Day 24: After four decades, he’s still leading the hard conversations
New Year’s Eve will mark 40 years of the DCPA Theatre Company, and 40 years that donnie l. betts has been a driving presence in Colorado’s cultural-arts scene – and its social conscience – without ever losing his relevance or currency.
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. He performed intermittently for the company’s first nine seasons.
Last week, it was announced that the prominent filmmaker, director, playwright and actor will receive the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts’ John R. Madden Leadership Award in May. That’s a lifetime achievement honor for those who have made significant contributions to advancing arts and culture in Colorado.
betts has been making a personal statement about the marginalization of black Americans for decades with the intentional lower-casing of his name.
In 2019, betts marked 20 years of hosting and producing Destination Freedom: Black Radio Days, his boundary-breaking live radio series telling African American stories. He directed Curious Theatre’s Skeleton Crew, Dominique Morisseau’s racially infused drama about four workers desperate to keep their jobs at a failing auto plant. And he returned to the stage (of a sort) when he played a card reader in Off-Center’s intimate, immersive theatrical experiment Between Us. betts hosted an audience of exactly one at a time exploring the key moments in that person’s life through a random shuffle. One of those people was Amanda Berg Wilson, herself an immersive theatremaker as the Artistic Director of Boulder’s The Catamounts.
‘Skeleton Crew is a loving requiem for the auto industry.’ – Lisa Kennedy, The Denver Post
“And I am sometimes a wretched immersive audience member,” she joked. “But donnie is the kind of actor who reads the room, and he immediately put me at ease. He has that rare combination of technical prowess and the ability to be fully, authentically human in a role. I suspect that’s because he is as wonderful a human as he is an actor.”
Destination Freedom: Black Radio Days airs live locally on KGNU, is syndicated to 150 radio stations and is featured on the BBC worldwide. It has won four awards for radio excellence from the Colorado Association of Black Journalists. Each episode begins with the performance of a short, racially relevant play, followed by a panel discussion with the audience – sometimes ending in a dance party.
In March, Black Radio Days presented Curious Theatre’s touring schools play Black with a Capital B, a conversation between a black woman and a white woman momentarily linked by the death of a 12-year-old. In the October episode, betts presented his own play The Tale of the Bullet, which takes audiences through the violence of a shooting from the bullet’s perspective. The cast included prominent local actors SuCh, Sam Gilstrap and Kurt Soderstrom. His talkback panel, hosted by community organizer and spoken-word artist Brother Jeff Campbell, included State Representative Tom Sullivan, whose son was killed in the Aurora theatre massacre; Prince Po, formerly of the legendary hip-hop duo Organized Konfusion; and Jalil Ridley, a student at Overland High School who both took on a small role in The Tale of the Bullet, and later spoke about his ongoing recovery from being shot in February.
“It was tough accepting that I got shot,” said Ridley, a brace still covering his right hand. “I wanted to act like it never happened, but you have to face it. So when people say, ‘We have become numb to gun violence,’ like it doesn’t affect them, that is a slap to the face of victims and their families.”
In all his endeavors, betts’ mission is to tell untold stories of people seeking freedom. betts is a skilled facilitator of conversations about race and inclusion in America, having created programs for History Colorado, Curious Theatre Company and area high schools. It’s ironic that such a quiet man is the one who always seems to be leading us as a city in these difficult but essential community dialogues.
betts previously won a True West Award in 2016 for directing landmark productions of Black Elk Speaks, about the systematic genocide of the Native Americans; and the classic opera Porgy and Bess, both for the Aurora Fox.
As an actor, betts has been a founding member of three Denver theatre companies: The aforementioned DCPA Theatre Company, City Stage Ensemble and Denver Black Arts Company. He attended the Yale School of Drama and performed on Broadway in The Gospel at Colonus. As a filmmaker, betts’ Music is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown Jr. was screened at more than 25 film festivals worldwide, won 11 awards and aired on PBS nationwide. His Emmy-nominated documentary Dearfield: The Road Less Traveled told the story of an all-black town in northern Colorado. It is shown on demand at the Black American West Museum in Denver’s Five Points, and it largely informed the DCPA Theatre Company’s 2018 production of the musical Oklahoma! He also won an Emmy Award for My Voice, a film on Brother Jeff Campbell.
In 2020, betts is planning new episodes of Black Radio Days dealing with gender identity, internet hate, and the final two chapters of Enrique’s Journey.
Photo gallery: Our gallery from Destination Freedom
About The True West Awards: ’30 Days, 30 Bouquets’
The True West Awards, now in their 19th 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 2019 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. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org