The Black Artists Guild has named their high-octane impromptu comedy “Show Ya Teef!” after all, what do you show the world when you smile? your teeth.
And yet, from the very beginning, they had some kind of bite.
The vital and exceptional role that the Black Actors Guild has played in the ecology of local art and in the daily lives of young people since 2009 cannot be overstated. educators and agitators who built a large marquee of actors, comedians, dancers, musicians, and poets of various races who consistently put on provocative, topical theatrical productions and brought dynamic, arts-integrated programs both to local schools and to the streets.
But now, when there is more than ever a need for young men who are role models in the arts, who preserve and celebrate black culture … even they are not.
The death certificate will list multiple causes of death, but in the end, “COVID did it,” said co-founder and CEO Ryan Fu.
Prior to the pandemic, the Black Actors Guild maintained four full-time salaries among 12 employees. In the final year, the company should have generated about $700,000 in revenue, Fu said.
More importantly, “We’ve seen thousands of students we’ve influenced grow into really brilliant people,” he said. They have launched many rising names in the local indie art scene, including alternative singer Kyle Marquet, Afrofuturist supergroup The Grand Alliance, and musician Kid Astronaut. “I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for the Black Actors Guild,” said dancer and actor Barton Cowperthwaite, a classmate and star of the Netflix series Little Lovely.
Most importantly, “We have put millions of thousands of dollars into the pockets of local artists, actors and musicians,” Fu said. “We get paid and I’m really proud of it.”
But Fu, at the tender age of 30, was tired. He’s tired of the pandemic, which has wiped out $20,000 in contract work for the Denver and Aurora public school districts in an instant. Tired of the unique struggle it takes for a young person of color to make art and live with dignity. And he was tired of death, which relentlessly pursued his young company like a shadow.
“It’s just time,” said Fu, a married father with a second child on the way. It’s time not to fight so hard. Time to host events that people really want to attend, not traditional live theater. It’s time to say goodbye to this beautiful collective Black Unicorn operating in the white-dominated Denver arts scene, continuing the legacy of long gone cult organizations that came (and gone) before them: the Eulipions, Shadow and Denver Black Arts Company. .
“Every artistic community can benefit from having their big, shiny cathedrals of art,” said playwright Idris Goodwin, who has had two plays produced by the Black Actors Guild. “But equally important are its nimble, passionate and value-driven professionals who obey no authority other than their own sense of urgency and unbridled desire for change.”
The campaign began when four black children in the lobby of the Denver School of the Arts put on a play for Black History Month imagining a young Barack Obama. Fu, Corine Chavez, Quinn Marchman and Nick Thorne came to see the Black Actors Guild as an active response to the lack of positive roles for black actors in the local theater. “We were young and dumb enough to realize we couldn’t do it — so we did it,” said Marchman, whose high school theater teacher doesn’t believe it.
“They had a vision, a desire and a purpose, and they didn’t let anyone tell them no,” said DSA’s Sean Hann. “They saw Denver as a place for the Black Actors Guild to thrive and dedicated their lives to the work.”
And they did it without getting a single penny of government funding. The founders went down the path of making a profit, even though it robbed them of their right to receive a piece of the SCFD pie from the arts tax or federal pandemic aid. The decision, Fu said, was dictated by a deep-seated distrust of the non-profit model, which he says “doesn’t have a good reputation with theater-run institutions of color. As you get more people with money on your boards, they tend to crowd out the black and brown visionaries who started your company, and you start to die.”
Marchman didn’t want to play the game of constantly proving the company’s value to sponsors and other grantmakers. “Being young and arrogant and very collective,” he said, “we just always wanted to live and die by our own abilities.” And they realized early on, he added, “that the non-commercial world is just as corporatized as the commercial world… so why don’t we just support all the artists?”
There are ways to have fun making entrepreneurial art financially viable, and Fu is doing just that, creating what he calls “gamified immersive entertainment,” including a popular fantasy drinking video game called “Beer Quest” and his upcoming annual interactive mystery game called ” IllFooMinati” (June 10-12).
But when it comes to creating traditional art forms like live theatre, he said, “I’m here to tell you it’s unsustainable. There just isn’t enough funding.”
Ironic Catch-22: “If people want an organization like the Black Actors Guild that puts on traditional theatrical stories, “then you would have to be willing to support $75 tickets. And if we did, we would surpass the same people whose stories we tell. So if we want to support arts innovators, there must be public funding available that supports people of color who are (commercial) entrepreneurs.”
BAG has had seven “eternal houses” in 13 years – as if such a thing even existed. But his biggest existential problem was getting over the staggering regularity of shameless losses. Two of the four founders died before the age of 25. Chavez, the company’s artistic director and master improviser, died suddenly in 2015; Thorne in 2017 from a severe asthma attack.
Andrew Boglin (aka poet William Seward Bonney), who helped build the sets and directed several productions, died of a seizure in 2019. There was one suicide and at least one more attempt. Danny Ramos, who credits his work as lead comedy writer at the Black Actors Guild with getting him started in Denver’s do-it-yourself comedy scene, was critically injured last May and his fiancée was killed when a pickup truck crashed into them. when they crossed the road. street in San Francisco.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say that the desire to leave a part of this tragedy is part of this decision,” Fu said.
But while much of this loss was bizarrely unexpected, Marchman saw firsthand that the courage to dance forever on the wire, that is, the artistic life, together with the ever-present demons of economic insecurity and self-doubt, combine to make artists uniquely vulnerable souls.
“Being an artist is extremely stressful and dangerous, and there is no insurance for us,” Marchman said. “We live and die by what we can do, and with that comes heartbreaking insecurities. I think to a certain extent we don’t expect to live long and that can lead to abuse and destructive behavior.”
No one can blame the two surviving founders of the company for walking away from a dream that began in junior high school and became a reality. The Black Actors Guild was one of the first to speak out in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd with Goodwin’s Hype Man, which dives headlong into issues of sexism, racism and social justice through a multicolored lens of a white rapper, black DJ and mixed-race beatmaker .
While most theaters were closed, Mikail Kuli, Bianca Mikan and Baris Loberg performed live in front of a streaming camera at the People’s House in Aurora.
“They handled the challenges of the pandemic and presented a play that spoke directly to the climate at a time when other theaters around the world were paralyzed,” said Goodwin, who served as executive director of the Fine Arts Center until his resignation on Friday. at Colorado College.
Marchman is too young to talk about legacy, but he hopes that when people look back at the Black Actors Guild, they capture what the experience meant most to him in three words: woozy. Joy. Pride.
“The Denver art scene that we grew up in and helped grow into was like a garden,” he said. All people were unique and different, but we had the same sunlight, the same soil, and the same nutrients. And, no matter how dirty it was, some sweet fruit grew out of it.
According to Goodwin, the Black Actors Guild will definitely be missed. “But I also know that their example will light the fire and inspire others to fill the void,” he said.
The question is… will there be a funding model to support them?