an "excellent housewife." She graduated with a degree in secondary education and, because there were few opportunities for black teachers, went to work at the old U.S. Air Force Finance Center in north Denver. She married an IRS employee and began substitute teaching at black schools in Denver, then at white schools. She wanted to continue teaching black kids, who lived in the same part of town as she did, but, she notes ruefully, "Once you have been determined capable to teach their children, that's where you go."
Her husband didn't want her to work, so she left her job to concentrate on raising her two young children, Lynne and Floyd. But being an "excellent housewife," she soon discovered, was not for her. (Walker and her husband, whom she declines to name, divorced in the early '70s. Asked whether he's still alive, she shrugs: "I suspect I would know if he wasn't.")
Theater called, and she tentatively answered, starting EDEN in 1963 with a "willingness to work at it gradually." The name doesn't refer to Genesis: It's a contraction of East Denver, where EDEN got its start. "Workshop" was attached to the title to reflect the group's commitment to train anybody who wanted to learn about theater - and color, including white, was no obstacle.
EDEN was grassroots theater. It was theater for those without easy access to theater, for those who didn't know about theater. It was theater for actors and technicians looking for a break or a chance, a little experience, encouragement and support. The workshop was straightforward: Get the rights to a play, find a place to rehearse and perform, fix the place up, and put on the show. In the beginning, the group could only afford to stage its shows for a few days - and then Walker and her colleagues would sell dinners, cakes and pies to raise money for the next year's shows. Even collecting fifty cents in monthly dues from workshop members could be tough, so EDEN began holding workshops and classes and producing newsletters. The group worked out of a garage it had fixed up at 2856 Fairfax Street in Park Hill.
EDEN is "just like any other theatrical organization," says actor John Martinez, who got his first break with EDEN in a play about life in the Appalachian Mountains. "They're always operating on a shoestring. You're always doing what you can with what you have. It's always nip and tuck."
Walker had no ambition to run the group she'd started. "I never felt I was capable of leading the group, even though I founded it," she says. "I didn't have a degree in theater. I didn't know much about theater. I didn't know much about anything." In fact, the director of the group's first play doubted Walker's talent and refused to cast her; she got a role only after an original actor dropped out. It was a small role with only a couple of lines: Walker played a murderess who was cuffed on stage by a few cops, then taken away.
In the '70s, Walker moved to Texas for a while, and EDEN almost folded. When she returned, she took over day-to-day operations, and she's never let them go. She began taking theater classes at the University of Denver, and EDEN soon hit its stride with a series of works called Plays for Living, one-acts about social issues such as alcoholism, teen sex and elder care.
"I had always considered myself more of a social worker than a theater person, and my involvement in theater had always had more of a social leaning," she wrote in the 25th anniversary program. But Plays for Living didn't just fit Walker's philosophy, it fit with funders' needs. The plays became an "educational component" of Human Services, Inc., an agency affiliated with the Mile High United Way. Human Services purchased scripts, paid royalties and helped book theater space for EDEN. A reviewer described one Plays for Living show as "a combined dinner/theater/discussion/support group. It can't be legitimately evaluated as either art or entertainment, but it worked on its own terms, stimulating a discussion afterwards that seemed important and useful to the audience."
In 1978 EDEN moved into the house on Gilpin Street. A grant from the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act increased EDEN's annual budget from $4,000 to $25,000; when those funds dried up, in 1981, other organizations, including the Piton Foundation, stepped in. EDEN's theater season expanded to five productions, and the workshop was buzzing. "Nearly any day, there is a rehearsal, performance or workshop," Walker related in 1988. "There are more people who want to be involved than our little house can hold or for whom we have leadership. Often you will find two groups rehearsing or meeting at the same time."
EDEN performed at schools, community centers, nursing homes, hospitals -- anywhere it could. And it performed whatever it wanted: James Baldwin plays, a Scott Joplin opera, a take on Aeschylus's "Prometheus Bound" called Prometheus (re)Bound, works by writers as diverse as Ossie Davis, Lorraine Hansberry, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. Nor was casting limited by traditional thought. Jeffrey Nickelson, who now heads up the acclaimed Shadow Theatre Company, auditioned for a show in 1979; Walker cast the black actor as a white character. He turned it down -- he wasn't ready for that. "Now that I look back on it, what a risk she was taking," he says.
After returning from pursuing theater in Korea, of all places, Nickelson approached Walker again in 1986, asking to direct a play. She was suspicious at first, but warmed up and agreed to let him direct Black Gravy, marking the start of a decade-long collaboration. The experience was a confidence-builder for Nickelson, who didn't have anywhere else in town to go.
Lucy Walker is a woman who's rarely influenced by other people, and that position has its price. Walker, says Nickelson, is the kind of person who will hug a child with a snotty nose and ashy knees while a nicely groomed, well-dressed child standing nearby garners the attention of everyone else. "People won't understand why she's doing that," he adds. "Instead of embracing the wonderful things she's done and moving them forward, she feels the negativity and refuses to conform."
Walker is stubborn, and if she's overlooked opportunities to shake the right hand or make the right compromise for EDEN's economic benefit, well, that's a tradeoff she'll live with. "There are some folks who play the game well," she says. "I don't play games. I was brought up free. Too free."
Sometimes she's even a little free with the financial facts. EDEN's budget has averaged $40,000 for the last several years, but Walker often inflates that budget in her proposals to try to get more money from potential contributors. She knows she won't get whatever she asks for, so she sees no point in asking for what she really needs. "Corporations will give you less if you say you need less," she explains. "They play games with me, I play games right back."
But these games are in the minor leagues, while other Denver groups play in the majors. Cleo Parker Robinson, whose Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble is almost a decade younger than EDEN, shows up in the papers on a regular basis. Robinson recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive a $10,000 award from the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities; her company is scheduled to perform in Jerusalem in November.
Here at home, the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble has also received financial rewards. Although it's moved back and forth between the lower two tiers in the three-tiered SCFD funding scheme, in 1998, when it was funded in the same tier as EDEN, it received $30,450 in SCFD support.
"It's exciting to know she's still making it happen," says Robinson of Walker, at the same time suggesting that comparing the two groups may not be appropriate. "I never felt she was in competition. I felt she was very special, very different. I never felt she was trying to be somewhere else. We were always striving to be national, international. I think she knew she wanted to be community-based. I think she was really true to that."
Still, Walker can't help but notice the different support levels. And although Robinson's company does perform internationally, Eulipions is Denver-based. Very Denver-based: The group received almost $2 million in loans and grants to purchase the massive El Jebel Temple downtown, a deal that's fast unraveling ("Playing to an Empty House," October 5). Walker, who will never see a tenth of that funding, used to resent the success of these groups. But that only made her "lose energy," she says.
She has the future to plan -- the future of an organization that sometimes only makes sense with her as its head. "She tries to do too much and wear too many hats," Martinez observes, adding that after 37 years, it can be "kind of hard to turn the reins over." Friends and longtime associates glow with praise for Walker, but when the topic turns to EDEN's long-term prospects, they quiet down. "It's sad to think that when Lucy Walker goes, EDEN goes with her," says Nickelson. "That makes me sad."
But Walker's not about to go anywhere right now. She has her ongoing campaign to battle the SCFD board for funds. Next month EDEN will hold auditions for its upcoming production, The Green Pastures, which is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the first black musical to be staged on Broadway. That production is set for a two-weekend run in February at the Temple Events Center. After that, Walker will keep busy teaching theater at elementary schools around town. "That satisfies me," she says. "I don't need to put on major productions...but I will."
She's already planning EDEN's 38th anniversary party in September 2001.
Walker recently traveled to St. Louis, on a $700 grant from the Colorado Council for the Arts, to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Black Theater Network. She's proud of that award, much prouder than she is of a recent $2,600 grant from the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film. EDEN, one of 38 arts groups honored, was selected because "they are a long-term Denver organization that's well respected for their work with youth," says Donna Smith, performing-arts coordinator with the mayor's office.
EDEN has been a recipient of that grant since 1993 - a fact that's not lost on Walker. It's not enough money to keep her group going, not enough to fund her vision, but it does have benefits - for the City of Denver. And so Walker always sends someone white to collect the grant, to foil any attempt by Mayor Wellington Webb to stage a "We Are the World" style photo op.
Maybe it is, and for a moment Walker frowns, as though she regrets mentioning the idea at all. Then she nods, convinced she is right and to hell with consequences. "I'm tired," she says, "of my picture being used for a pittance."
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