• Denver Center taking new plays to new level in 2017-18

    by John Moore | Jul 02, 2017

    Lauren Yee. The Great Leap
    Lauren Yee’s 'The Great Leap,' which was introduced as a reading at the 2017 Colorado New Play Summit, will premiere at the Denver Center next February, then re-open at the Seattle Rep just 12 days after closing here. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    Companies are now jumping on new Denver Center works before they have even been fully staged here.

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    The Denver Center is taking a major step forward in its development of new work for the American theatre in 2017. And one major reason is a hip new term in the theatrical lexicon: “Co-Pro.”

    For the first time, the DCPA Theatre Company will stage two new plays next season that will immediately transfer to major theatres around the country as essentially continuing world premieres. They will quickly re-open in their second cities with their Denver Center directors and casts intact.

    American Mariachi. Summit The Theatre Company opens José Cruz González’s American Mariachi on Jan. 26, 2018. Less than a month after it closes in Denver, the production will re-open at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap, which bows in Denver on Feb. 2, will re-open at the Seattle Rep just 12 days after closing here.

    By virtue of these unique partnerships, both stagings are considered “co-productions.” Or, as the kids say, “Co-Pros.” Coincidentally, the re-opening nights in San Diego and Seattle will both take place on March 23.

    (Pictured above right: 'American Mariachi' was introduced as a reading at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)

    For 12 years, artistic leaders from around the country have come to the Denver Center’s Colorado New Play Summit each February to see readings of developing new works, then come back the next year to see the subsequent fully staged world-premiere productions before scheduling some of the plays themselves. Among the popular titles that have expanded through this slow growth plan have been Jason Grote’s 1001 and Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale.

    But now companies are coming here to see readings and committing to scheduling them even before they are fully staged at the Denver Center for the first time.

    Matt McGrath in 'The Legend of Georgia McBride.' Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen. All this comes at a time when Denver Center-born works are proliferating on national stages like never before. In 2017, Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride will become the most-produced new Denver Center work since Quilters in 1982. Ten companies this year are presenting the story of a straight man who explores the world of drag to feed his family in cities stretching from Los Angeles to Key West, Fla., with four more already slated for 2018. Lopez’s newest work, Zoey’s Perfect Wedding, will debut at the DCPA’s Space Theatre next Jan. 19.

    (Pictured above right: Matt McGrath in the Denver Center's 2014 world premiere of 'The Legend of Georgia McBride.' Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen.) 

    How Georgia McBride has evolved since Denver

    Since former Artistic Director Kent Thompson launched the Colorado New Play Summit in 2006, the DCPA has given 27 new plays their world-premiere stagings. At least 32 productions of 13 DCPA-born works are being presented around the country this year and next, most notably a high-profile return of the reimagined The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which plays from July 21-27 at The Muny in St. Louis. The Muny is America’s largest outdoor musical theatre. After that, star Beth Malone said, the goal is Broadway.

    LEAD MOLLY"That is absolutely the intention of putting it up at The Muny,” Malone said. “There is no other reason than for it go to Broadway. Everyone involved with it feels very strongly that we are completely on track.”

    (Pictured at right: The cast of the DCPA Theatre Company's 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown.' Photo by Adams VisCom.)

    Last week, two recent Colorado New Play Summit readings landed on The Kilroys, a curated list of the 31 most promising new plays by women: Yee's The Great Leap and Donnetta Lavinia Grays' Last Night and the Night Before.

    NATAKI GARRETT 3Even older new plays like Octavio Solis' Lydia (2008) are still making an impact. “Lydia is a blast-furnace drama now in its Seattle debut in a blistering, urgent staging from Strawberry Theatre Workshop," Misha Berson of the Seattle Times wrote last month of a "forcefully directed ensemble of visceral power." Last year, the Aurora Fox became the first company to stage the Denver Center’s Native American premiere of Black Elk Speaks since 1996.

    All of this proliferation is not only changing the way the nation looks at the Denver Center, said Associate Artistic Director Nataki Garrett. It is changing how the Denver Center looks at itself.

    “The Colorado New Play Summit is a nationally renowned place where theatre companies from all over the United States come to see those playwrights who are moving up in the ranks and becoming the clarions for the future of playwriting,” she said.  “But I think this is where it was always heading. The most important part of the work we do as theatre artists is to foster and develop new work, and I think this is that idea coming to full fruition.”

    (Story continues after the video)

    Video spotlight: American Mariachi

    What makes for a successful Co-Pro, Garrett said, is the continuation of the Denver Center’s commitment to the playwright once the new play reaches its immediate second destination.

    “What I am really focused on with these companies is, 'Are you willing to make space for that writer to keep writing?’ ” Garrett said. “The whole point is to for them to be able to keep evolving their piece after they leave Denver, if that’s what the piece needs.”

    The Theatre Company’s commissioning program is one reason the pipeline stays stocked. At any given time, the company has a number of renowned and emerging playwrights under commissions. That essentially binds the playwright to write a new work of his or her choice, and the DCPA Theatre Company then has the right of first refusal to stage it. The playwrights with commissions in progress are:

    • Kemp Powers
    • Anne Garcia-Romero
    • Aleshea Harris
    • Mary Kathryn Nagle
    • Tony Meneses
    • David Jacobi
    • Regina Taylor

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.


    The Unsinkable Molly Brown, by Dick Scanlan and Meredith Willson: The 1960 musical that tells the rags-to-riches tale of Colorado's greatest heroine is infused with new songs and a new script.

    • The Muny, St. Louis, July 21-27, 2017

    The Book of Will, By Lauren Gunderson:  The untold story of the race to publish Shakespeare's First Folio before half his canon was lost to history.

    • Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, June 9-July 28, 2017
    • Northlight Theatre, Skokie, Ill., Nov. 9-Dec. 17, 2017
    • Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Md., Nov. 29-Dec. 24, 2017
    • Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Ore., June-October, 2018

    The Great Leap, by Lauren Yee: An American college basketball team travels to Beijing in 1989.

    • American Conservatory Theatre New Strands Festival, San Francisco (reading), May 19, 2017
    • DCPA Theatre Company, Feb. 2-March 11, 2018
    • Seattle Rep, March 23-April 22, 2018 (co-world premiere)

    The Legend of Georgia McBride, by Matthew Lopez: A young Elvis impersonator turns to drag to feed his growing family.

    • Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles, April 4-May 14, 2017
    • GableStage, Coral Gables, Fla., May 27-June 25, 2017
    • Marin Theatre Company, San Francisco, June 8-July 9, 2017
    • ACT Theatre, Seattle, June 9-July 2, 2017
    • Theatre Nova, Detroit, June 9- July 9, 2017
    • Dorset Theatre Festival, Vermont, Aug. 3-19, 2017
    • Northlight Theatre, Skokie, Ill., Sept. 14-Oct. 22, 2017
    • Hippodrome State Theatre, Gainesville, Fla., Oct. 13-Nov. 5, 2017
    • B Street Theatre, Sacramento, Calif.,Nov. 6-Dec. 9, 2017
    • Uptown Players, Dallas, Dec. 1-17, 2017
    • Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis, March 23-April 22, 2018
    • Key West Players, Key West, Fla., May 2-19, 2018
    • Stoneham Theatre, Stoneham Mass., May 3-20, 2018
    • Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Md., June 8-July 1, 2018

    American Mariachi, by Jose Cruz Gonzalez: The musical tale of an all-female mariachi band in the 1970s.

    • DCPA Theatre Company, Jan. 26-Feb. 25, 2018
    • Old Globe (San Diego), March 23-April 29, 2018 (co-world premiere)

    Just Like Us, by Karen Zacarías: Documentary-style play follows four Latina teenage girls in Denver - two are documented, two are not.

    • Visión Latino Theatre Company, Feb. 24-March 12, 2017

    Dusty and the Big Bad World, by Cusi Cram: When a popular children’s TV  show spotlights a family with two daddies, it sparks a conservative outcry.

    • Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, July 6-19, 2017

    Appoggiatura, by James Still: A trip to Venice brings love, loss, pain and joy to three weary travelers in search of healing and happiness in a magical story filled with music and amore.
    • Indiana Repertory Theatre, March 7-31, 2018

    FADE, by Tanya Saracho: When Mexican-born Lucia is hired to write for a Latina TV character, she finds an unexpected muse in the Latino studio custodian.
    • Cherry Lane Theatre, New York, Feb. 8-March 5, 2017
    • TheatreWorks, Hartford, June 1-30, 2017

    Lydia, by Octavio Solis: A maid cares for a border family's near-vegetative teenage daughter who was left in a coma after a mysterious accident. 

    • Strawberry Theatre Workshop, Seattle, June 1-24, 2017

    Almost Heaven: The Songs and Stories of John Denver: The songwriter's life story is told through anecdotes and 21 songs.

    • Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre, Grand Lake, Sept. 1-30, 2017

    The Whale, by Samuel D. Hunter: An oversized, homebound and dying man struggles to reconcile with his estranged teenage daughter before it’s too late.
    • Verge Theatre Company, Nashville, June 2-14, 2017

    black odyssey, by Marcus Gardley: An imagination of Homer’s epic lens through the lens of the black American experience.
    • California Shakespeare Theatre, Orinda, Calif., Aug. 9-Sept. 3, 2017

    Quilters, by Molly Newman: A series of vignettes performed in song and spoken word that chart the joys and sorrows of the frontier journey West.

    • Ferndale (Calif.) Repertory Theatre, March 9-April 2, 2017

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Video spotlight: The Great Leap

  • Summit stands in thanks to departing founder Kent Thompson

    by John Moore | Feb 24, 2017
    Kent Thompson. Photo by John Moore
    Kent Thompson drew a standing ovation tonight from attendees at the 2017 Colorado New Play Summit, his last as Producing Artistic Director. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.


    Colorado New Play Summit pauses to thank
    departing founder Kent Thompson

    To understand the impact the Colorado New Play Summit has had on the development of new works for the American theatre, one need look no further than Skokie Ill., home of the Northlight Theatre.

    Kent Thompson. Photo by John Moore"I just found out today that the Northlight Theatre will be doing two Colorado New Play Summit plays in its next season: The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez, and The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson," DCPA Director of New Play Development Douglas Langworthy said tonight during a tribute to departing DCPA Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson.

    Thompson is resigning after 12 years effective March 3, leaving a legacy that includes founding the Colorado New Play Summit in 2006 and the Women's Voices Fund, a $1.4 million endowment that supports new plays by women and female creative team members.

    Kent Thompson's legacy: Giving sound to unheard voices

    “I feel like for the past 12 years, I've had a great opportunity to present many different windows on the world, from many different peoples' viewpoints,” Thompson said from the pulpit of the Seawell Grand Ballroom.

    Kent Thompson. 1001The Colorado New Play Summit, which is presenting readings of five featured new works through Sunday, has workshopped 50 new plays, leading to 29 fully produced world premieres as part of the DCPA Theatre Company’s mainstage season. Thompson has commissioned 44 new plays, almost half written by women.

    A video honoring Thompson was shown at the tribute, followed by a prolonged standing ovation. "I don't think there are words that can possibly do justice to the countless contributions that Kent Thompson has made to this organization," said DCPA CEO Janice Sinden.

    Thompson first thanked his predecessor, Donovan Marley, who grew the Theatre Company’s national reputation as a home for new works with premieres ranging from Quilters to Black Elk Speaks to The Laramie Project. He then thanked his family. Thompson’s late father was a well-known Southern Baptist preacher, and his mother a writer, publisher and editor. His brother is a psychiatrist. 

    “My mom once said we're kind of all in the same profession,” Thompson said. “We either listen to stories to make sense of our world around us, and our place in it; or we tell stories to make sense of our world, and our place in it. My dad was really upset by this - not because he was being compared to a theatre director, but because he was being compared to a psychiatrist.”

    Thompson’s father, he said, was not an evangelical preacher. "He was a human storyteller. And he’s who I learned theatre from.”

    Thanks pour in from around the country for Kent Thompson

    Reflecting on his time in Denver, Thompson said, “I think the opportunity to tell stories that reveal the world to us in a new way is a great privilege. We have accomplished so much in a short period of time. I want to thank everybody for their support and generosity. But most of all I want to thank the writers, the artists, the actors, the craftspeople, the managers the administrators, and everyone who has made this such a wonderful place for new plays in the American theatre.”  

    (Photo below right: Douglas Langworthy and new Associate Artistic Director Nataki Garrett. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)

    Praise from playwrights for Kent Thompson:

    Douglas Langworthy. Photo by John MooreLauren Yee, Manford at the Line, Or The Great Leap: Kent Thompson is such a champion of new plays. He is such a champion of new and different voices. He always puts his money where his mouth is, and makes sure that the world we live in is reflected on the stage. I feel like he has done so much for new plays, for new playwrights and for young playwrights over the years he has been here at the Denver Center. I can't imagine what it is going to be like without him.

    Rogelio Martinez, Blind Date: I am extremely sad because I have seen this Summit grow to this incredible stage where hundreds of people come in just to see our plays. There's heartbreak because I know this is Kent's vision. I love the fact that whenever we start a Summit, Kent says, 'This is my favorite time of the year.' I think he’s done an incredible job, and he has offered a lot of people a home. He offered me a home.       

    Robert Schenkkan, Hanussen: Kent Thompson is that complete theatre individual. He is a true Renaissance man. A creator in his own right, a director, at one time a performer, and an artistic director. That's a lot of hats to wear, and he wears them all with a great deal of grace and dignity and compassion. He has a quiet sense of humor, which I particularly enjoy, and a real spirit of generosity, which I think is at the heart of his success here at the Denver Center. I think that sense of generosity, that sense of family, is real, and that’s very much a reflection of Kent Thompson 's personality and his aesthetic. I think Denver has been extraordinarily fortunate to have had Kent Thompson for this time period.

    José Cruz González, September Shoes: When Kent Thompson first came to Denver, he called me out of the blue and he said he wanted to do the second production of my play September Shoes. And that play grew in such amazing ways. I found the play here. And then he had me back, first for Sunsets and Margaritas and again last year for American Mariachi. When I came to Denver, American Mariachi was 150 pages long. Then Kent gave it a second workshop last July in Los Angeles, and now it is down to 101 pages. Now, I feel like the play is ready, and that is all thanks to him. Kent has given opportunity to new writers, and given writers a place to do really great work in a great theatre. When you come here, you feel the spirit.

    960x430-two-degreesTira Palmquist, Two Degrees: Kent Thompson's leadership and vision for the DCPA Theater Company has opened a space for a greater diversity of voices on the stage - stories from a richer cross-section of our American experience - and we are all the richer for it. Theater holds a mirror up to us and to our society, and if theater only shows a selective or exclusive image, only tells the stories of a selective or exclusive population, then it necessarily impoverishes us all. More personally, Kent Thompson recognized something in Two Degrees at a time when I was not the most recognizable name in the room. He recognized something in the story, in the writing - not because I was the safest choice. His long history of making these kinds of choices has made the Denver Center an exciting and exhilarating place to make great theater. He's the model for us all to follow.

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center's Senior Arts Journalist.

    Kent Thompson in Denver: A photo retrospective

    Kent Thompson: A retrospective

    To see more photos, click the forward arrow on the image above.

    Selected previous coverage of the 2017 Colorado New Play Summit:
    2017 Summit welcomes dozens for opening rehearsal
    Summit Spotlight: Robert Schenkkan on the dangers of denial
    Summit Spotlight: Lauren Yee lays it all on the free-throw line
    Summit Spotlight: Rogelio Martinez on when world leaders collide
    Summit Spotlight: Donnetta Lavinia Grays on the aftermath of trauma
    Summit Spotlight: Eric Pfeffinger on the fertile comedy of a divided America
    Record four student writers to have plays read at Summit
    DCPA completes field of five 2017 Summit playwrights

    The 12th Annual Colorado New Play Summit
    Launch Weekend: Feb. 18-19
    Festival Weekend: Feb. 24-26
    More details: denvercenter.org/summit

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

  • 2016 True West Award: donnie l. betts

    by John Moore | Dec 07, 2016

    True West Awards donnie l betts

    30 DAYS, 30 BOUQUETS

    Day 7:
    donnie l. betts

    Radio, film and theatre practitioner donnie l. betts is a black man who has been making a personal statement about the marginalization of black Americans for decades with the intentional lower-casing of his name. But in 2016, as protests over ongoing racial inequities in America spilled into stadiums, streets and reservations across the country, the lower-cased betts was having a decidedly upper-case artistic year.

    As America's simmering racial divide was being  ripped open from the Dakotas to Dallas, betts was directing two culturally significant and achingly relevant productions for the Aurora Fox: The first local production of the seminal Native American tragedy Black Elk Speaks since it was premiered by the DCPA Theatre Company in 1994; and the first staging of the classic opera Porgy and Bess by any local theatre company in at least 20 years - and certainly the first since it was reimagined as a more accessible Broadway musical by Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks in 2012.

    True West Awards donnie l betts Black Elk Speaks Black Elk Speaks recounts with wrenching rawness the systematic genocide that wiped out an estimated 80 percent of the Native American population over a century. The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess tells the story of a reckless, drug-sniffing woman who turns to a disabled street-beggar for rescue from the clutches a violent and possessive lover in the oppressively racist slums of Charleston, S.C.

    No one but betts gets either of those productions to a Denver stage. No one but betts gets the level of cultural authenticity he achieved in Black Elk Speaks with a cast made up largely of indigenous actors. And no one but betts collects the deep cross-section of talent he has on display at the Aurora Fox in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess through Jan. 1.

    Our report from the set of the Aurora Fox's Black Elk Speaks

    We're talking well-known local veterans like Leonard Barrett Jr. as the cripple Porgy, Dwayne Carrington as Crab Man and Michael Peters as the odious Crown, alongside the sensational second generation of Anna Maria High, Faith Goins-Simmons and Tyrell Rae, who all three continue to be lightning on any stage. All of this matters not without a Bess who can off the equal challenges of properly singing - and playing the wounded Bess. Enter the heart-breaking and ear-seducing Tracy Camp from the San Francisco Opera.

    Porgy and Bess, newly opened in these final breaths of 2016, will certainly go down as one of the most significant achievements of the Colorado  theatre season. This production has it all - a rollicking onstage band led by Jodel Charles; an evocative and fluid slum set from Jen Orf; masterful (as always) work from designers Linda Morken (costumes), Shannon McKinney (lighting), and El Armstrong (sound). And perhaps most seductively: It has living, pulsating, innovative choreography from Laurence Curry. It's a dream team.

    Betts Quote "This is a production that must be seen — for the sheer scope of its ambition, among other things," wrote Westword's Juliet Wittman. "Consider what it took for director donnie l. betts to assemble his terrific small orchestra along with a large cast of tuneful and talented African-American actors, and to meld voices that range from operatic to musical theater into a harmonious, soul-swelling whole."

    No one but betts, whose roots in the Denver theatre community go back to the very beginnings of the Denver Center. When the DCPA Theatre Company was created in 1979, betts was the first local actor hired, working  alongside the likes of Tyne Daly, Delroy Lindo and Tandy Cronyn. That ensemble would later be joined by Mercedes Ruehl, Annette Bening and many other future stars.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Betts was a DCPA regular for nine intermittent seasons. But of all the shows he performed in, it perhaps was one he did not appear in - Black Elk Speaks - that would most impact his future life. Betts was performing in another play on a nearby Denver Center stage nearby, but he would watch Black Elk Speaks from the wings every chance he got. Twenty-two years later, he brought it back to life at the Aurora Fox.

    It's been a long road for betts preserving the culture and voice of the disenfranchised, underrepresented and underserved. But as the protagonist of Black Elk Speaks says: "The longest journey is to the heart."

    donnie l. betts/At a glance

    • Born in Dekalb, Texas, the 12th child of 12
    • Attended Angelo State in San Angelo, Texas, on a football scholarship and later Metropolitan State College in Denver and the Yale School of Drama
    • Founding member of the DCPA Theatre Company, City State Ensemble and the Denver Black Arts Company
    • Performed on Broadway in The Gospel at Colonus, 1988
    • Founded No Credits Production, Inc., a film and video production company that launched his monthly Destination Freedom radio series for KGNU in May 1998
    • Occasionally appeared in the Perry Mason movies that were filmed in Denver in the mid-1990s
    • Directed more than 30 theatrical productions in the Denver area

    The True West Awards, now in their 16th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2016 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center's Senior Arts Journalist. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    Day 1: Jada Suzanne Dixon
    Day 2: Robert Michael Sanders
    Day 3: After Orlando
    Day 4: Michael Morgan
    Day 5: Beth Beyer
    Day 6: Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski
    Day 7: donnie l. betts
    Day 8: Night of the Living Dead
    Day 9: The Killer Kids of Miscast
    Day 10: Jason Sherwood
    Day 11: Leslie O'Carroll and Steve Wilson
    Day 12: Jonathan Scott-McKean
    Day 13: Jake Mendes
    Day 14: Charles R. MacLeod
    Day 15: Patty Yaconis
    Day 16: Daniel Langhoff
    Day 17: Colorado Shakespeare Festival costumers
    Day 18: Miriam Suzanne
    Day 19: Yolanda Ortega
    Day 20: Diana Ben-Kiki
    Day 21: Jeff Neuman
    Day 22: Gabriella Cavallero
    Day 23: Matthew Campbell
    Day 24: Sharon Kay White
    Day 25: John Hauser
    Day 26: Lon Winston
    Day 27: Jason Ducat
    Day 28: Sam Gregory
    Day 29: Warren Sherrill
    Day 30: The Women Who Run Theatre in Boulder
    Theatre Person of the Year Billie McBride

    True West Awards donnie l betts Porgy And Bess Photos: Top of page, Leonard Barrett and Tracy Camp in 'Porgy and Bess.' Inset right: Doug Good Feather in 'Black Elk Speaks.' Above: A scene from 'Porgy and Bess.' Photos by Christine Fisk for the Aurora Fox.
  • Two decades later, Black Elk speaks again in Aurora

    by John Moore | Mar 22, 2016

    'Black Elk Speaks' at the Aurora Fox. Photo by Christine Fiske.
    'Black Elk Speaks' at the Aurora Fox. Photo by Christine Fisk.

    An hour before the second performance of Black Elk Speaks, all within smelling distance of the burning bowl of sage on the stage of the Aurora Fox Theatre are invited to participate in a Lakota Prayer Circle. Even if you are an interloper carrying a reporter's notebook. About 20 cast members, their families and theatre personnel circle up as the young girl carrying the bowl allows each person to bathe themselves in the medicinal smoke.

    Right hands are placed over hearts and left hands on adjacent shoulders as the spiritual leader, Doug Good Feather, leads a short sermon on the virtues of gratitude and healing.

    "The longest journey is to the heart," Good Feather says to cheers and hugs just before the flock disappears to make final preparations for the evening performance.

    A Black Elk 300Then you see the play – a relentless recounting of the systematic genocide that wiped out an estimated 80 percent of the Native American population over a century. And you wonder: How can these descendants of Black Elk, the revered Oglala Lakota medicine man, perform today in the name of healing and peace?

    Backstage, Good Feather (pictured above left) mulls that question carefully before answering.

    This is a man who was born of two worlds in Standing Rock, S.D., into the band of Sitting Bull. He was raised by grandparents on a reservation and bussed to a public high school where he was taught Columbus and Andrew Jackson were saviors. As a young man, Good Feather fought demons both from within and without. He was taunted and ridiculed at school. He took his fight from the school playground to Iraq, where he served two tours as a U.S. Army reservist. Today, he is a recovering alcoholic, father of eight and spiritual counselor living in Northglenn. He fights back against the ongoing marginalization of his people not with hate, but with history.

    “Instead of blaming and shaming,” he says in measured tones, “what is important to me now is that people know the truth about our shared history. Teaching someone the truth will help them to resolve these issues within themselves, and help them to let that go.”

    Performing the title role in Black Elks Speaks is one way for him to do that, he says.

    The play is based on the book by John Neihardt, who in 1932 was granted access to chronicle Black Elk’s tumultuous life story. It was adapted into a play by Christopher Sergel that DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Donovan Marley staged in 1994 (pictured at right) before bringing it to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Actor Moses Brings Plenty (pictured above right) describes Black Elk as “a living memory of who we once were and who we are today as a people, and who we can be again with love and compassion and a true understanding of coexistence.”   

    Audiences of many hues packed the Aurora Fox over the opening weekend to watch the story of a gentle Lakota medicine man who is compelled to tell his Americanized grandson the stories the young man was never taught in school. Among them: The Trail of Tears, the Santee Execution, the Sand Creek Massacre and the atrocity at Wounded Knee. For indigenous audiences, the performance is an empowering opportunity to have their stories told again. For white audiences, it is an opportunity to learn. “Because we are all in this together,” Brings Plenty says. “It's not an Indian issue. It's a people issue.” 

    This staging of Black Elk Speaks, directed by donnie l. betts, is the first in Colorado since the play was premiered by the Denver Center Theatre Company in 1994. betts, a black man who makes his own statement about marginalization with the intentional lower-casing of his name, was a member of the Theatre Company in 1994 and watched Black Elk Speaks nightly from the wings while performing in another play. The New York Daily News called Black Elk Speaks “harnessed dynamite. No one who sees it will ever forget it.”

    Brings Plenty, an accomplished Lakota actor from Kansas City who has appeared on House of Cards and was a stunt rider on The Revenant, plays five roles in the Aurora Fox production of Black Elks Speaks. He is an Oglala Lakota born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota. When asked to show his identification, Brings Plenty will produce not a birth certificate but the prison I.D. card issued by his tribe upon his birth Sept. 4, 1969. This custom is a reminder to all Lakota that they were effectively born as prisoners in their own country. Still, just as Good Feather echoed the words of Black Elk, Brings Plenty seconds the sentiment of Good Feather.

    “As long as we continue to play the blame game, we will not achieve any sort of healing,” Brings Plenty said. “We know the true history. But what we want to flow through us to the generations to come is a brighter future and a better life. And not just for our children, but for all human beings.”

    The set of the Aurora Fox's 'Black Elk Speaks,' designed by Jen Orf. Photo by John Moore. The set of the Aurora Fox's 'Black Elk Speaks,' designed by Jen Orf. Photo by John Moore.

    Good Feather, who performed on a Grammy-winning recording of Native American music, does not consider himself a professional actor. But local theatre audiences may remember him from a polarizing one-man 2007 stage production in Boulder called Prison Writings: My Life is a Sun Dance. Good Feather played Leonard Peltier, who has been jailed for 39 years for the murder of two FBI agents.

    Black Elk Speaks, he says simply, is an opportunity to practice what he preaches.

    Black Elk quote“If I allow somebody to continue doing wrong things with ignorance and stand back and let it happen, then it's my fault,” he said. “I need to do something to correct that. That's what I feel like I am doing out there on the stage. I feel like I am educating people by being a part of this play. We all are, as a collective cast. We still carry these traditions, and they are just as real today as they were back then. And we can use them to help people heal. Because if we keep carrying this animosity, it affects our children. If we carry that trauma and animosity, and we're constantly angry, and we take that anger out on our children, then that continues to create dysfunction, and the cycle continues. So it has to be broken.”  

    These words stand in stark contrast to those being spoken on the campaign trail outside the loving confines of the Aurora Fox, where the Republican Party is on the verge of nominating a presidential candidate who advocates building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and temporarily banning members of the Muslim faith, regardless of nationality.

    Doug Good Feather. Black Elk Speaks. Aurora Fox. Christine Fiske. The subject of Donald Trump brings and a dismissive shrug from Good Feather. “I know he is not worthy, because a leader doesn't lead like that,” he says. “You have to know how to take care of people to be a leader. He's in a different world. He doesn't realize the holistic way of our way of life. He's all material. That's what he worships. He wants to run this country like he runs his business. That’s a dog-eat-dog world.”

    Brings Plenty finds no small hypocrisy in Trump, a political descendant of Ronald Reagan, talking about building walls.

    “I remember when President Reagan demanded that Russia bring down the wall in Berlin,” Brings Plenty said. “How can the same country that demanded another country take down a wall, now want to build a wall up here?”

    Good Feather believes Trump is in for a hard lesson that has resonated among his people for decades: “Once the last deer is hunted and the last fish is caught, you will truly find out that you can't eat money.”

    (Photo at right: Doug Good Feather in 'Black Elk Speaks.' Photo by Christine Fisk.)

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

    Black Elk Speaks: Ticket information
    • Presented by The Aurora Fox
    • Through April 10
    • 9900 E. Colfax Ave.
    • Tickets $24-$31
    • 303-739-1970 or aurorafoxartscenter.org

    'Black Elk Speaks' at the Aurora Fox. Photo by John Moore.
    Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    'Black Elk Speaks' at the Aurora Fox. Photo by Christine Fiske.
    'Black Elk Speaks' at the Aurora Fox. Photo by Christine Fisk.

    'Black Elk Speaks' at the Aurora Fox. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    Backstage photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    Black Elk 3
    'Black Elk Speaks' photo by Christine Fisk.
  • Curious, Aurora Fox seasons bring trilogies, 'Black Elk Speaks' and Laura Eason

    by John Moore | Feb 25, 2015
    Black Elk Speaks at the DCPA, 1993.
    Black Elk Speaks at the DCPA in 1993.

    Black Elk Speaks
    , which had its world premiere by the DCPA Theatre Company in 1994 and was remounted a year later, will be presented on the Aurora Fox's 31st season, it was announced today. And Curious Theatre Company has announced an expanded commitment to serial programming over several seasons.

    On March 7, Curious opens In the Red and Brown Water, the first chapter of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays, a trilogy set deep in the Louisiana Bayou. The Brothers Size  will be performed later this season and the final chapter, Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, will be staged in the 2015-16 season.

    Quiara Alegría Hudes Now comes the announcement of a second trilogy, this one called The Elliot Plays, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Quiara Alegría Hudes (26 Miles). Curious Theatre will become the first theatre in the world to produce Hudes' trilogy consecutively and in its entirety. It focuses on Elliot Ortiz and his experiences as a Marine in Iraq. The trilogy is described as "a moving exploration of war, the strength and sorrow of our soldiers and the power of heritage and family. Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, will debut next spring while Water by the Spoonful and the The Happiest Song Plays Last will follow in 2016-17.

    "This innovative audience experience immerses patrons into the world of a series of plays that span multiple seasons, fostering a deeper connection to the playwrights, the characters and the stories," said Curious founder Chip Walton. The idea, he added, is to

    "expand the Curious experience to much more than just attending an individual production in a single night."

    Curious' new season also includes the comedy Sex with Strangers, written by Cherry Creek High School graduate Laura Eason, who is now Chicago-based and has risen to national prominence with Sex With Strangers,

    Eason is a commissioned DCPA playwright whose The Vast In-Between was read at the 2013 Colorado New Play Summit. Her adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was produced on the 2011-12 mainstage season.

    Curious has also slated Annie Baker’s opus The Flick, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

    The Aurora Fox season announcement always includes word of a shared production with the handicapped Phamaly Theatre Company, which will present Fuddy Meers at the Fox from Feb. 6-Feb. 21.

    No local company has taken on Black Elk Speaks since the DCPA introduced it. Lakota visionary and healer, Nicholas Black Elk, grew up during the closing decades of the 19th century when white settlers were invading the homeland of the Lakota Sioux, decimating buffalo herds and threatening to extinguish the tribe’s way of life. As presented onstage, Black Elk recounts the history of his people to his government-educated grandson, Hoksila, as members of the ensemble play Indian Warriors and American Generals re-enacting many fierce battles leading up to the massacre at Wounded Knee.

    Fro the L.A. Times: "Black Elk was an Oglala Sioux uniquely situated to tell the story of his people's genocide. His father participated in the Fetterman Massacre in 1865, in which the Native Americans left not even a dog alive. Black Elk fought as a child at Little Bighorn and as a man at Wounded Knee. He was cousin to Crazy Horse. He lived to be quite old in the hills of South Dakota, and that is where John Neihardt found him and published his tale in 1932."

    (Exact dates to be determined)

    The Flick
    (Fall 2015)
    By Annie Baker
    Directed by Chip Walton
    At a once grand movie theater in a nowhere town in Massachusetts, young employees Avery, Sam and Rose search for meaning and connections in their mundane lives. Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

    Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet (Fall 2015)
    By Tarell Alvin McCraney
    Directed by Dee Covington
    Sixteen-year-old Marcus is haunted by his father’s mysterious legacy, his own sexuality, and his dreams of torrential downpours. A beautiful portrait of a boy coming to grips with his identity and finding the bravery to become a man.

    Sex with Strangers
    By Laura Eason
    A one-night-stand transforms into something deeper when art, generations, success and online personalities collide, creating real-life complications.

    Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue (spring 2016)

    By Quiara Alegría Hudes
    Directed by Chip Walton
    A young boy, Elliot Ortiz, leaves his home and his family behind to fight the war in Iraq, and returns a hero and a man. But his search has just begun to better understand his Puerto Rican heritage and the meaning of heroism

    To be announced: Final play of the 2015-16 season

    Info: 303-623-0524, or click here to go to Curious' web site

    Sept. 18-Oct. 11: Jekyll and Hyde, The Musical
    Based on the classic story by Robert Louis Stevenson and featuring a pop-rock score from Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse.

    Nov. 27-Dec. 27: Little Women, The musical
    An all-new version based on  Louisa May Alcott's 19th century novel about the March family of Concord, Massachusetts. Music by Kim Oler and Alison Hubbard; book by Sean Hartley.

    Jan. 8- Feb. 14, 2016: The Arabian Nights
    (in the Studio Theatre) 
    Mary Zimmerman of Metamorphoses fame brings her take on the classic tale of Scheherazade, whose cliffhanger stories of the 1,001 nights prevent her husband, the cruel Shahryar, from taking her life.

    March 18-April 10, 2016: Black Elk Speaks
    Based on the book by John G. Neihardt, adapted by Christopher Sergel

    April 22-May 15, 2016: Catch Me If You Can
    Based on the hit DreamWorks film and the story that inspired it about Frank W. Abagnale, Jr., a teenager who runs away from home and lives the glamorous life funded by millions of dollars in forged checks. Book by Terrance McNally and  score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

    February 6- 21, 2016: Fuddy Meers
    Presented by Phamaly Theatre Company
    This quirky play by David Lindsay-Abaire tells the story of an amnesiac, Claire, who awakens each morning as a blank slate on which her husband and teenage son must imprint the facts of her life.

    Info: 303-739-1971 or go to the Aurora Fox web site

    Note: The DCPA Theatre Company will release its 2015-16 season in mid-March.
John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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