Remembering Jeffrey Nickelson

Jeffrey Nickelson, who passed away last week, made a huge contribution to the theater scene in Denver, both as an actor and a director. He created Shadow Theatre on a $500 donation, and — against all organizational and financial odds — kept the company alive and artistically kicking for a decade. He won recognition from the city, the 2005 Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, and oversaw the company's move from a rickety school auditorium to a bright new home in Aurora. He attracted devoted audiences and gave dozens of actors a place to work. All of this took sheer tooth-gritted determination, but it also took much more: creative energy, a love for the art form, self-sacrifice and a desire to serve the black community and express its truths while also reaching out to the rest of the world. Jeffrey was, above all else, an educator and an explorer of the human condition. He wanted to get to the heart of things, take the commonalities and differences he found there and transform them into vibrant, mind-blowing theater.

The work of Shadow continues under the directorship of Keith Hatten, who plans to execute the season Jeffrey mapped out. He began early this month with August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, directed by Jeffrey's longtime collaborator, Hugo Jon Sayles.

I didn't know Jeffrey outside of his work, and I can't speak to the difficulties he encountered on his journey. I don't know exactly why he quit the 2002 Colorado Shakespeare Festival after being cast as Macbeth; I don't know which predominated in his decision to resign as Shadow's artistic director this summer: exhaustion and health problems, the company's financial issues, or artistic and political differences with the board, though clearly it was some combination of all of these.

What I do know is what he achieved. Jeffrey's acting could be transformative. In one of the area's most successful collaborations, he and other Shadow members teamed up with Boulder's Dinner Theatre for Ragtime, and his brooding, powerful, magnetic Coalhouse Walker remains unforgettable. As was the complex, layered performance he gave as onetime hustler Lincoln in Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog.

I saw a lot of wonderful things on the Shadow stage. Some were joyful, energetic celebrations: hymn- and songfests; some were lighthearted comedies like Plenty of Time. There was more substantive fare, too, plays that illustrated black history and grieved for its martyrs: a beautifully staged tribute to Paul Robeson, an enlightening look back to an ugly era with The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show. Foremost in my mind at the moment, though, is one of the first plays I ever saw at Shadow: Athol Fugard's My Children! My Africa!, which tells the story of a middle-class white girl, Isabel, who arrives at a school in a black South African township for a debate with Thami, the local champion. The results are so exhilarating that the schoolmaster enters the two youngsters in a prestigious contest. All three learn from each other as they practice, and eventually form a close bond. Politics intrude, however, and Thami becomes radicalized. "The comrades don't want any mixing with the whites," he tells Isabel. In the ensuing contest between his angry thirst for action and the schoolmaster's reliance on patience, learning and reason, all hope of reconciliation and justice evaporates. But at the end of the evening — as after every Shadow production — the actors lined up in the lobby to shake our hands and murmur goodbye. This didn't happen on the opening night of Ma Rainey, which I reviewed in last week's Westword (the paper went to press before I heard of Jeffrey's death), and it's a tradition I'll miss.

I think that Jeffrey — who spoke so often of love and light, and whose last Facebook posting said, "Look someone in their eyes today and make sure they know you love them" — knew Thami's anger to his bones. By all accounts, he came up hard. And yet it was the schoolmaster's path he chose, devoting his artistic life to an untiring search for peace and understanding.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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