Jameka Lewis seated at a table flips through a large archive book at the Blair Caldwell African American Research Library

Building Community Around The Color Purple

When you endeavor to build community, it’s important to enlist the support of people who are at its heart. People like Jameka B. Lewis, Senior Librarian at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library.

In building community and welcoming individuals to experience the DCPA Theatre Company’s production of The Color Purple, the organization’s Education and Community Engagement department turned to Lewis.

Jameka Lewis seated at a table flips through a large archive book at the Blair Caldwell African American Research Library

Jameka Lewis. Photo by Kevin J. Beaty, Denverite

“I am the Senior Librarian at Blair-Caldwell,” Lewis explained. “My duties are the general management of our branch, leading the mission, vision and direction of Blair-Caldwell and making sure that we are representing the values of the Denver Public Library system. I am in charge of staffing, cultivating community partnerships, participating in outreach and being a spokesperson for our library.”

For those who have not visited the Blair-Caldwell Library, Lewis describes it as a “wholistic picture of life for African Americans in the Rocky Mountain West.” Located in Denver’s historically Black Five Points neighborhood, the library opened in 2003, thanks to the leadership of then Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and his wife, Wilma. Noting the rich history of African Americans in Colorado and realizing that much of that history was in private hands…or simply stored in memories…the Webbs led the charge to preserve the history for future generations.

Named after Omar Blair, the first black president of the Denver school board, and Elvin Caldwell, the first black City Council member, the Blair-Caldwell has become a treasured asset to Five Points and the City of Denver.

A treasure due for a little TLC.

The Blair Caldwell African American Research Library

The Blair Caldwell African American Research Library

In 2017, Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock successfully passed the Elevate Denver Bond Fund, which designated $69.3 million to renovate Denver Central Library and 10 branch libraries, among them the Blair-Caldwell Library. The project budget was $2.8 million and work began in May 2022, which necessitated closing the library.

“The vast majority of the renovation focuses on the activation and refreshment of the areas on the first floor,” Lewis explained. “Visitors will see new restrooms, improvements in our community rooms, new furniture throughout the spaces, new spaces (including a Teen Space and a larger study room that will accommodate 8-10 people) and new ways of displaying 3D objects related to Black History and culture.”

The library is expected to reopen to the community this summer. But being closed for nearly 12 months doesn’t mean that Lewis has been idle.

Instead, she directed her considerable energy to overseeing the project…and being a partner to the DCPA.

The Buell Theatre seats filled with students, administrators, and teachers for the To Kill a Mockingbird student matinee performance

To Kill a Mockingbird Student Matinee Performance. Photo by Kyle Malone

“I have the pleasure of working for DCPA as a Teaching Artist!” she enthused. “I worked with Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski on developing the curriculum that we will use to introduce students to various themes of the show in classrooms throughout the Denver area. I am also providing the post-show talkbacks with several of the amazing Color Purple cast. In addition, I will be speaking at the student matinees where I’ll give insight into themes in the show and take questions from the student audience! I am also speaking to a special audience before one of the matinees to discuss some of the more sensitive themes of the show (the Black experience in rural Georgia, etc.) Lastly, I’m excited to involve several of my Denver Public Library colleagues in creating stories that will be featured in the lobby of the theater that explore different aspects of Black self-discovery and ingenuity.”

While not broadly available at this time, Lewis and the DCPA’s Education & Community Engagement team will repurpose the curriculum intended for school groups to offer an insightful workshop to a select audience. Members of the City of Englewood Police Department will join Lewis and other facilitators on May 7 in a pre-show conversation about the topics within The Color Purple, which will introduce different themes of the show and explore how those themes still resonate. According to Officer Dave Lewis who chairs Englewood’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, “It is important to the DEI Committee that, as a city, we continue our educational opportunities to better our future.” If the pre-show audience workshop is well received, the DCPA will consider expanding it for future performances.

UC Denver Students and the cast of The Chinese Lady pose for a photo together onstage

UC Denver students attended a talkback for The Chinese Lady at the DCPA. Photo by Miguel Morris

While these workshops are being piloted to a test audience, other aspects of the partnership are available for all ticketed patrons, most notably the lobby display and post-show “Talkback” discussions, which are scheduled for: April 11, 13, 20 and 27.

“The lobby curation will feature four dramaturgical panels highlighting the author and a variety of themes from the musical,” said Jesús Quintana Martínez, Director of Community Engagement at the DCPA. “Theatre lobbies set the tone for the evening…They are the social center of the theatre-going experience, where community members reunite with old friends or make new ones, providing an opportunity to connect with one another. Lobby curation provides an introduction, extension or an enhanced audience experience to what is to be found inside the theatre…. [It] gives our community a space of learning, reflection, and debriefing – pre- and post-show as well as on the way home and beyond!”

Cleo Parker Robinson

The display was created using research from the Blair-Caldwell collection, which also honors the contributions of African American women who have made a lasting mark on Colorado.

“A few of the influential African American women that visitors will learn about at Blair-Caldwell are the Honorable Wilma Webb (who our research room is now named after), Cleo Parker Robinson, Madam C.J. Walker, Dr. Justina Ford, the four historically African American sororities, Arie P. Taylor, Marie Greenwood and Rachel Noel,” Lewis said.

Showcasing the contributions of African Americans in our community is extremely important to Lewis.

“I am really looking forward to the lobby activation with my [Denver Public Library] colleagues. DPL is full of Black brilliance and I am excited to show audiences what Black talent can come up with when we are given outlets to display our genius, talents, gifts and expertise. We are truly experts in Black culture and this is a wonderful opportunity for us to show what we know!”

The lobby display and post- show Talkback discussions will be available to audiences during the run of The Color Purple (March 31 – May 7, 2023 in the Wolf Theatre). The Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library will reopen this summer at 2401 Welton Street. All are invited.

The Color Purple
March 31 – May 7, 2023 • Wolf Theatre