Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company is presenting the regional premiere of Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph with the tagline: ‘Brotherhood, brutality, beauty, and blood. Lots and lots of blood.”.That is certainly an apt description. Charles Isherwood titled his New York Times review of the 2015 Atlantic Theater Company production ‘Guards at the Taj,’ Two Ordinary Guys Ordered to Do the Unthinkable. BETC tells the story as well as any New York production might. The audience at the Dairy Center sold out opening kept the lobby buzzing discussing what they had just witnessed during the post show reception.
I followed up with the director Stephen Weitz via email.
EL: How did you become familiar with Guards at the Taj and what made it the right fit for this BETC season?
SW: Rajiv is a writer I’ve long admired so I was immediately interested when a colleague forwarded me a copy of the script. We found the script to be everything we look for in a story: profound, funny, strong characterizations, and very timely as well. A lot of our content this season has to do with difficult conversations and bridging (or not bridging) schisms between loved ones. With the many difficult conversations happening in our country at the moment, this seemed like a natural fit in that landscape.
EL: This show may be unfamiliar to many, how do you describe it?
SW: It’s a bit difficult to encapsulate the plot without giving away some pretty important spoilers. But at it’s core, it’s about a deep friendship between two men and how that friendship is tested and ultimately splintered by being caught up in a truly horrible series of events. It’s challenging and thought provoking (and more than a little gory in places), but it’s also beautiful and sweet and funny. So I guess I would say, it’s a lot like life.
Sam Gilstrap and Jihad Milhem star in BETC's production of Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph (photography: Michael Ensminger)
EL: What is the importance of presenting a Regional Premiere for a company like BETC?
SW: We’ve now presented so many (30+), that producing Regional Premieres is just part of our identity. But it does demonstrate our commitment to scouring the country to find the best new plays and presenting work that our audiences can’t see anywhere else in the area. It also allows us to give voice to contemporary playwrights who we feel are on the cutting edge and saying important things with their work.
Jihad Milhem and Sam Gilstrap star in BETC's production of Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph (photography: Michael Ensminger)
EL: Every production has unique challenges and discoveries during rehearsals, what stands out for this production of Guards at the Taj?
SW: This play has some really unique technical challenges. Without giving away anything, I’ll just say that it has definitely tested our abilities onstage and backstage. But that’s part of continuing to grow and mature as an organization. You always have to stretch yourself to keep moving forward.
Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company presentsGuards at the Taj
Director: Stephen Weitz
Stage Manager: Rick Mireles
Assistant Director: Jenna Moll Reyes
Set Designer: Ron Mueller
Costume Designer: Katie Horney
Lighting Designer: Jacob M. Welch
Sound Designer: Daniel Horney
Fight Director: Benaiah Anderson Crafts Artisan: Anneke Ciup
As artists continue to take charge of their work so they can create authentic representations of their own experiences many find ways to produce their work outside of large arts and culture organizations. Jeff Campbell built an audience in 2013 with a powerful and provocative piece called “Who Killed Jigaboo Jones?” doing just that. He has returned to Denver and to it’s theater community with a new work and a new theater company.
Set in the dynamic landscape of present-day Denver, Honorable Disorder is a story of reconciliation, growth, and recognition for a young black veteran.
For your first piece since returning to Denver you founded a new theater company (Emancipation Theater Company) and serve as Producer/Writer/Actor/Director for the premiere production “Honorable Disorder”; How did the company come together? How was if formed?
The concept of Emancipation Theater Company is inspired by the Marcus Garvey quote: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.” Also inspired by the 1958 Academy Award Winning film “The Defiant Ones” starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. The film is about two escaped prisoners, who are chained together, one Black, and the other White, who must cooperate in order to survive. The ETC logo depicts two abstract characters, not specifically representing races, but rather the dynamic opposites of the human spectrum, bound together by their humanity, who must work together to overcome the matrix of forces that inhibit their experience as human beings. When I came home from Georgia, after being gone a year, I knew I wanted to form a company that represented freedom, justice and equality, and approach theater in for profit business model, like a film company, and donate to it’s non profit community partner organizations. I raised the money on my own, working my construction job. It’s a single member LLC, and I function just like a general contractor who hires tradesmen to create a finished product.
In “Honorable Disorder” you show us the world some Vets experience, and take us through the story of a neighborhood changing without appreciation of the existing community. The character Nancy says she doesn’t understand why people move to a neighborhood but don’t participate in the community. “Most of these folks move to this neighborhood, don’t ever become a part of the community once they here. Are they afraid of their neighbors or something?” How did these stories come together for you?
Veterans are disproportionately represented at the bottom of the socioeconomic landscape and in a rising housing market, they are disproportionately affected. I learned about the difficulties veterans face accessing their benefits while working for the veterans resource center in Georgia. I’ve been watching Five Points change over the last 15 years, but when I left in 2016, and returned in 2017, the change felt even more drastic. I chose to talk about those things simultaneously because they are so connected.
The intersection of arts and political activism has a long tradition. What do you think the role of the artist is in this community today?
Not only social commentary and “telling it like it is” but utilizing your power as a catalyst to gather the community in a way that folks on the frontlines of social justice can be highlighted and supported through your art monetarily. You cannot simply call yourself an activist because you “tell it like it is” in your art. Raise the awareness in the community of the people doing the work in the movement, and back them with dollars. Collaborate with organizations and individuals who are working towards social change.
How will you measure the success of this first production for Emancipation Theater Company?
If the community is inspired to continue the dialogue and take action.
Although there are 6 characters in the play from an archetypical point of view, there are really only 3. The Mother and the Sergeant are the same, they represent the embattled sages of wisdom. The veteran and the social worker are the same, both have the savior complex. The uncle and platoon buddy are both cynical co-dependent anti heroes. I approached the writing in that way in order to draw parallels in their lives and allow their commonality to be organically expressed through their point of view. Often we get so wrapped up in issues, and identities, that we forget that people are the same, no matter who they are. The antagonist isn’t a person, it’s our lack of understanding, compassion, and empathy for one another.
This weekend Miners Alley Playhouse opened a new production directed by Josh Hartwell. Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps starring Casey Andree (Richard Hannay), Alaina Beth Reel (Annabella Schmidt/Margaret/Pamela), John Wittbrodt (Clown One) and Sean Michael Cummings (Clown Two) is filled with energy and charm.
Photo Credit: Sarah Roshan
Mix a Hitchcock masterpiece with a juicy spy novel, add a dash of Monty Python and you have “The 39 Steps,” a fast-paced whodunit for anyone who loves the magic of theatre! This 2-time Tony® and Drama Desk Award-winning treat is packed with nonstop laughs, over 150 zany characters (played by a ridiculously talented cast of 4), an on-stage plane crash, handcuffs, missing fingers and some good old-fashioned romance!
Creative problem solving is required for any production of “The 39 Step” no matter how big the space or budget. It’s clearly impressive when a small company with a unique and intimate space like the team at Miners Alley Playhouse calls home can do so with design, wit, and a wink. The opening night audiecne was delighted.
March 23 through April 29 in Golden. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30p.m; Sundays at 2:00p.m. Tickets are $15 – $38