2016 True West Award: donnie l. betts

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


ABOUT THE TRUE WEST AWARDS

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

THE 2016 TRUE WEST AWARDS

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.

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