The Curious Theatre Company has pushed its “No guts, no story” mantra even further by re-branding as a social justice organization.
“We’re committed to telling stories that are provocative, that take a certain amount of bravery to both produce as well as to engage with as an audience,” producing artistic director and co-founder Chip Walton says.
In order to set the tone for this new identity, Curious’ 20th season kicked off with “Appropriate.” The story, set in Arkansas, centers around three siblings who uncover a horrific family secret, which leads to questions and emotions that tear at the family fabric. Before the lights even go up on stage, the audience is enveloped in the blustering buzz of cicadas.
“How does that sound make one feel? There’s discomfort,” director Jamil Jude says. “When you’re thrust into darkness and just filled with the sound of cicadas, you’re immediately off put.”
Curious turned to Jude, an emerging black director from Atlanta, for its regional premiere of this play that’s rooted in racism. When the lights finally rise, they reveal the living room of an old, derelict plantation. The three siblings have returned to their father’s homestead after his death, bringing their own families with them.
“It’s hot, it’s muggy,” Jude says. “Tensions are high.”
Surrounded by clutter and shouldering their own baggage, the families go through boxes and shelves of dusty stuff. When a photo album surfaces, it throws everything into a tailspin. The old pictures show black people who have been lynched — a shock to this white, well-to-do family.
It’s a show about grappling with our racial legacy, says Curious managing director Katie Maltais, “and having to come to grips with ramifications of slavery that we’ve never dealt with as a country.”
While the company chose “Appropriate” nearly a year ago, Maltais says it’s especially relevant now because of events in Charlottesville and other white supremacist rallies.
Curious has always explored contemporary issues on stage, just as it’s known for a commitment to producing new works. With their newfound sense of activism though, co-founder Chip Walton says every show this season will touch on a social or political issue. Look no further than “Building the Wall,” which Curious staged on a whim last spring as a direct response to President Donald Trump’s election and immigration policies.
“The world is changing around us, and as the world changes it’s incumbent upon us as artists and organizations to respond to that world,” Walton says.
After every performance, Curious Theatre hosts discussions for the audience to dissect each play and its themes with the cast and crew. Recently, the conversation went from how racism isn’t confined to the South to the difficulty of talking about these things with our families.
Rahem Mulatu, a first time patron at Curious from Thornton, joined a friend who invited her to see “Appropriate.” Mulatu liked how the play addresses racism and mental health, but she hopes the lessons the audience learns lead to more than just talking.
“I have to be honest, three quarters of the people they all go home, tomorrow morning they wake up and forget about it,” she says. “Or they will say wonderful things, but they never take action.”
Curious hopes their 20th season will inspire people to action, but it’s up to each individual to decide what that looks like, Walton says.
In the meantime, Curious will continue to stage thought-provoking work. The company received a $100,000 grant from the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, a big-time funder of American theater. They will use that money over the next three years to carry out their vision and to build their reputation.
Curious will also continue to advocate for more diversity throughout Colorado’s theater community. Walton hopes his company reflects that charge. They have taken steps to diversify their board and artistic company. But, Walton admits, they’ve still got a lot more work to do.
“Appropriate” runs at Curious Theatre Company in Denver through Oct. 14.