A Denver native of Congolese descent, Brenton Weyi attacks life with an irrepressible polymathic energy, creating through words rich in knowledge, both written and spoken. A poet, performer, essayist, speaker and award-winning storyteller, Weyi now explores playwriting, too, as a 2019-2020 Playwright Fellow at the Denver Center for Performing Arts, where he is grooming a new play about Congolese independence for the stage.
As a master of words, Weyi describes himself best while tackling the Colorado Creatives questionnaire, which follows.
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Brenton Weyi: My muse is anything that sparks a moment of awe. I'm always waiting for the experience that leaves me in a moment of suspension — a starry night through a dark wood, a high note reverberating through my body — so that I can transmute that moment and re-create it for someone else in my own medium. I'm also fascinated by how we humans negotiate power, which is why I study so much history. I want to make invisible stories visible. I want to know why people fight for status, what ideas shift nations, and how we can take the common, simple understandings of events and individuals we think we know and see them through a lens of complexity, which for me is how we see the truth in things.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
Da Vinci, Marcus Aurelius and either Hafiz, Lao Tzu or Basho. I'm obsessed with people who try to bottle up the essence of the human experience. With these three individuals, I would love to get insight into their worldview and how they experienced life. I would love to soak up the essence of Da Vinci's wild creative spirit; I would love to see how Marcus Aurelius behaved as he faced difficult (or mundane) decisions; I'd love to see how Lao Tzu and Basho conducted themselves in silly situations or held on to their philosophies during war, famine and other calamities; how Hafiz put beautiful words to experience. I'd just love to ask all of them many, many questions, and yet at the same time see the human beings behind the people we've mythologized.
What’s the best thing about the local creative community in your field — and the worst?
The local creative community for performance and writing is amazing. I absolutely love the spirit of collaboration and the generosity with which everyone treats each other. People are always excited to dive into new work and projects, and our community is always taking risks on bold ideas, which is incredible.
I think the worst part is the same thing that anyone in any creative field encounters, which is the fact that Denver is still growing into itself. We don't hear as many outside stories from the mainstream, can't always access the people with whom to tell those stories, and are sometimes not given the resources to create on the same level that you might find in a bigger city or bigger market. If you're looking to do a project, you're probably reaching out to the same couple hundred people every single time, and finding opportunities for experimentation or resources to create at a high level is difficult.
How about globally?
Globally, I just think there's a beautiful world of storytelling, writing and event creation that's continually unfolding right now. People are really letting their imaginations expand and are pushing the bounds of what it means to convene.
What I find really interesting about this world that we live in is that even though social media and technology tell us that we need to continue to scale, live events are gathering people back around the fire. Intimacy is becoming its own kind of currency, and we're starting to see immersive work, small-scale performances, readings and house concerts that highlight the intimate where people can gather in community — and there's a hunger for that intimacy that's only growing. Perhaps it's always been there, but we were shunned into thinking it shouldn't be.
What’s your dream project?
I feel like every project I'm working on is my dream project. Man, I have several. I got to go on a private tour of the Disney Animation Studios recently, and I thought to myself, "I'd love to write an animated film." I have written a couple of manuscripts for two shorts, and one day I shall bring them to life! But, yeah, I think animation is a playground for the imagination.
I have many manuscripts in me — essay, poetry, narrative — and want to be able to share my ideas with leading thinkers and creators around the world. I would love to give more lectures based on my experiences and ideas I'd share in a manuscript. I want to start a discussion series called "The Symposium" (or something like that), where people at the highest level of their field from vastly different disciplines discuss specific topics and try to answer big questions based on how they make sense of the world. I've studied so many different fields, and would love to facilitate conversations and draw connections between disciplines that seem unrelated.
On the performance side, I want to do more work in immersive storytelling. I dream of a big-budget musical that incorporates augmented or virtual reality. But, really, everything I've done has felt like a dream. I ultimately love bringing intelligent and creative people together to make something, and every time I get amazing people in a room, my whole spirit is lit up. I’ve already been blessed to create so many amazing experiences for people.
Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
Can I have both? Haha. I love Denver. I'm a native, grew up here, and I know all of its nooks and crannies. I've watched it transform over the years, and I truly believe that Denver is one of the most creative cities in the nation. That said, we have still not reached the level of a true metropolis. It's difficult to find a non-DIY platform to experiment with ideas.
I think in Denver we need to build more infrastructure around incubating ideas and giving creatives and imagineers of all types guided structure to build the things they want in an efficient and effective way. I feel that people are often shooting in the dark when creating public-facing projects and learning lessons the hard way, largely because it's hard to find guidance to do otherwise.
It's admirable to learn that way in some cases, and I feel that those resources are much more established in other places and would be valuable here. Also, the breadth of projects that you can involve yourself in is much wider in bigger cities. So I don't particularly want to leave Denver — I love the kindness of the people and how community-oriented we are; I love that everyone is trying to help everyone else. I want to continue to play my part in fostering that growth.
At the same time...I know all of its nooks and crannies! I want my work to continue to have an impact outside of our square borders, and so I want to continue to travel and do more work outside of Denver and to find bigger stages and bigger platforms for my projects and ideas. My work deals with a lot of global issues, and so I want to maintain that greater sense of context.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
I'm a big fan of Charlie Miller. What he's been able to do with Off-Center and the level of his ability to capture the public's imagination and keep pushing the envelope of what is possible in performance is just incredible. I also have immense respect for Jim Walker, who is, bar none, one of the best performers in our state. He is incredibly thoughtful and talented, and has that crazy mixture of wisdom, empathy, uber-intelligence and insane performance ability. He also passed that down to his son, Nelson, who is an absolutely stunning musician and performer coming into his own. I'm a big fan of Detour — not only because of his artistic talent, but because his work ethic is absolutely unreal. I'm also a big fan of Stephen Brackett and Jamie Laurie, for their talent and the legacy they continue to build here.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
A lot of my focus has been on my musical on independence in Congo during the Cold War, My Country, My Country. For the musical, the path is continued development. This year, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts launched a year-long playwriting fellowship for four outstanding playwrights in Colorado, and I was named one of their inaugural fellows. I’ve been so grateful to share such generative space with Jeffrey Neumann, Colette Mazunik and Jen Faletto. So my next step is continuing to develop the piece throughout the remainder of my tenure and to do a reading of the full piece (eek!) in late spring 2020.
In this vein, I’m preparing for a multi-disciplinary event coming up on October 24 that I've been creating for months in collaboration with the Museum of Nature & Science. It's a concert in the Wildlife Hall that involves a classical music performance, African artifacts and 75 minutes of my piece. I'm really excited to get it in front of a live audience again. It’s been a while, and you can’t replicate the information that you get from real people unfamiliar with your work. I’ve been waiting a long time to get some of these new songs in front of people!
For me, I always have many irons in the fire. I’m excited to bring new cutting-edge creative events to Denver, to continue performing with Storytellers Acapella and Playback Theatre West. I also have some great institutional collaborations coming up and, of course, much more writing! I want to collect my essays and poems into a long-form manuscript and get back to submitting more of my writing after this period of musical intensity subsides. I also have a couple of ideas in the works for creating community conversations around public issues.
But foremost, I’m just working on being a human being: taking walks, reading, engaging in conversation, gathering people meaningfully. I’m grateful for all of the opportunities I get and just try to remind myself to live out my purpose every day: cultivate humanity.
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Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
Nelson Walker, most certainly. His star is definitely on the rise — he is incredible. Romain Vakilitabar. Alejandro Fuentes. Kirsten Wilson (another unreal work ethic individual). Claire Heywood. Manuel Aragon. Brodie Kinder. Gio Barabadze. Delia LaJeunesse.
See the first act of Brenton Weyi’s play-in-progress My Country, My Country at Living History: A Concert in the Wildlife Hall, an evening in the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s Botswana Hall, 2001 Colorado Boulevard, repeating at 5:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, October 24. Admission is $30 to $35; learn more at groupmuse.com.
Learn more about Brenton Weyi online.