Stories of civic activism in Denver inspire new play

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Photo: Happy Haynes 'If Not Us'
Allegra "Happy" Haynes shares her story about standing up for the "If Not Us" storytelling project

East High School in Denver, found herself sitting in a classroom trying to decide if she should defy her peers, teacher and mother to take a stand for something she believed in.

“So there I was, trying to make a decision, my heart pounding and palms sweating,” Haynes, now 61, says. “But I got up, slowly gathered my things. My teacher asked where I was going and I didn’t respond. I just kept walking.”

That day, Haynes left the East campus to join students at Denver’s West High School for an anti-racism rally.

Haynes’ narrative -- and other stories of taking a stand -- are the inspiration for “If Not Us,” a student-led stage production premiering at East High School, Thursday.

The new play is a spin-off of a much larger storytelling project of the same name. It’s a collaboration between the Rocky Mountain/Midwest division of Center for Digital Storytelling, civic activism organization Warm Cookies of the Revolution and Denver’s Buntport Theatre.

Center for Digital Storytelling regional director Daniel Weinshenker organized one-day workshops in Denver, starting in mid-September, to collect the narratives that would eventually be woven into the play.

Jessica Robblee of Buntport Theatre, who guided a 14-member student ensemble at East High through the production process, says the play came about because the students wanted to weave the stories sourced through the project into a single larger plotline.

“You can see the different stories from within the community,” Robblee says. “But the students voiced early on that they wanted to address the issues with an overarching narrative.”

Weinshenker hopes the play and the project as a whole will inspire others to make time to listen to people’s stories, be more empathetic to others’ struggles and celebrate others’ triumphs.

“Everyone is fighting some struggle that you have absolutely no idea about,” Weinshenker told CPR in October. “Everyone has stories within them and reasons about why they are the way that are.”

Colorado Public Television is also working on a documentary about “If Not Us.” The organization plans to air the documentary in winter or spring 2015.

All of the stories collected throughout the project are archived in an online database.