• Fri. Oct 22nd, 2021

With “Sojourners Project,” a new theatrical journey begins in Colorado

Sep 20, 2021

Alicia Young had a dream. (Actually, she had a few.) The actor-activist-director-theater maven was sitting at a cafe in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood recently talking about the inspiration for “Sojourners Project,” a planned series of community-engaged pieces co-produced by IDEA Stages and veteran performance outfit Control Group Productions.

Over the weekend, the idea met reality when the series’ first installment, “Sojourners Project: Busing,” opened to a sold-out house. (OK, a sold-out parking lot; it runs through Sept. 26.)

“I just had this picture in my mind,” Young said, a fine huskiness to her voice. “I’m a dreamer. That’s how ideas come to me. I was on my back patio and thought, ‘What would it look like if there was an all-black team that came together to tell the story of Rachel B. Noel — and we put a soundscape behind it?’ ”

Noel, a vital figure in Denver’s civil rights history, was the state’s first Black female elected official when she began serving on Denver’s school board in 1965. In 1968, she introduced a plan to desegregate the Denver Public Schools, which came to be known as the Noel Resolution. And what Young’s dream looked like was a gathering of local theater creatives, many of whom know their way around a stage and have each worked to present works that tell under-told stories to underserved audiences.

At the time, co-writer Norma Johnson had been working with the Curious Theatre Company and director Jada Suzanne Dixon on “Inheritance,” her play about the Ku Klux Klan in the Denver area and two white women who find themselves at a crucible. Its tour to area schools was cut short when COVID-19 hit.

If you go

“Sojourners Project: Busing,” through Sept. 26. At Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, 1500 S. Dayton St., Aurora. For general admission and VIP tickets, go to sojourners.live.

Young also reached out to Adrienne Martin-Fullwood, an actor and one of the forces behind the Aurora theater collective 5280 Artists Co-op. Martin-Fullwood’s daughter, Aubree Fullwood, came on as choreographer.

Young found a DJ in Bella Scratch of 104.7-The Drop. Sound designer CeCe Smith, who’s done work with Local Theater Company, the Aurora Fox, and the Athena Project, signed on as well.

Young smiled about her good fortune. “Everybody kept saying ‘yes.’ ”

Another significant “yes” came from Control Group artistic director Patrick Mueller. He was beside Young during our first meeting, offering a few thoughts but mostly letting Young stake out the terrain. In addition to creating compelling out-of-the-black-box works like the summer’s-nature-walk-as-history-piece “After the Flood,” Mueller and his dance-performance outfit have committed resources (technical, material, financial) to aid in the production of works by Black and brown artists.

The day I was talking to the group at the Whittier café, Mueller left early to pick up and drive the show’s biggest prop to its first location. You’ll see that central character — a full-sized yellow school bus named Chompo — when you drive to the rear parking lot of Aurora’s Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church.

A stage abuts one side of the bus. That is where dancers, wise-acre puppets and three generations of a family will tell a story that is only in part about the attempts to desegregate Denver.

Asked about the location, Young smiled. “It’s my parents’ church, so we’re going to start there because it’s free,” she said, laughing.

A number of local theater companies have begun figuring out in earnest how to take stories to people who don’t necessarily show up at opening nights for plays. Some of this ruminating was prodded by the pandemic, to be sure. Meeting audiences where they live is not a new strategy —  think Joe Papp’s early Shakespeare in the Park performances — but leaning into underserved communities is primed for a reimagining.

COVID-19 also nudged theater-makers to consider the various ways that virtual space could be leveraged. Young, puppeteer Melanie Bindon and the “Sojourners” team have created additional content that can be found at sojourners.live. “Even if you don’t come to the show, there’s something interactive,” said Young. It’s also often revelatory.

“With ‘After the Flood,’ we really struggled with what’s our responsibility to make sure that the audience is on the same page with us about what happened, to make sure that they have the nuts and bolts,” said Mueller. “I didn’t know Rachel B. Noel’s name. I definitely didn’t know there was a bombing at the bus depot in 1970. Very fundamental bullet points of this story don’t exist for most of us in our public education.”

“Busing” is IDEA Stages’ first live production. The brainchild of Young and local theater notables GerRee Hinshaw, Ilasiea Gray, Marisa D. Herbert, Regan Linton, Caitlin Lowans and Mare Trevathan, the grassroots organization was created in response to 2020’s social justice protests to build a more inclusive and accessible theater culture in Colorado. The way this show has been shaped is representative of IDEA’s “five pillars”: inclusion, diversity, equity, access and stage.

A visit to the set at Rising Star during tech week underscored how collaborative the process has been. Even more, how grateful the creatives have been for the opportunity to work with each other on a project. A group of them were gathered in a church conference room. Among them was Iliana Lucero Barron, who came on the production late as director.

That’s because in August, Young had an accident that left her with a serious concussion and unable to physically helm the show she worked tirelessly to bring to fruition. Once again, her calls were met with “yesses.” Choreographer Aubree Martin-Fullwood donned a new hat as a co-director. Adrienne Martin-Fullwood helped Johnson hone the script. Young’s most critical call, perhaps, was to Barron.

“I was more than happy to come on board,” Barron said of stepping in as director. “I am one of the only people here in the cast who is not black. I’m LatinX. This experience has been very humbling and healing. Women of color like us, women who look like us, are not in spaces where we feel 100 percent safe and are able to be vulnerable.”

While the civil rights champion Noel was an inspiration — and her adult children helped guide some of the research — “Busing” isn’t a documentary work. Instead, the writers interviewed residents about their experiences with busing and, using a mix of movement, folklore gestures and music, deliver an at-times magical realist story about bodies in motion fit for families.

“The great thing about ‘Sojourners Project’ is it doesn’t just have to be about this bus and busing,” said Young. “It can be about this queer kid whose parents put him out and he’s sojourning through this world and sleeping on couches. It could be about the Great Migration. It could be about immigrants whose families have been migrant workers for millennia.”

The bus is the company’s, to travel to schools and perform in other places. It has symbolic weight and pragmatic possibilities. “I’m interested in developing more and more because it can be edutainment,” said Young. “But we’re also talking about what gifts do we give to the community? This is more than just ‘Let’s put on a show and make some money.’ How do we affect the communities we live in and the stories we were told?”

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