Theater companies across the metro area have been contemplating how to get their work to those unable to attend plays this season because of the coronavirus lockdown. Among them is the Source Theatre Company, which has been collaborating with Su Teatro for years to showcase the works of artists of color. The sixth WordFest & Artists of Color summit was originally slated for April 15 to 26 at the Su Teatro Cultural & Performing Arts Center; now much of the original schedule has been upended, but the Source has found a new way to move forward with its plans.
“Before the shutdown happened, we were intent on putting together readings of plays we’ve already produced and developed through our eight-year history to tell our story as a company,” says Arnold King, one of the Source's three co-founders. “We decided to adapt the plays to something like a radio-play format and see how that sounded.”
The resulting free podcast on May 8 will present scenes from In the Presence of God, by co-founder Hugo Jon Sayles; co-founder Jimmy Walker’s A Good Child Too Soon; Suicide Lies, by Karon Majeel; and The Life and Times of Ol’ Alfred, by Jon Ian Sayles. Several of the original actors are performing.
The plays offer profound historical perspective. A Good Child details the lives of four generations of black women who all became single mothers at a young age. “With each generation, the difficulties get worse,” says King. The Life and Times, he explains, is a kind of historical biography for which Sayles researched his family line, going all the way back to slavery. It is “told from perspective of the earliest patriarch of Sayles’s family,” adds King, “the playwright’s great-great grandfather.”
In examining the company’s repertoire, “We actually noticed some overlapping themes — which was part of the inspiration for what we were trying to do before the shutdown," King says. "Between Suicide Lies and A Good Child, there’s a common theme about generational familial issues and the culture that gets lost as it’s passed from one generation to the next.
“In the Presence of God — our very first production — is about the transition for black folks out of slavery into freedom," he explains. "There’s a woman called Mama Issa, a freed slave who has the gift of finding the whereabouts of folks, because through slavery, families were separated, children were sold off, and they didn’t see each other for years, decades or often ever again. Mama Issa is helping the characters who were separated while trying to remember her own roots. She was brought from Africa as a slave, and through the many decades of her life has forgotten her roots and her original name — until she encounters a young former slave who’s blind and has the same gift she does.”
The Source averages two productions a year, all scripts are by local playwrights, and King says he is always surprised by the amount of acting talent he sees during the casting process. The company’s structure is flexible, with King, Walker and Hugo Jon Sayles — all three of them playwrights — taking turns directing and producing.
Many Denver theater-goers will remember the co-founders from their work with Jeffrey Nickelson’s much-lauded and now-shuttered Shadow Theatre Company. And, King points out, the legacy of black theater in Denver goes further back than that, from the 1976 Denver Black Arts Company to Eulipions, founded in 1982 and helmed by Jo Bunton Keel. So if Shadow was the Source’s father, King says, “Eulipions would be the grandfather and the Black Arts Company the great-grandfather of them all.” The collaboration with Su Teatro began with a production of Lee Breuer’s brilliant adaptation of Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus, The Gospel at Colonus, which was mounted by the two companies in 2013.
As for the loss of live performance this spring, “I wouldn’t say it was disappointing,” says King. “We were initially content to wait until everything reopened. But then we decided to take the lesson this shutdown has taught us. The thing we had taken for granted — being a social society — begs a question: How can theater — which is a very social art form on every level, from putting a production together to ultimate collaboration with an audience — what does theater become when that isn’t possible? It was actually exciting to figure how to do the work in this new format and to keep the same spirit.”
Enjoy the productions through a free podcast that streams live on Friday, May 8, at 6:30 p.m; either the Su Teatro or Source website will take you to a ticketing website and log-in information for a Zoom meeting.