The Arvada Center Theatre has launched a new project in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the national upheaval following the murder of George Floyd and so many other crimes against black people. The project began with a call from Arvada Center Director of Communications Marcus Turner to actor-director Betty Hart, asking if she would be interested in a collaborative sharing of ideas. Hart came up with Amplify, a video series in which black men would perform, each creating a five-minute piece. The work has now been edited into three segments, each including five performances; one segment will be released every two weeks through July 7. Episode one dropped on Friday, June 26, and can now be seen at the Arvada Center website.
Amplify has already sparked a fair amount of attention, says Hart, with people asking how and when they can watch, and also if she intends to produce a second series spotlighting black women. That idea is under consideration.
“I thought of black male voices, because they’re the voices that need to be heard at this time,” Hart explains. “More black men are killed, more black men are feared. I don’t want to suggest that black men bear more of the brunt of racism, but if you look at the list of names that have been killed, most of them are black men. I wanted to give these artists a way to speak in any way they wanted.”
She selected fifteen accomplished artists specializing in various forms of performance art, from all around the state; the performers' sexualities and ages vary, too.
“The youngest is thirteen,” Hart says. “I don’t know who’s the oldest.” All of these men were offered complete artistic freedom, and each created his own piece at home. Some went a little under the five minutes, some a little over. “You have music, acting, singing, spoken word, soliloquies," she notes. "They could film in any way they chose. Some videos were done outdoors. Everyone was able to use their full creativity to do it their way, so there’s something new you get in each piece. In each there’s a surprise. And in each there’s a very strong social-justice message conveyed.”
For Randy Chalmers, an expressive actor whose beautiful voice was heard in Songs for a New World at the Aurora Fox, and who also performed in Vintage Theatre’s The Scottsboro Boys, that meant rewriting the lyrics to “Run & Tell That,” from the Broadway version of Hairspray. “It‘ll have a similar feel to ‘Blackest Kids In Town’ [a parody] in the rewording aspect, but it’s a bit more serious,” Chalmers says. “Not that 'BKIT' wasn’t serious. It’s just not really one to be laughed about.”
Chalmers grew up in Colorado Springs and says he has “loved to sing, as far back as I can remember. I remember being young and begging the pastor to let me join the adult choir, because I wasn't quite old enough and my birthday was still a few weeks away. Along with singing in church, I sang in my school choirs from fourth grade, maybe earlier, through high school and into college. Being a choir kid is what led me to musical theater. I didn’t fall in love with the acting side of things until I started doing theater professionally, though I’ve only been in one straight play so far.
“I think it’s amazing that this project was put together,” Chalmers adds. “I would love to see more like it from other perspectives: black women, Latinx actors. I just hope it doesn’t turn into another instance where we’re screaming into the void.”
The individual videos for Amplify were sent to production-artist Pierce Murphy, an accomplished musician. “He’s an amazingly talented individual,” says Hart. “He found the music, chose the typeface. I would tell him the feeling I was going for, and he would make it happen. I don’t know Pierce, and he didn’t know me. We’ve just met virtually, and together we created this incredible thing."
Audiences at the Arvada Center tend to be almost entirely white, and before starting her work, Hart asked president and CEO Philip Sneed how she should respond if the Amplify performers asked why they should work for the center. She recalls: “He said something really powerful: ‘I could tell you all of those things, but words don’t matter. It’s actions that matter.’”
Hart adds, “A lot of theaters have a particular type of audience until you start programming differently. There are more diverse people coming into Vintage Theatre now because of the change in programming. The Aurora Fox sold out the house last year for a social justice play, Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies. It’s only not possible until you do it.”
Hart, who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, came to Denver seven years ago from Atlanta, where she had a chance to act in and also direct a variety of plays, from contemporary to classical.
“I consider myself to be an actor. In Denver, I became a black actor," she says. “I thought I was moving from one big city to another, but really, Denver’s a big small town with all the rules of a small town. Everything’s about getting to know people, getting people to know me, before the doors officially open.”
Hart was cast in a few race-specific roles, and then there was a dry spell. “It was very sad, very demoralizing,” she recalls. But then the parts started coming, with shows by the Catamounts and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, among others, and she found that she could barely keep up. And then came the coronavirus pandemic, which closed theaters across the country.
For Hart, Amplify is a passion project that she hopes will accelerate changes that the Arvada Center wants to make: “I really wanted to expose the Arvada Center audiences to some of the talent base that they haven’t seen on their stages. And my hope is that they would ask, 'Why haven’t we seen these incredible gentlemen before?' My hope is that it becomes the norm to see actors of color doing incredible classical work and singing on the main stage. I want it to be common.”
Chalmers agrees: “I think it’s important in this time to recognize that how black people and POCs are portrayed in art is also how we’re perceived in life. This isn’t really a new or revolutionary idea. We are more than criminals/villains. We’re more than the sassy best friend. Our experience is more than the pain of our past. The way that we’re portrayed on stage should be as diverse as our lives — as diverse as the portrayals of white counterparts.”
Hart does not define her goal as colorblind casting. “I don’t want you to be blind,” she says. “I want you to be color-conscious. The director’s job is to create vision. I want them to be conscious of the deep wealth that can enrich a production by adding people of color. When you have a person of color as Hamlet, you can cause us to go deeper into Shakespeare’s work; when you cast a person of color as a prostitute, you can deepen a stereotype.”
As the theater community struggles to imagine and define the kind of work that will emerge when the world settles into a new kind of normal, Amplify might provide some clues.
“I’m doing something that could be live programming,” Hart says, “bringing a multitude of voices and a myriad of styles together — some very different and extraordinary. Every single one of these gentlemen have brought their heart and soul into this project — and knowing there’s an audience that wants to hear.
“There’s so much to do, and this is where the work begins.”
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