Jeff Campbell came up in the early ’90s in north Globeville, hocking CDs out of the back of his car. It was the tail-end of hip-hop’s golden era, and Campbell was a rapper for Denver’s Kut-N-Kru, along with Gary Martinez and Mike D. Chill. He never expected it to blow up, Campbell says now. He was wrong. Kut-N-Kru is widely regarded as one of the most influential Denver hip-hop acts, and the group also founded Kut-N-Kru Records in 1994.
If you ask Campbell, he says his main goal with hip-hop was to harness Denver’s culture—its Latin influences, the local slang, his hangouts—to create something original to the Mile High City. “We were reppin’ Denver,” Campbell says, tugging up on the Broncos jersey his character (Bernard, a former featherweight boxer) sports in Honorable Disorder, the inaugural play from his Emancipation Theater Company, which opens on Friday night. “I want to take that hip-hop mentality to theater. This is about claiming Denver’s scene and sharing its stories.”
Despite Campbell’s previous success in theater—he wrote and starred in the notable one-man play Who Killed Jigaboo Jones?, which ran in 2013—Honorable Disorder is his first foray into directing. The play is set in the Five Points neighborhood and is an ambitious attempt to wrap several Denver-centric issues into one story—the opioid crisis, homelessness, gentrification, and the city’s suicide rate. These issues all come to a head through the protagonist DeShawn Foster (played by Theo Wilson), a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who’s struggling to find work and adjust to civilian life. DeShawn’s military friend, Justin MacDonald (played by Corey Rhoads), is homeless, living in a tent in Mestizo-Curtis Park at 32nd and Champa streets, and battling a heroin addiction. DeShawn’s mother, Nancy (played by Erica Brown) finds out early in the play that her Five Points home is going to be put up for sale. The landlord would rather open the space up for development.
Honorable Disorder brings together a lot of what we have—and, crucially, haven’t—seen on the local news in a story that’s otherwise gone untold in Denver’s theater scene. That’s why Campbell’s work is worth your time. He’s not a perfect director, as he’ll tell you himself. His characters are certainly flawed individuals. Yet there are performances in Honorable Disorder—such as DeShawn’s mother explaining that their home will be sold, or Justin bemoaning a lack of respect and meaning in his life now that he’s back on U.S. soil—that make for memorable moments to which audiences will easily relate.
Emancipation Theater Company, Campbell hopes, will fill a void that has been left untouched ever since the closing of the late Jeffrey Nickelson’s Shadow Theatre Company, an African-American theater group in 2011. “Denver’s theater community has these powerhouse playhouses that do amazing work: Vintage Theater, BuntPort Theatre, Curious Theatre,” he says. “But I really feel like there needs to be a community-driven, black theater company putting stuff up on the same scale and matching that quality of work on a consistent basis.”
The foundation of that dream is Honorable Disorder. Campbell says he plans to write more plays set in Five Points, some of which will use the same characters we meet in Honorable Disorder. His stories, like the verses he spit with the Kut-N-Kru, are meant to represent Denver, its people, and the stories they live out in the Mile High City.
If you go: Honorable Disorder will run from April 6–29 at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. Get your tickets here.