The Black Artists Guild called their high-octane improv comedy “Show Ya Teef!” because, after all, what do you show the world when you smile? Your teeth.
And yet, from the start – they had some bite.
It can’t be overstated what a vital and singular role the Black Actors Guild has played in the local arts ecology and in the daily lives of young people since 2009. There was nothing remotely like them: A scrappy, entrepreneurial cohort of young artists, educators and agitators who built a big tent of racially diverse actors, comedians, dancers, musicians and poets who consistently produced provocative, topical theater pieces and brought dynamic, arts-integrated programs both into local schools and into the streets.
But now, when the need has never been greater for there to be young, male artistic role models out there preserving and celebrating Black culture …. there isn’t even them.
The death certificate will list several causes of death but, in the end, “It was COVID that did it,” co-founder and CEO Ryan Foo said.
Before the pandemic, the Black Actors Guild was supporting four full-time salaries among a staff of 12. In its final year, the company was on pace to generate about $700,000 in revenue, said Foo.
More important: “We have seen thousands of students we have impacted grow up to become really brilliant humans,” he said. They launched many rising names in the local indie-arts scene, including alt-singer Kayla Marque, Afrofuturist supergroup The Grand Alliance and musician Kid Astronaut. “I would not be where I am today if not for the Black Actors Guild,” said dancer and actor Barton Cowperthwaite, a high-school classmate and star of Netflix’s “Tiny Pretty Things.”
Most important: “We have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pockets of local artists, actors and musicians,” Foo said. “We got people paid, and I am really proud of that.”
But Foo, at the tender age of 30, is tired. He’s tired of the pandemic, which instantly wiped out $20,000 in contract work with the Denver and Aurora public-school districts. Tired of the unique struggle it takes to make both art and a decent living as a young man of color. And he’s tired of the death that has relentlessly stalked his young company like a shadow.
“It’s just time,” said Foo, a married father with a second child on the way. Time to not struggle so much. Time to produce events that people actually want to attend – which isn’t traditional live theater. Time to say goodbye to this beautiful collective Black unicorn working in a Denver arts scene that is overwhelmingly White, carrying on the legacy of long-gone, iconic organizations that came (and went) before them: The Eulipions, Shadow and Denver Black Arts Company.
“Every arts community can benefit from having its big, shiny cathedrals of art,” said playwright Idris Goodwin, who has had two plays produced by the Black Actors Guild. “But equally important is its nimble, passionate and value-driven specialists who answer to no other authority than their own sense of urgency and a full-throated desire for change.”
The company began when four Black kids in the hall at Denver School of the Arts created a play for Black History Month imagining a young Barack Obama. Foo, Corin Chavez, Quinn Marchman and Nick Thorne came to see the Black Actors Guild as a proactive answer to the scarcity of positive roles for Black actors in local theater. “We were young and dumb enough to know that we couldn’t do it –so we did it,” said Marchman, whose high-school theater teacher isn’t buying it.
“They had a vision, desire and focus, and they would let no one tell them no,” said DSA’s Shawn Hann. “They saw a place in Denver for the Black Actors Guild to thrive, and they dedicated their lives to the work.”
And they did it without ever receiving a penny of public funding. The founders went the for-profit route, even though that made them ineligible for a piece of the SCFD arts-tax pie or federal pandemic relief. That decision, Foo said, was informed by a deeply ingrained mistrust for the nonprofit model, which, he said, “doesn’t have a good track record with institutions of color that run theaters. As you get more people with money involved in your boards of directors, they tend to edge 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 having to prove the company’s value to funders and other granting organizations. “Being young and arrogant and very collective-based,” he said, “we just always wanted to live and die by our own abilities.” And they learned early on, he added, “that the nonprofit world is just as corporatized as the for-profit world … so why don’t we just support all artists?”
There are ways of making fun, entrepreneurial arts financially viable, and Foo is doing just that by producing what he calls “gamified immersive entertainment experiences,” including a popular fantasy video drinking game called “Beer Quest” and his upcoming annual interactive mystery game called “IllFooMinati” (June 10-12).
But when it comes to producing traditional art forms like live theater, he said, “I am here to tell you that it is unsustainable. There just isn’t enough funding out there.”
The ironic Catch-22: “If people want there to be an organization like the Black Actors Guild staging traditional theater stories, “then you’d have to be willing to support tickets that cost $75. And if we did that, we’d be outpricing the same people whose stories we are telling. So if we want to support arts innovators, then there has to be public funding available that supports people of color being (for-profit) entrepreneurs.”
The BAG has had seven “forever homes” in its 13 years – as if such a thing existed. But its biggest existential challenge has been overcoming the numbing regularity of unconscionable loss. Two of the four founders died before the age of 25. Chavez, the company’s Artistic Director and a master improviser, died suddenly in 2015; Thorne in 2017 from a severe asthma attack.
Andrew Boeglin (aka poet William Seward Bonnie), who helped build sets and was the stage manager on several stage productions, died of a seizure in 2019. There was one suicide, and at least one other attempt. Danny Ramos, who credits his work as a lead comedy writer with the Black Actors Guild for getting him started in Denver’s DIY comedy scene, was critically injured last May – and his fiancé was killed – when a pickup truck ran into them as they crossed a street in San Francisco.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say wanting to leave some of that tragedy behind is part of this decision,” Foo said.
But while most of that loss has been freakishly unexpected, Marchman has seen first-hand that having the courage to forever dance on the high wire that is an artistic life along with the ever-present demons of economic insecurity and self-doubt, combines to make artists uniquely vulnerable souls.
“It is extremely stressful and exposing to be an artist, and there is no safety net for us,” Marchman said. “We live and die by what we are able to accomplish, and there is a soul-crushing insecurity that comes with that. I think that, to a certain extent, we don’t expect to live long, and that can lead to abuse and destructive behaviors.”
No one can blame the two surviving founders of the company for moving on from a dream that began back when they were juniors in high school and have brought to brilliant fruition. The Black Actors Guild was among the first to step up in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd by staging Goodwin’s “Hype Man,” a play that dives head-first into issues of sexism, racism and social justice through the multicolored lens of a white rapper, a Black DJ and a mixed-race, female beatmaker.
While most theaters were locked down, Mykail Cooley, Bianca Mikahn and Baris Loberg were performing live into a streaming camera at the People’s Building in Aurora.
“They navigated the challenges of the pandemic and presented a piece that spoke directly to the climate at a time when other theaters across the world were paralyzed,” said Goodwin, who, until his resignation Friday, was the Executive Director of the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.
Marchman is awfully young to be talking about legacy, but he hopes that when people look back at the Black Actors Guild, they capture in three words what the experience most meant to him: Dopeness. Joy. Pride.
“The Denver arts scene that we grew in and helped to grow was like a garden,” he said. “Everyone was unique and different, but we were able to share the same sunlight, the same soil and the same nutrients. And, as messy as it got, some sweet-ass fruit grew from it.”
The Black Actors Guild, Goodwin said, will most definitely be missed. “But I also know their example will spark and inspire others to fill the void,” he said.
Question is … will there be a funding model to support them?