On the evening of December 20, the lights will go down and the curtain will go up on the Eulipions Theater Company's twelfth presentation of The Black Nativity. The play, written by Langston Hughes in 1961, uses the birth of Christ to build a bridge between African culture and twentieth-century black America.
But for the third year in a row, the production, like the baby Jesus, is without a real home. The show, which runs through December 23, will be produced in the auditorium of Montbello High School rather than in the magnificent El Jebel Shrine Temple at 1770 Sherman Street, the building that Eulipions bought in 1995, lost in 1999, and may one day win again.
That's because a recent court decision has thrown a curve in the already convoluted history of 1770 Sherman's ownership.
Jo Bunton Keel founded Eulipions, a black theater group, on a shoestring back in 1982. As the troupe's reputation grew, so did its budget, and by the early '90s, Keel was looking for a permanent home for the group. With a $75,000 grant from the Colorado Historical Society, Eulipions Inc. investigated purchasing the beautiful Moorish temple built by the Shriners in 1907, a building that came complete with a stage and historic designations. The Mayor's Office of Economic Development kicked in another $25,000 for a business plan -- a plan that was apparently persuasive enough to secure the grants and loans necessary for Eulipions to buy the building for $1.775 million in 1995. A parking lot next door to the temple was projected to bring in $75,000 a year, which would pay off the bank and city loans. But Eulipions would still have to cover the building's operating expenses, as well as the cost of putting on productions.
By 1997, however, the group was laying off employees and defaulting on a $100,000 loan from the National Trust. In addition, it still owed $500,000 to US Bank and another $344,000 to MOED. It was then that the city started rewriting the Eulipions script, demanding in early 1998 that a new board -- an interim board, Keel insisted -- be installed. And while that board did solve some of the financial problems, it did so at the expense of many productions that were cut from the schedule. Finally, in the summer of 1999, the Eulipions Inc. board decided to sell the building for $4.6 million.
When Keel organized Friends of Eulipions to protest the sale, she was fired as director of the very group she'd founded. Friends of Eulipions subsequently sued the new board, saying they'd overstayed their interim status and had no right to sell the building.
But sold it was, for $3.9 million in November 2000, to developers who plan to build a 51-story, 650-foot tower on the parking lot. At the time, then-board chairman Darrell Nulan promised that proceeds of the sale that didn't go toward covering Eulipions' debt would be used to secure the future of the arts organization.
Later, Nulan amended that statement ("Surprise Ending," April 19). "We don't want to limit the endowment to just one group," he said last spring. "We are talking about an endowment to benefit all arts groups." That endowment, worth about a million dollars, is now in a fund managed by the Denver Foundation and is designed to support African-American art endeavors. "We want to make sure the dollars go to what was intended," says the foundation's Marlene Casini, adding that none of the money has yet been given out.
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And that's fine with Friends of Eulipions, because they not only want the money, they want their building back. And in November, the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed a Denver District Court ruling that had thrown out their lawsuit, clearing the way for at least part of that suit to go to trial. "The cited evidence reveals that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the [Eulipions Inc.] corporation had members, other than the board of directors, who would be entitled to vote concerning a sale or disposition of substantially all of the corporation's property," the appeals court ruled. "Accordingly, the summary judgment cannot stand."
"We'll be back in court pretty soon, possibly as early as December 26 for motions," says Alison Maynard, the plaintiff's pro bono attorney who's been leading the legal fight for Friends of Eulipions. "The only issue now is whether there were members of Eulipions. If so, a vote was required before the building was sold -- and selling it without one could be a breach of fiduciary duty."
And if there were members of Eulipions -- Keel insists that there were, dating back before the new board was appointed -- who were they? "Both of those are questions for the jury," Maynard says. At an earlier hearing on the suit, many artists and actors stood up and said there were members. "But there are no records," Maynard points out, "because the other side spirited them away." And not just the records, but all of the theater group's props and sets and costumes that were in the building that Keel and her group lost.
So when the curtain goes up on Eulipions' Black Nativity, the actors will be wearing borrowed robes, on a borrowed stage. But with the appeals court's ruling, there's a star rising.