Imagine you’re in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood at the height of the jazz movement in the city — namely the famous jazz spot the historic Rossonian Hotel. What do you see and hear? A new play aims to bring just that to a theater in the neighborhood.
In Jeff Campbell’s In the Pocket: The Ballad of Bobby Trombone, the title character is an archetype of every unsung hero in jazz and the creative self-expressions of Black Americans in communities like Five Points. Campbell focused on telling the story of jazz and its influence from a local perspective.
We often talk about the glorious past of jazz in Five Points, “but who do we remember?” Campbell asked. “We remember Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington. We remember Lionel Hampton. What about the everyday people of Five Points?”
Campbell says that's the essence of his play: Bobby Trombone is trying to get recognition for his part in the jazz story.
This fictionalized history of jazz in Five Points and how it came to be known as "The Harlem of the West" captured the attention of Theatre Artibus co-founders Meghan Frank and Buba Basishvili. The married couple have been the proprietors of The Savoy, a creative and event space, since 2018, where they collaborate with creators beyond their own theater company.
Frank said the pair were interested in finding a home for Theatre Artibus, “but in a broader sense, finding a way to support local independent arts of all sorts of genres. And we found the opportunity here at The Savoy to be something that felt, like, really synergetic for the work we wanted to do.”
Basishvili said that as original theater makers, they look for ways to make the work relevant to this place and time. “Whatever theme comes up, we are trying to connect it to Denver or to Five Points, or to some things which are close to us to make it about us actually, about now, what's going on with us.”
When Frank and Basishvili saw Campbell’s play, Honorable Disorder, they knew they wanted to work with him and his Emancipation Theater company. After another project was interrupted during the pandemic shutdown, Campbell’s new play hit the right note.
“This seemed like a really wonderful project to bring to The Savoy because it has a real vintage feel and could feel very similar perhaps to the Rossonian Hotel,” Frank said. “His desire to create a story about the history of jazz, but also about the black community in Denver — both past, present, future — and his commitment to creating Emancipation Theater as a place of deep listening and also of, of like [story] telling [were reasons] that we were really excited to be collaborating.”
Basishvili added that it’s not all serious, however: “Humor plays a big part in this very hard theme.”
Though the Rossonian Hotel is not available for performances yet, Campbell acknowledged there is something poetic about telling this story, in this space, at The Savoy.
“The Savoy is a very historic space, and I have quite a bit of history here. Actually before the folks from Theatre Artibus became a part of it, I was the manager here,” Campbell said. “I used to mop the floor in this place.”
The Savoy is from the same era as the Rossonian, and those souls are in the timbers of the building as they are telling this story, Campbell said.
“We get disconnected from our ancestors — in our stories and our bodies. They don't live forever, but our stories do, and we magnify our own presence when we connect with the ancestors whose shoulders we stand on,” Campbell said. “We're walking … in the same footsteps, down the same streets that they were walking and talking and experiencing the same thing. So, it feels like being alive.
Campbell uses his work to do more than entertain; he sees it as a critical education mission as well.
“It's so important, especially in this day and age, that our stories be amplified if they can't be amplified in the classroom,” Campbell said. “If we can't tell the stories of African Americans in a classroom, then it is our duty as artists to take up the mantle and, and tell the stories regardless of the laws that they passed to silence our history — to silence our struggle.
In the Pocket: The Ballad of Bobby Trombone plays February 9 through February 25 at The Savoy Denver.
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