Abner Genece: An actor survives, and the son also rises

Abner Genece. Matthew Gale Photography. Arvada Center.

When the actor took one small step onto the Arvada Center stage, it was one giant leap back from near-fatal tragedy

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

When actor Abner Genece woke up days after the accident with as many tubes in his body as broken bones, he wasn’t thinking of whether he might ever perform again. He was thinking of his son, Jayden, who had been airlifted from the highway carnage to a pediatric trauma center in another state.

“I was confused and upset,” said Genece, whose body was being held together by nine permanent titanium plates — and held down by physical restraints.

But then he remembered hearing Jayden’s voice cut through the cacophony of fear in those terrifying initial moments after impact: “I’m OK, Daddy. I love you, Daddy.”

Abner Genece Selfie with Jayden“As soon as I was able to think more clearly, I was assured by the trauma staff and my brother and sister that Jayden was indeed alive,” Genece said this week, eight months after he and Jayden were struck from behind by a semi-truck traveling at nearly 70 mph. Days later, he said, “what could have happened to Jayden dawned on me in its full clarity.”

Father and son were driving to Oregon to visit cousins for the holiday weekend. They were stopped on a Wyoming highway by police because of an accident ahead. Genece remembers stopping at a rest stop a few minutes before to fuel up and buy some snacks. “We even took a selfie,” he said (pictured above and right). Genece doesn’t remember getting back into the car. “I only remember waking up several days later in a Salt Lake City intensive-care unit.”

Genece and his son both sustained multiple, life-threatening injuries. Abner required several surgeries on his ribs and spine. Jayden, who was 11 at the time, had to wear a neck brace for several months. Both needed dental surgery to repair their teeth.

Genece’s spirits were high that day. He had been recently featured in Curious Theatre’s Water by the Spoonful, and just the day before had participated as a director and performer in Curious’ National Collective Festival, a week-long intensive for promising young playwrights. Genece was preparing to perform in a play that September in Jackson, Wyo. And he had just received word days before that he was one of 11 actors chosen as full members of the Arvada Center’s Black Box Theatre Company for the 2017-18 season. That not only meant he would be performing in three plays in repertory — he had guaranteed employment for a year. It is considered one of the best jobs any actor in Denver can get.   

Lynne Collins, artistic director of the Arvada Center’s repertory company, chose Genece to play Sir John in Sense and Sensibility, Jim Bayless in All My Sons and Ambimbola in The Electric Baby. So when she got the call days later that Genece was now fighting for his life in a Utah hospital, Collins couldn’t wrap her head around the sadness of it all — and the heavy irony.

Abner Genece Sense and Sensibility“Just a week before, Abner was auditioning to play a Nigerian man who spends 90 percent of the play in a hospital bed wondering if he will ever walk again,” Collins said of The Electric Baby. That’s a play about a woman who causes a car accident that kills a young man and brings together a group of fractured souls who connect around a mysterious dying baby who glows like the moon.

“When I cast him in the role, Abner told me, ‘I understand this character’s background. I know I can do the dialect. But you know what? I have never spent any time in a hospital,’ ” Collins said. He thought maybe he should spend some time in a hospital to better prepare for the role. And a week later … “

A week later, Genece was facing a long road toward recovery that would be difficult, painful, expensive and presumably quite slow. His new daily regimen would now include ongoing physical, occupational and mental therapies.

But one thing he never had to worry about was whether he still had a job at the Arvada Center at the end of October. In fact, the Arvada Center sent bouquet of flowers to the I.C.U. the very next day.

Photos: NewsCenter coverage of All My Sons opening night

“It never occurred to me not to stick with Abner,” Collins said. “Just as a general rule, you should try very hard not to punish people on the heels of a very horrible tragedy in their lives. The idea of making Abner’s situation worse by abandoning him was simply not an option.”

Genece said support from Collins and Arvada Center Executive Director Philip Sneed was steadfast and clear from the beginning. “What was unclear was whether I would be physically able to return by the time rehearsals for Sense and Sensibility began,” said Genece.

“The decision would be mine,” he added. “I would return only if I felt that I could perform at the level that I had set for myself.”

(Story continues below the video.)

Video: Abner Genece speaks at Miscast 2017:


But Genece, needless to say, was highly motivated to recover both fast and fully. That job for the Wyoming theatre in September was out of the question. Instead, the goal became walking into rehearsals for Sense and Sensibility not quite three months after the accident.

Back in July, the end of October seemed both just around the corner and a lifetime away. While Genece went to work on his recovery, an army of friends, relatives and strangers mobilized to help. The Denver Actors Fund provided Genece with more than $6,300 in medical relief as well as volunteers who provided meals, groceries, housekeeping and transportation.  

 “Simply put, I would not be here without the Denver Actors Fund,” Genece said. “During some of the toughest times, they helped provide food, shelter, financial aid, a caring ear and a diligent hand.”

Abner Genece Electric BabyBut during that time Genece, who is divorced, still had basic living expenses and obligations to meet. His supplemental streams of income were impacted directly. “My work as a teaching artist, a workshop facilitator and a Lyft driver stopped immediately,” he said. His family started an online fund that raised naother $23,000. Genece singled out local directors Betty Hart and Robert Michael Sanders for their help in the months after the accident, as well as Pastor Brad Richardson of Crossroads Church Northglenn and Genece’s brothers, Richard and Daryl. “I was both humbled and inspired,” he said.

Collins was hopeful Genece would be able to handle the demands of The Electric Baby from his character’s hospital bed. But this adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is a rollicking one, and very demanding on the actors. “It was scary for all of us in the rehearsal room because it is a very physical play, and on certain days we could really tell that Abner was hurting and pushing himself too hard, so we made him sit down and rest,” Collins said. “But he did not want any special treatment, so whatever pain he was dealing with, he was keeping very private.”

Genece describes the support he received from his fellow artists as both “thoughtful and proactive.” Arrangements were made for his dressing room to be located as close to the stage as possible. He was ordered not to do any heavy lifting. “Costume fittings were scheduled and executed with special care,” he said. “The stage managers were especially attentive to my need for frequent breaks as my spine, shoulder blades and ribs were all very much still healing. These and other considerations made it so much easier for me to focus on the task at hand.”

Another constant source of support was his son, Jayden. Professional theatre companies don’t typically allow the actors to bring their children to rehearsals because of the potential distraction. But for Genece, Jayden’s presence was another form of medicine.

“It definitely helped Abner to have Jayden literally in his corner,” Collins said. “He’s a good theatre kid and he was so quiet. But you could tell that just having Jayden there made Abner feel better. The love they share is really palpable, and I imagine this has only bonded them even more.”

Castmate Emma Messenger describes Genece as both a gentleman and a gentle man. “We are all very protective of him,” actor Kate Gleason added. But perhaps none more so than Regina Fernandez, who remembers working with Genece on a schools touring production for Kaiser Permanente — and in particular one early morning drive to Greeley two years ago. 

“We talked that day about how our ultimate goal was the same — to be hired into the Arvada Center’s Black Box Theatre Company,” Fernandez said. They achieved that goal together, but the triumph was nearly taken away from Genece as quickly as he got it. And that, Fernandez said, made seeing Genece walk onstage on opening night of Sense and Sensibility on Jan. 26 all the more of a miracle.

“But no more so than any other night,” Fernandez said, “because now I think that every night with Abner is a miracle.”

Genece says he has been blessed to work with many wonderful people over the years. “However, this repertory company holds a special place in my spirit,” he said, “particularly when one considers the mountain I had to climb, and am still climbing. In so many ways, great and small, these talented artists made me feel welcomed, like a valued member of the team. And perhaps most of all, like I was being encouraged to bring my personal truth and creativity to the fore. That has had everything to do with the quality of my recovery.”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Collins said she teared up when she saw Genece make his opening-night entrance. She said she saw an actor who was funny and adorable and, in her words, “a big ball of love” on the stage.

Abner Genece All My Sons“Abner is a lovely and humble man,” she said. “I was just so grateful for him — and for us —  that we were all able to make this happen. Abner has earned a karma point.”

Genece said Sense and Sensibility is such a physically robust production that on opening night, “I didn’t have much time to reflect during the show, thankfully,” he said. “But afterward, while celebrating with Jayden at the party, I was overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude and triumph.”

Gratitude for the opportunity to realize what Genece says every actor aspires to achieve: “Those brief onstage moments in the dark, when I can feel the audience gasp and my spirit expand,” he said. “When magic is possible — if only for an instant.”

Now that all three plays are open (and will run through the first week of May), Genece has had an opportunity to reflect on his journey from being left broken on a Wyoming highway to whole and performing on the Arvada Center stage.

“I’ve learned that we will be tested in our lives,” he said. “We will suffer. There will be pain. But it’s how we choose to deal with those events that ultimately determines the quality of our lives. It’s a long road. Trust that there are good people in the world; there are angels. And trust that you are enough.

“And in those dark moments: Double down on yourself.”

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. He is also the founder of the Denver Actors Fund.

Abner Gence: My Three Characters

  • “In Sense and Sensibility, I play Sir John Middleton, a male gossip, a female gossip, an old servant, a furniture mover and the doctor. In Kate Hamill’s adaptation, the physical and vocal demands are considerable. I particularly enjoy the opportunity to play characters at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.”
  • “In The Electric Baby, I play Ambimbola, an immigrant from Nigeria who works as a cab driver. One of my challenges in this production was to embrace the irony of playing a man who spends the bulk of the play suffering in a hospital bed.”
  • In All My Sons, I play Dr. Jim Bayliss, a loyal friend of the Keller family who goes to great lengths to tend to their well-being. Among the challenges in this play was exploring the natures of loyalty and loss, two themes that I am familiar with in my own life.”

Abner Genece: At a glance
Abner Genece is making is Arvada Center debut. Other local credits: Water By The Spoonful (Curious Theatre Company); The Arabian Nights (Aurora Fox Center); Off Broadway: Othello, Hamlet, Tartuffe and Waiting For Godot (Jean Cocteau Repertory); Regional: The Bluest Eye (Moxie Theatre), The Meeting (Stella Adler Theatre), For The Love of Freedom (Greenway Arts Alliance), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum); Film and Television: Unrest, A-List, Harry’s Law, Zeke and Luther and Law & Order

Arvada Center: Ticket information:

Black Box Theatre Company repertory season:

  • All My Sons, written by Arthur Miller and directed by Lynne Collins, runs through May 3
  • The Electric Baby, written by Stefanie Zadravec and directed By Rick Barbour, runs through May 4
  • Sense and Sensibility, adapted from the Jane Austen by Kate Hamill and directed by Lynne Collins, runs through May 6
  • 6901 Wadsworth Blvd.
  • 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org
  • The Arvada Center’s 2017-18 Back Box Theatre Company ensemble members are 

    Zachary Andrews, Jessica Austgen, Regina Fernandez, Abner Genece, Kate Gleason, Geoffrey Kent, Emma Messenger, Emelie O’Hara, Lance Rasmussen, Jessica Robblee and Greg Ungar

Abner Genece All My Sons. Matt Gale PhotographyThe cast of ‘All My Sons.’ Matt Gale Photography.

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