Curious' 'The Body of An American' a snapshot into Coleman's vision

A Body of an American Michael Ensminger Sean Scrutchins, left, as playwright Dan O’Brien, and Michael McNeill as war photographer Paul Watson in Curious Theatre’s ‘The Body of an American,’ playing through Dec. 9. Photo by Michael Ensminger.

DCPA Theatre Company’s new Artistic Director gave searing new war play its first life in Portland

Playwright Dan O’Brien and celebrated war photographer Paul Watson are in Denver this weekend talking about how their friendship became the basis for a play.

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

The list of rising and established American playwrights new DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Chris Coleman has nurtured over the years is long and eclectic, but one name jumped out at his introduction this week for its current proximity to Denver: Dan O’Brien.  

O’Brien (pictured at right) is the author of The Body of An American, a searing look at the psychological impact of post-traumatic stress currently being staged in its regional premiere by the Curious Theatre Company. And he is in town this weekend to talk about it.  

A Dan OBrien Playwright 160 fullFor 17 years, Coleman was the Artistic Director at Portland Center Stage, which is known for its incubation of new American plays. Among the many rising playwrights Coleman has nurtured along their paths are Matthew Lopez and Lauren Yee, whose latest plays Zoey’s Perfect Wedding and The Great Leap, respectively, will be on the DCPA Theatre Company’s stages this winter. Coleman’s roster also spans Jason Grote (DCPA’s 1001), Ntozake Shange, Luis Alfaro, Melanie Marnich, Constance Congdon, Dael Orlandersmith and many more.

But Coleman cites developing and premiering The Body of An American as among his favorite accomplishments. And after arriving in Denver this week, he was tickled to learn the play is getting its regional premiere less than a mile from his new place of work.

The Body of an American is a play that I love and I am very, very proud that we premiered,” Coleman said of the script, which won the PEN Center USA Award for Drama, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama and the Horton Foote Prize for New American Plays.

This true story tells how one stark photograph in 1993 reshaped the course of global events. It shows the body of Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland as he was dragged from the wreckage of a Blackhawk helicopter and through the streets of Mogadishu. The famous image won celebrated Canadian war photographer Paul Watson the Pulitzer Prize. But Watson was haunted, not only by that single shutter click, but from bearing witness to 30 years of devastating scenes around the world. And in Somalia, the ghosts of all those accumulated tragedies were bearing down on him.

“Just as he was taking that picture, Paul heard a voice say, ‘If you do this, I will own you forever,’ ” O’Brien said. “And he believes it was the voice of this dead soldier.”

O’Brien, who was struggling with personal ghosts of his own at the time, reached out to Watson after hearing his story on NPR. In the unlikely friendship they forged, the two men found a way to reckon with the traumas consuming their lives. And that is what O’Brien’s intimate play is really all about, he says: “True friendship.”

Coleman introduced the play at Portland Center Stage’s 2011 new-play festival and gave it a full production the next year as part of the company’s 25th anniversary season. It was soon snatched up by the Gate Theatre in London, Hartford Stage and Primary Stages in New York City.

“That play has been successful all across the country now, but I will tell you, we had a hell of a time finding an audience for it at first,” Coleman said. “It’s brilliant writing, but it is tough subject matter, especially when you describe the premise to someone.”

Coleman said one of his hardest jobs in developing topical, resonant and relevant stories is also navigating the audience’s capacity to absorb it. “It’s a fine line,” Coleman said, “especially in the moment we are living in politically today.”

In her review of Curious Theatre’s new production, Denver Post Theatre Critic Joanne Ostrow said current events make this the perfect time to be staging The Body of an American, which she says is being given a “muscular and thoroughly haunting” staging by director Chip Walton and actors Sean Scrutchins and Michael McNeill. It continues through Dec. 9.

The Body of an American: Weekend events with Dan O’Brien and Paul Watson

  • Performances at 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, at Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma St.
  • Playwright Dan O’Brien and photographer Paul Watson will participate in the audience talkback following tonight’s (Nov. 17) performance.
  • Inside the Artists’ Mind: Director Chip Walton will interview O’Brien and Watson at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 18) at Venue 221, 221 Detroit St., in Cherry Creek. Tickets $25. Click here.
  • Note: The Body of an American continues in performance through Dec. 9. Call 303-623-0524 or go to

 A Body of an American Chris Coleman 800 John Moore


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