Curious Theatre Company has never shied away from sensitive subject matter. The company's tagline is "No guts, no story," so diving straight into the controversies to facilitate conversations is essentially its modus operandi. Its latest show, Amerikin, which runs through April 15, invites audiences on a thought-provoking journey in which Jeff Browning, a lonely new father, attempts to join a white supremacy group.
"This script was everything that drew me to Curious," says Sean Scrutchins, who plays Jeff. "The subject matter is tough, but like Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which I was in at Curious earlier this season, it is a window into what forgotten, small-town Americans feel. From the first read, I knew this was a story that needed to be told here in Denver. When we live in these political bubbles, it's easy to forget what it’s like to live in a rural community, and how the isolation makes them easy targets for a hate group. I'm interested in how we can understand and empathize with the dark side of humanity without making excuses for it."
Amerikin's chilling script was written by award-winning Black playwright Chisa Hutchinson and centers on people's desire for connection. Eager to fit into Sharpsburg, Maryland — which is referred to as "Trump Country" throughout the play — Jeff follows his friend's advice to take an ancestry test so he can join the World Knights, a local group that serves as the area's version of the KKK.
However, when the results of Jeff's DNA test reveal that he is not fully white, he begins to experience hateful harassment that attracts the attention of Black journalist Gerald Lamott (Cajardo Lindsey), who spots a potential story in a hopeful white supremacist being subjected to racism. Audiences will be on the edge of their seats in this drama, which is directed by new Curious artistic director Jada Suzanne Dixon.
"When this play came across our radar during our process of picking a season, it blew our minds in really great ways," Dixon says. "It offered Curious the opportunity to bring a new voice to the Colorado region, because Chisa Hutchinson hasn’t been produced here. In terms of the play as a whole, it’s adventurous, bold, contemporary and explores incredibly relevant issues. I like that it's a little uncomfortable, because that means it's doing all the things that Curious's mission is about."
"Too often in theater, when we explore racism, it's done off the backs of BIPOC folks," Dixon says. "Chisa's play doesn't shy away from topics of hate and racism; it provides us with an opportunity to dig deep into these issues in a way that doesn't further harm marginalized communities. At the core of the play, it’s exploring the themes of what it means to belong, and what are you willing to do to fit in."
Amerikin showcases the on-stage talents of several Curious members, including Scrutchins, Lindsey, Karen Slack, Brian Landis Folkins, Michael McNeill, Kristina Fountaine and Candace Joice. It was important to Dixon that the actors not judge the characters or reduce them to sneering stereotypes, because she didn't want the audience to immediately hate these people. Even though they are openly racist, she wanted to dive in from a place of curiosity to explore their humanity.
"The goal is to provide empathy to people you would normally judge," Scrutchins says. "I went back to Breaking Bad as inspiration for my character; I watched the first and last seasons so I could see how Walter White's good intentions end up hurting people. So much of what Jeff experiences is something that people would label as evil or hateful, but he’s a survivor fighting for his family. He has good intentions to provide for this family, but he doesn't realize that he's hurting other families to protect his."
Dixon says a particular line in the script captures the core of the play: "Yes, hate exists, but so does basic goodness." This line reminds her that even though humans can commit devastating acts of violence, they can also change and show empathy.
"Human goodness is still out there," Dixon says. "We're not great at it, but we're trying."
Hutchinson's timely, visceral writing is packed with shocking twists and turns that made Dixon confident that the play would challenge audiences as well as the actors. Markas Henry, University of Colorado Boulder Theatre professor and Curious Theatre Company's resident scenic designer for 2022–2023, described his experience reading the script for the first time as a "gut punch" that he wasn't able to get out of his head.
"I got all five scripts that I would be doing the scenic design for over the summer, and I wanted to read the shows in the order they were happening at Curious," Henry says. "There's always one show a season that just blows you away, and Amerikin is that show. At one of our first meetings, Jada asked the designer for one word to describe the play. I had two words: 'Oh, shit.' That was my first impression, and that feeling is what I brought into my work as I started to make notes about the scenic demands of that play."
Since almost the entire play takes place in the house where Jeff lives with his wife, Michelle (Candace Joice), Henry worked with Dixon to make their home another character in the production. Henry used his experience growing up in a small town in West Virginia as the starting point for the couple's floor plan. He aimed to make something that combined a shotgun living room design with the sensibility of a double-wide trailer.
The production team also includes the work of lighting designer Haley Hartman, costume designer Madison Booth, sound designer and composer of original music Max Silverman, prop designer Annette Westerby, fight choreographer Dane Torbenson and stage manager Wayne Breyer.
For audience members looking to engage more with the materials that inspired the play's design, Curious Theatre Company and the Denver Public Library invite you to attend their book club at 4:30 p.m. after the show on Sunday, March 26, where they will be discussing common themes between Eli Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred and Amerikin.
"I read an article in American Theatre magazine about how the Dallas Theatre Center did a book club that was connected to what was on stage," Dixon recalls. "Books and theater together bring me so much joy. I know a ton of people who are still in a book club, so I thought this might be a cool new avenue to bring people into the theater."
But Dixon promises that no outside research is required to fully appreciate the play's stirring narrative. She loves the ride the playwright takes the audience on, and is excited to hear the conversations the show prompts when the lights come back up.
"This is the kind of theater that people need to see live, because this show is going to stick with you for years to come," Scrutchins says. "Curious was the theater company that made me move to Denver. When I saw their mission statement, I knew I wanted to be a part of what they were doing. Programming Amerikin in the 25th season with Jada as the artistic director and the play's director is sort of the climactic high point of what Curious Theatre Company's mission statement is."
Amerikin, through Sunday, April 15; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma Street. Find tickets and more information at curioustheatre.org.