Art News

How Is Denver's Theater Community Addressing Racial Equity?

Rachel McCombs-Graham
Dwayne Carrington (center) and the cast of The Scottsboro Boys.

At a time when local theaters are shuttered and contemplating an uncertain future over COVID-19, they are also wrestling with other questions. How can they and should they respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, the outpouring of black grief and rage over police killings and the demand for change? Should they change their repertoires, revamp staff and boards, produce more plays by writers of color and hire more BIPOC actors and tech people? If they do, will it make any real difference in these tumultuous times? Can theater, or any art form, bring about real social and political change?

In the midst of all this uncertainty drops a passionate petition originally signed by more than 300 theater artists of color, including some of the biggest names in the business: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sandra Oh, Lynn Nottage and Suzan-Lori Parks. The petition, titled "We See You White American Theater," has now received over 60,000 signatures, and has flown through the Denver theater community. “We have watched you amplify our voices when we are heralded by the press,” it reads, “but refuse to defend our aesthetic when we are not, allowing our livelihoods to be destroyed by a monolithic and racist critical culture. We see you.”

Most Denver theaters' artistic directors, producers, technical and performing artists, executives and boardmembers are white. For quite a few years, however, many have made a point of producing work by people of color, from artistic director Chris Coleman’s brilliant all-black Oklahoma! at the Denver Center, which brought audiences an entirely new vision of the American West, to the presentation by Boulder’s Local Theater Company of Rodney Hicks’s explosive new script, Flame Broiled.

Chip Walton, artistic director at Curious Theatre, has devoted his twenty-some years at the helm to issues of social justice. In 2015, Curious remounted Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size, which had previously shown there two years earlier as part of this project, followed by two more of McCraney’s scripts. Walton used the same approach in mounting a trio of works by Quiara Alegría Hudes, having already presented her 26 Miles in 2009. Both Hudes and McCraney are signatories to the petition.

click to enlarge Owen Zitek, Krisangela Washington and Kobe Johnson in Caroline, or Change. - AURORA FOX ARTS CENTER
Owen Zitek, Krisangela Washington and Kobe Johnson in Caroline, or Change.
Aurora Fox Arts Center
Walton sounds tired in his interview with Westword. He has been pondering whether and when Curious can reopen for business. Referencing the fact that the Denver Center has announced it will cease all production for a full year, he says that’s one choice, but another is “to keep riding the middle rail and seeing what happens. If you want to maintain the option to open as soon as possible and safely, you don’t announce you’re shutting down until the fall of 2021. But then you have to live with uncertainty and continually maintain a bunch of different scenarios, which is exhausting.”

Walton has read "We See You White American Theater."

“The sands are shifting so radically,” he observes. “I don’t know what it means, whether you’re doing the right thing — or enough — or the wrong thing. It’s a crisis in a crisis. The conversation is now much more difficult —and I think it was difficult before.

“On one hand, you would like to think our body of work speaks for itself, but I know there are pretty passionate conversations happening about how that kind of work is created and who by, and who runs the organization and how those decisions are made. We are a predominantly white organization committed to doing work about social justice. The question is whether that’s enough anymore.”

But he believes, “It shouldn’t be about me or what I have to say as a white man. I know other people disagree, but it’s not a time where what I have to say is nearly as important as what other people have to say.”

No matter what comes, “Curious will continue to live our mission,” Walton says. “We won’t ever stop trying to be theatrically responsive to what’s happening in our world.”

For Amanda Berg Wilson, artistic director for The Catamounts, the challenge raises more questions than answers. She believes that being small increases the company’s chance of survival since there’s little overhead, and she herself is the only full-time employee. In addition, many of the most interesting Catamounts productions — like the one she’s currently contemplating for fall but hasn’t yet announced — take place outside, where distancing is easier.

Her questioning about equity began before the direct challenge from artists of color, she says; it was immediately after the election of Donald Trump. She realized then that "we need something a little more explicitly committed to a non-dominant cultural hierarchy. The election was such a devastating blow and such a reveal of things that, in our liberal bubbles, we wanted to think didn’t exist.” Berg Wilson committed then to doing at least one show written by a woman, artist of color or LBGTQ playwright in her generally two- or three-production season, and to ensure that none of her casts were exclusively white.

“That felt like a step in the right direction,” she says. “But now it feels that’s not enough, either. That can be tokenism, just patting ourselves on the back.” She has reached out to black artists she’s worked with to say, “Whatever platform Catamounts is, I’m offering it to you.” She adds, “We’re small, but the platform includes a little bit of press attention and access to a moderate donor pool and some state and local funding."

“I’m on the verge of tears,” she admits. “It all feels so monumental. I want to do the right thing. I’m self-conscious about getting it right. I want to get out of the way. I want to support. I’m stumbling, but I’m stumbling forward.”

The Arvada Center’s bread and butter lies in the large-scale musicals presented regularly on the main stage. There’s also a black-box theater that does more daring work, sometimes traditional and sometimes new and contemporary, but rarely in any way political.

“Yes,” says executive director Philip Sneed, “We are all being challenged to step up and change the way we operate. This is a catalytic moment. We know we have to prove ourselves in the coming weeks, months and years. All I can do at the moment is offer you my words — and I say that knowing words don’t matter much right now.”

He continues: “We have not been able to achieve much diversity; that is something we need to do better at. I don’t want to speak for what artists of color want, but it’s a mistake to assume they only want to do plays by playwrights of color. I believe the great plays of yesterday and today should be open to people of color. It’s as valuable to give a person of color an opportunity to play Hamlet.”

Westword was unable to speak with artistic director Chris Coleman at the Denver Center, but the publicist sent the following statement: “The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is committed to the Black Lives Matter movement. We are developing an actionable plan to elevate opportunities for all persons of color throughout the organization. Lydia Garcia, Executive Director of Equity and Organization Culture, will be working with a cross-departmental team to further the organization’s commitment to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion on our stages, in our classrooms and throughout our artistic and administrative teams. According to Lydia, ‘We are listening deeply to the need being expressed and committed to the necessary work of self-reflection, honest assessment and lasting change.’ We look forward to sharing our plans broadly in the future.”

The Aurora Fox, where the indomitable Helen Murray has been the artistic director for two years, has attracted more black audience members than most local venues. Since coming on board, Murray has mounted several challenging plays, including Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies and Tony Kushner’s complex and provocative musical Caroline, or Change. Murray is clear in her response to today’s challenges: “I think that the current unrest should remind white people in leadership to be keenly aware of their whiteness and the privilege that comes with it. I consider myself someone who has worked hard to make space for artists of color, but that does not mean that the work is done. I have to be aware of my biases, my part in a system of racism (whether or not I subscribe to it). I live in and am part of a racist system. We all are, so we are all responsible for helping to dismantle it.

“It should feel uncomfortable to make decisions without people of color being recognized as anything other than a vital part of our full American story. They are not a subset of our narrative — they are our collective narrative. It should feel wrong to make art that is not diverse, because then that art is not truthful. It fails to tell our full story. We should be assessing or reassessing how we operate, and make choices to make sure the full story gets told. These past couple weeks have made me supremely uncomfortable — and that means I still have work to do for my audiences and artists.”

Asked if she feels theater makes a difference, Murray is emphatic: “Hell, yes, art makes a difference. We first saw a black president in the movies, not in real life. Art is the realm of the possible. In art we can imagine the utopias; or be warned of the dystopias. We can inspire hope beyond our current circumstance. Since theater's inception, it has been used to sway our governing bodies. If most of our society is built on imaginary constructs, it stands to reason that we need to keep pretending things into existence. We do this collectively, not singularly. So it is important to gather, to share a story, to imagine a future, and to journey as humans together so that we leave those experiences having done a deep dive into our connectedness and resurfacing to a better understanding of one another and to what we are capable of doing.”

“Hell yes, art makes a difference. We first saw a black president in the movies, not in real life. Art is the realm of the possible. In art we can imagine the utopias; or be warned of the dystopias." — Helen Murray

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Jamil Jude, a director, producer, playwright and dramaturg, as well as artistic director of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre in Atlanta, is a signatory to "We See You White American Theater." Two years ago, he directed a searing production of Appropriate at Curious Theatre. Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, an African-American, the play has an entirely white cast. In this script, members of an Arkansas family are returning to their home after the death of the family patriarch to organize his estate. Discovering a cache of photographs of lynchings among his effects causes them to both re-evaluate their memories of him and reveal the darkness within their own souls. Jude was also in Denver recently, directing Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, scheduled for production by the Denver Center but now canceled.

“I’ve known Chip almost the entirety of my theater career,” Jude says of Curious's Walton. “I’ve seen his desire to move the needle, and I think Curious is doing that. I have had several conversations with him to know that he’s interested in bringing up the conversation and willing to be challenged on ways that he and Curious can do more. I think he’ll admit more can be done. Not just at Curious, but in any city in America.”

While in Denver, Jude has listened to black actors and directors and learned that "leaders of some of those institutions did not value experience and black artists, or believe that audiences would come and see the shows if they consistently told stories that reflected that community. What’s the percentage of plays by people of color based on all the theater that’s consumed? Is it just one a year? What does it mean about opportunity? Are the playwrights local or always from out of town? Who’s directing?”

He is unconvinced by the comments of white directors that they plan to turn to the community for direction: “That stuff is slightly disingenuous. Have you not been talking with your community? Why the fuck didn’t you say that ten years ago when you started your company? Why should they trust you now? Are you willing to do the things these artists say they need? Black people have been talking about the injustices in our country for centuries. You could not have cared if now you’re saying you don’t know what to do.”

Jude’s goal for his own theater is “to be a space where black artists feel at home, where their stories are heard and shared. Asked if he believes theater can move the needle, he responds, “I think it’s the thing we’ve been selling people on since the birth of the community theater movement: Art changes things. Art inspires. Demonstrations in the street are nothing short of art. The question is, as a cultural institution, is the American theater willing to do all they can to be a part of that change?”

click to enlarge The cast of The Scottsboro Boys at Vintage Theatre. - RDG PHOTOGRAPHY
The cast of The Scottsboro Boys at Vintage Theatre.
RDG Photography
Actor Dwayne Carrington, whose most recent role was in Vintage Theatre’s gutsy and vibrant production of Kander and Ebb’s musical The Scottsboro Boys, has been working in the Denver scene for many years, and has watched as it changed: the rise and fall of black companies and the growing interest in BIPOC issues in the white theater world. He remembers that Denver once boasted the Shadow Theatre Company, a vital group dedicated to the work of African-American writers and artists, and he knows about alumni at the Source Theatre Company who are working to keep the spirit of Shadow alive. There is also Su Teatro, an influential and long-lived theater dedicated to “the cultural arts, heritage and traditions of the Chicano/Latino community.”

Twelve years ago, Shadow founder and director Jeffrey Nickelson stood in the lobby of what is now Vintage Theatre in Aurora before the opening of Dinah Was. For ten years, Shadow, which started with a $500 donation from news anchor Reynalda Muse, had presented its work at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, where the audience sat on folding chairs and there were no dressing rooms, so the actors had to change on the fire escape. The work ranged from Athol Fugard’s My Children, My Africa to Suzan-Lori Parks’s Top Dog/Underdog, from lighthearted musicals to comedies to grim explorations of black history in America. Now the company had this gleaming new space. The lobby was thronged, and everyone was formally dressed. There was an exhibit of art by famed black artist Ed Dwight at one end, a bar at the other. Nickelson stood, a glass in his hand, tears glinting in his eyes.

Carrington, who starred in several Shadow plays, including My Children, My Africa, remembers the move well: “I was one of the few people that stood in that space when it was empty, totally gutted out, the main stage just a plywood platform. Jeffrey and I stood on that stage. He started to outlay his vision to me on that bare stage: This is what the lobby’s going to be, the gallery, the bar. The layout of the theater. We were both very happy; we hugged each other: 'This is really going to happen.'"

But the dream collapsed. Within a year, Nickelson had resigned from Shadow; not long after, he died of a heart attack or, as many of his friends and supporters believe, of a broken heart. There was apparent dissension on the Shadow board, and the new building “was more than he realized in terms of maintenance, upkeep,” says Carrington. “I don’t feel he was supported well enough — not only by the board, but by people who got him in the space in the first place. The funding wasn’t there. Where were the grants? Where were people coming forward saying let’s give you some seed money for the next ten years? He needed $25,000 to $30,000 a month just to keep the facility open. That’s what killed him. Shadow was his mistress. He loved her to death, and she eventually killed him.”

Carrington feels there has been improvement in the past few years, beginning perhaps with the Denver Center’s commitment to producing August Wilson’s entire oeuvre, but, he says, there is still a long way to go. “We’re not going to have a utopia ever. How many black or Latino directors do you know? I can name maybe five. It’s time to dig deeper.”

Carrington works in media, film and commercials as well as on stage. In theater, he says, “I was typecast a lot. Oh, you’re the angry black man. And I’m, why...I’m black, but I’m not angry.”

But he found working on The Scottsboro Boys, “with the beautiful and lovely Betty Hart directing,” rewarding, and he admires Vintage’s tenacity in mounting the show. “There were some learning curves for them, having a full black cast — not just one or two that happened to be of color, but thirteen black men, one black woman and one white man. On a daily basis rehearsing. Not that we were mistreated, but there were some things that tended to show a misconception; nothing intentional, just unconscious types of things. But that didn’t mar the experience I had with the show itself. We were selling out every house.”

Carrington remembers once having to explain to a director that a scene in which a white woman enters a black man’s cabin was being misinterpreted, with the man — an actor he was understudying — eventually becoming relaxed. “I said I had an observation. If a white woman walks into a black man’s cabin, he would be more likely to be very unsettled. It would be grounds for him to be fired at least and hung at worst. The director took it in and told that to the actor. But not all directors are open to actors telling them things, especially concerning race.

“If I’m playing Hamlet as a black man, I have to bring my own experience. I don’t have to change the dialect of the play or make anything different. I have to bring in whatever light shines from my own facet of the prism. I don’t make it wrong, just different, and that actually may enrich the role."

As for now, “This is time to plan and build. Everyone wants to jump on board and kumbayah and all that stuff, but the real work happens a year from now, five, ten years from now. Will that needle move further? I want to see clarity. I declare 2020 as the millennial time of clarity. This pandemic is giving us a lot of clarity. The pandemic of racism is giving us a lot of clarity. We have to pay attention to what this means.”