Video by David Lenk and John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.
Cast of Oklahoma! discovers a past few of them ever knew existed at Denver’s Black American West Museum
“I didn’t even know there were all-black towns,” said actor Sheila Jones, who will play Ellen in the upcoming musical that Director Chris Coleman is setting in a historically correct African-American town in the Oklahoma territory. In 1906, the year the musical is set, there were 50 such towns in Oklahoma and 137,000 African-Americans living there.
“These things weren’t taught to us in school,” Jones said.
From 1862 to 1976, various homestead acts gave ownership of federal lands to private citizens who committed to farming it. In all, more than 270 million acres of public land, or nearly 10 percent of the country, was given away free to 1.6 million homesteaders. And some of it went to African-Americans who formed all-black communities.
“What an incredible opportunity for folks who were trying to find their place in the world, and a piece of land to call their own,” Coleman said.
On their tour of the Black American West Museum, cast members were shown a documentary made by the intentionally lower-cased local filmmaker donnie l. betts about Dearfield, a black-majority settlement formed out of nothing on harsh and unforgiving land 75 miles northwest of Denver. The town was started in 1910 by Oliver Toussaint Jackson, a successful Boulder businessman who then advertised for “colonists.” The population of Dearfield peaked at about 700 before the Great Depression, and was abandoned by 1942.
“These people were seeking home and settlement and pride,” said Jones. “A place to be. A place to be proud of.
“There is a famous line on our play: ‘We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand.’ And that line takes on a whole different light when you talk about them actually purchasing land. The land they received was hard soil at first, and so to cultivate it and make it their own with their own bare hands, I feel, is all the more poignant.”
Broadway actor Sheryl McCallum, a Denver native who attended South High School and plays Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!, was never taught in school about Dearfield or the black cowboys who are prominently featured at the Denver museum. “I think it’s important for the cast of Oklahoma! to come here and actually see where you fit — and see your real people,” she said.
Coleman found the museum visit to be a way of stepping more deeply into the history his team is exploring in their new take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical.
“One of the reasons I was interested in coming here to the museum is that, while our story is set in Oklahoma, there is a resonance with the history here in Denver as well,” Coleman said. “I’m struck by how the story of this small town of Dearfield captures not only the spirit of Oklahoma, but the spirit of Colorado and the adventurous heart of the West.”
The Black American West Museum is located in the former home of Justina Ford, Denver’s first licensed female African-American doctor. She practiced gynecology, obstetrics, and pediatrics from her home for half a century.
“We’re standing in the home of a woman who delivered 7,000 babies,” Coleman said. “How extraordinary, that legacy.”
Ford was granted her medical license in 1902, when she was 32, but African-Americans were then barred from working in hospitals, and she was not admitted into the Colorado Medical Association until 1950 — four years before her death. Ford spoke 11 languages and served patients from 37 nations throughout her life. Her home, originally located at 2335 Arapahoe St., was saved in 1984 by legendary Denver city councilman Hiawatha Davis. It was moved to its present location at 3091 California St. in 1988 and reopened as the new home of the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center, which had been founded by Paul Stewart in 1971.
The cast’s personal docent for their museum visit was Terri Gentry, who shared a piece of trivia related to the popular current film release BlacKKKlansman by Spike Lee. While that film tells the story of how African-American cop named Ron Stallworth infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs, Gentry told cast members the story of Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook, a light-skinned African-American civil-rights leader in Denver who was able to pass undetected at Klan meetings back in their heyday of the 1920s. Westbrook would relay KKK plots back to Denver’s black residents, stopping them before they happened. Gentry knows the story well, as Westbrook was her grandmother’s godfather.
Jones said the museum visit will steel the resolve of the cast and inevitably will make their performances both deeper and richer.
But while Oklahoma! has some dark themes, Coleman said, “there is an irrepressible spirit about the musical, and you can’t kill that if you tried. But I do think there are going to be shadows underneath the sunlight. It’s the notion of what this dream meant and still means today: You feel it.”
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.
Oklahoma! Ticket information
- Written by: Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics). Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Original Dances by Agnes de Mille
- Dates: Sept. 7-Oct. 14 (Opens Sept. 14)
- Where: Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
- Information: Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
- Groups: Call 800-641-1222
More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter