When Meghan Frank and Buba Basishvili, partners in life and founders of Theatre Artibus, settled in Denver, they set their sights on the old Savoy building in the Curtis Park section of Five Points. In May 2018, they purchased the former social club and ballroom built in 1887 and turned it into a brick-and-mortar home for their theater company. More than just a building, the Savoy was a repository of stories collected over more than a century, in an iconic neighborhood where the lesser-known history of African-American life in Denver had channeled through economic and cultural booms and busts.
As artists who might be seen as interlopers in an area wracked by redevelopment and gentrification, they sought to honor the community's history, peeling it down to its most basic elements, using food and memories as the common denominators.
Joining forces with Jeff Campbell’s Emancipation Theater Company and Julie Rada's experimental Grapefruit Lab, and funded by an Imagine 2020 grant from the city, they set out to learn everything they could about daily life in Five Points, gathering stories through personal interviews and favorite recipes enjoyed and shared by families over decades.
The final product, an immersive theatrical journey through the Savoy called Recipe, premieres Thursday, January 9, for a two-week run of ten performances. Food from such nearby eateries as Rosenberg’s Bagels, Il Posto and others will be served as part of the overall experience.
One of the greatest challenges the team faced in creating Recipe was distilling all the history they’d gathered over months — through story circles, a story-recording booth at the nearby RedLine Contemporary Art Center's 24-hour Block Party event and on-the-street interviews — into a set of composite characters.
“Buba and I were also contacting individual people in the neighborhood, doing interviews all around,” Frank says. “We took a deep dive into the history of the Savoy and its various tenants.” That process uncovered a jumble of cultures through groups like the Danish Sisterhood Ellen Lodge No. 21 and businesses once housed in the Savoy, including the original Rodelle Labs vanilla factory, owned by French immigrants (and now a modern conglomerate based in Fort Collins), and a corner grocery run by the Lubs, a family of Jewish immigrants. As Rada notes, a rich spread of ethnicities and cultures marches through the history of Five Points.
But black residents from diverse backgrounds, whose families thrived in Five Points over decades, were also the most obvious and precious of resources. “We gathered a slice of life through two long-term residents of Five Points, who represent a time of black excellence in the neighborhood,” Frank adds. “We took a lot of material verbatim from these stories.”
And Campbell’s segment of Recipe, Rada notes, recalls the storied Brother Jeff’s Fish Fry. The spoken-word poetry night was popular a couple of decades ago at Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center, a cultural magnet still run by community leader Jeff Fard at 26th and Welton streets. The re-enactment, complete with food and live spoken-word poetry, “will hit you in all your senses,” she adds.
In addition to her contribution as a performer, Recipe cast member Adrienne Martin-Fullwood’s own memories of growing up in Five Points turned out to be a valuable resource. “Her dad was a trumpet player and her mom was a dancer,” says Frank. “She brought a wealth of knowledge to the piece. Adrienne became part of a composite grandma character in Recipe.”
How will audiences experience Recipe’s salvo of stories and sensory cues? On foot, Frank and Rada say, traipsing up and down stairs from room to room, where they’ll participate in narrative scenes; passing through artist installations and soundscapes comprising recorded interviews produced by Grapefruit Lab’s Kenny Storms; tasting and smelling memories and getting caught up in controversies over whose grandma made the best potato salad. (Frank notes that the Savoy, in mid-renovation, isn’t yet fully accessible, but the group is willing to work with people to help transport them safely through the building; reach out in advance to discuss individual needs.)
Ultimately, the team behind Recipe hopes to stir up dialogue, continue to break bread together at community story circles, and create an ongoing digital story archive.
“We hope people will be encouraged to talk to each other, to people they’ve not necessarily talked to before,” Frank says. “That it’s a reflection of a neighborhood that they know or grew up in — or just moved to.”
Rada agrees: “We don't want to be didactic about this — just stuffing it with information like a library. If I move to Denver in 2017 from Minnesota, I have a different understanding of it. I might be curious about it, and one story leads to another. It could be the first in a series of strings of stories or memories.
“There’s so much in the world that divides us,” Rada continues. “We’re all so mired in identity. But everybody eats.” Through the evocation of food and memories as symbols of belonging, Recipe is meant to bind people of all backgrounds.
For a first-time endeavor, Frank and Rada feel they’ve done a serviceable job of tying together dozens of strings of thought into a solid piece. They hope they’ve provided new and old denizens of Five Points a site of mutual understanding and the desire to work hand in hand to preserve their shared neighborhood’s heritage.
“The work can be a little sloppy,” Rada concludes. “You have to be open to critical feedback. We hope we do right by the ’hood.”
Recipe opens on Thursday, January 9, at 7:30 p.m. at the Savoy at Curtis Park, 2700 Arapahoe Street, and runs Thursdays through Sundays through January 19. Admission is $20 (or choose the Great Neighbor option and pay $40 so a community member in need can attend free of charge). Purchase tickets and find information at theartibus.com/recipe.
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