For his first endeavor as a playwright, poet, actor and activist, Bobby LeFebre wanted to tackle a sensitive subject that hit close to home: the changing face of the Denver neighborhood in which he grew up. In Northside, LeFebre explores the complex issues facing new and old residents in a part of the city that is currently experiencing massive socioeconomic shifts; the play tells the story of three couples as they deal with the Denver real-estate market and the underlying issues of race relations, gentrification and economic status. A staged reading of Northside next Tuesday, April 21 — when actors will read from a script on a bare stage at Su Teatro — will be followed by a talk-back to get audience feedback that will help shape the final theatrical product. In advance of that performance/discussion, Westword talked with LeFebre about how he came up with the concept and why he chose to execute the play with an open-dialogue component.
Westword: Where did the story of Northside originate?
Bobby LeFebre: It's about a year in the making now. April is National Poetry Month and poets usually write a poem a day for thirty days throughout the month — last year at this time I thought, what could I do a little bit differently? I had been wanting to write a play for a while; I just never really had dug into it. When April came around it seemed like a good way for me to actually do it. I took the entire month of April last year hammering out the first part of the piece.
I have always wanted to do something like this — a play about the neighborhood or a story about the neighborhood — and that was the permission I gave myself to hop into it. I'm about a year in now. By no means is it the story of north Denver or the Northside; it's a story. It's a fictional story based on real events and people that I know and things that I hear. So that's kind of how it started.
Obviously, the Northside is a big topic of conversation as Denver changes. Why did you want to create this piece now?
I feel like there are these different identifiable ways that the neighborhood has sort of transitioned into and through for over a hundred years. When we put our finger on a specific snapshot in time, we could say, well this is the "Italian" north Denver; this is the "Mexican and Mexican-American" north Denver. I feel like really, we are in the middle of the next large-scale cultural shift in the neighborhood and that is something that is interesting to me, because the neighborhood has never really been this place of tremendous change like it is now. We're seeing architectural changes and all kinds of different things.
The groups that came into the neighborhood always came in with — and I hate the term — but with the quote-unquote "bootstraps mentality"; it was an affordable place where people were able to create ethnic enclaves. They were able to create community and businesses and infrastructure that supported those folks. Then, if they wanted to — when they had the opportunity later once they were able to get grounded — they could leave the neighborhood or stay and build a life, like my family did.
What we're seeing with this new cultural shift is sort of the opposite of that — there's no affordable housing in this new development. We're seeing a cultural and economic shift that hasn't been in line with the traditional changes the neighborhood has seen across the last hundred years. To me, watching the politics of that unravel is really interesting — talking with people who have been here a long time and who might not necessarily understand all the sociological and even psychological nuances of the things that are happening right now; there's a lot of anger and confusion. A lot of the folks who are coming here are doing it for the amenities and for what the neighborhood is being branded as without sort of knowing or completely understanding what was here before. I think that conflict is center to my piece and the overall issues that we're facing and the challenges that we have right now.
You have already done quite a bit in the realms of conversation about the changing face of Denver through your work as a poet, activist and social worker and through your blog We Are North Denver. What was the idea behind doing this initial preliminary staged reading of Northside? Why ask for feedback in this way?
The piece is multi-modal — there's a historical element. I started this piece before We Are North Denver was even an idea, which is interesting because of the way the synergy of things happened; it all came to be at the same time. I started writing this last April, when fliers went up in the neighborhood that were discriminatory/racist; we dealt with that in May. It was like wow, there is a whole lot of energy around this.
But there is also an idea of permanence with this project that I'm trying to convey as well as cement, a particular snapshot in the neighborhood's time — the Mexican and Mexican-American story. My grandparents and great-grandparents struggled. My grandma raised seven kids in a small, 900 square-foot house, and they were farm workers. I'm sort of a product of generational progress in a lot of ways — I was the first person to graduate college. All of that hard work and struggle has paid off to some degree, at least ideologically. So the piece is one part historical permanence — I really want to make sure that there is something that I can leave that has people like me's stamp on it. So much of our history and iconography is being washed away by this process.
Then there's the community aspect — I want to involve the community in this process. But then there's the personal, artistic piece to it — as a writer and creative, I'm delving into something that's new and really trying to grow as an artist and push myself to do something new. I've been an actor for a long time but this is my first stab at really writing something of this magnitude for the stage. Usually people start with a one-act or a monologue, but I just hopped into writing this complete play. [Laughs]
There's a solid draft of it done — I did a table reading of Northside in December. This stage reading is sort of all of those things combined — there's a new article or blog about what is going on around the neighborhood appearing every single day. There's a lot of energy around it, a lot of conversations that are happening — but those conversations usually only happen in segregated silos. I'm really trying to bring people together and talk about it openly in the public. I figure that this is one way to do that. We can do direct action; we can do artistic responses in the community on street corners; but there is something to be said about the role that artists have in society. I view that responsibility and task with a lot of optimism. This is another way we can tackle this subject and bring people in.
You make a great point — we are having these conversations amongst ourselves, especially on social media. But really, what is the outcome? How can we bridge these communities that are having similar conversations? Doing it around a piece of art that is telling a story about a part of Denver makes a lot of sense. What are you looking for from the audience when you ask for their view?
I'm really excited about this part. One, I want to engage in dialogue — I hope that people different from me and different from my point of view will show up to the reading in order to digest what I've created. I'm not going to apologize for the content of the piece — it's definitely a piece that's inclusive, but it is definitely through a very specific lens. I'm coming from my experience as a Mexican-American in the neighborhood who is watching it disappear in front of me; there's a hint of that personal reality. But I'm also wanting to encourage people different from that perspective to come in and say, "Hey, I thought that these characters were a little too shallow" or 'This isn't how I would do something or say something." I really just want to create that dialogue and get genuine feedback from people as to how they felt about the piece. On the artistic side, I will continue to develop the piece and I hope to do a full production of it at some point.
Ultimately, I want people to see the piece and discuss the piece not only here, but also all over the country. I've got friends in New York and San Francisco and Texas and this is happening everywhere. The story is specific to north Denver, but the themes are universal. At the bottom of everything, the story is about a simple, innate human desire to belong somewhere. This piece is about the struggle for identity and place and what it means when you attach part of your cultural identity with place. That's sort of the heart of the piece.
There's a character in her nineties who is selling her home that she's lived in for seventy years — so there's the idea of what it means to let go of something that's been a part of you for so long. Then there's another couple in the piece who is desperately trying to hold onto what they have before they're not going to be able to afford it anymore. There's also a new couple in the story who are coming in looking for all of the bells and whistles of what it means to live in the neighborhood and the conflicts that it all presents amongst each other. There are three stories that are revolving around that theme.
Why is it important for you to share a story like Northside?
Here's the thing I find most frustrating about Denver: I don't consider it a "boomtown." Denver is a place where people come and create roots and real community. What is happening here now is so opportunistic and so money-driven that our city is literally being destroyed by people with no interest in maintaining the integrity of what makes it great. That's what's frustrating — every time I see one of these new developments going up, it's like okay, great. But they aren't dedicated to building the same sense of permanence that the people who built these big, strong, beautiful brick structures in the early 1900s were interested in. There was pride in that work — they were craftsmen. Now it's like, tear it down, slop them up and sell them for price that only a certain amount of people can afford.
I think when I get into certain circles and start to talk about gentrification or inequality, there's always an air of, the people of color have to be the ones to make others comfortable in the conversation; we can't be too loud or we can't say too much or we're going to lose people if we don't make it comfortable. I agree with that to a certain degree in that you have to be able to have a dialogue, but at the same time, I'm really hoping that by not shying away from issues in a theater project and showing that through a dialogue of characters that it will allow people to see that this is really happening. I know that a lot of people minimize the conversations that others have or try to discredit it by chalking it up to nostalgia or whatever, but this is really emotional for a lot of people.
Part of what we're trying to do with We Are North Denver is give people a vocabulary to talk about these issues in a way that everyone can engage in. Through theater there is a process of removal that the artist goes through by putting the issue in front of people through characters that you create that are having the same conversations that people are having at coffeehouses or behind closed doors — except it's a public forum. There's a crescendo in the piece where these couples come together and they have a really heated conversation about who deserves to be there more or maybe not as much. Some of that racial, economic politics come out and it mirrors conversations and things that I've heard on both sides. Above everything, I think it is a way to engage the community and a way to invite people in to examine this further.
The public reading of Northside starts at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 21 at Su Teatro, 721 Santa Fe Drive; a talkback session will follow. For tickets, $10, and more information, visit Su Teatro's website or call 303-296-0219.
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