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Actor Buba Basishvili rehearses for RECIPE. Courtesy of Shannon Johnson

On the Menu at the Savoy: Storytelling Through Food

Recipe, a collaborative effort of three Denver theater companies, proves more cooks in the kitchen isn’t always a bad thing.

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Where once butchers bartered over deli stands, grocers peddled produce, and workers labored in a second-floor vanilla lab, today actors recite monologues, stage scenes, and perform with puppets. The throughline? Food.

RECIPE Savoy Vanilla Laboratory
The Rodelle Vanilla Laboratory at the Savoy in the 1950s. Courtesy of the Rodelle archives

Recipe—the brainchild of local theater companies Theatre Artibus, Grapefruit Lab, and Emancipation Theater Company—is a live interactive performance that uses the universal subject of food to tell stories that encapsulate the Five Points neighborhood. The fact that the performance takes place at the Savoy (a building that has stood tall in Five Points since 1889) is no coincidence. Shortly after Theatre Artibus director Meghan Frank purchased the building and began transforming it into a performance and rental space, she realized that the community in which the Savoy building lies was her next muse.

Frank and her core “cooks”—Julie Rada and Kenny Storms of Grapefruit Lab, Jeff Campbell of Emancipation Theater, and Buba Basishvili and Jeannene Bragg of Theatre Artibus—started collecting stories from longtime Five Points residents and digging into the history of the Savoy building to inform the creation of their chef-d’œuvre. Their hope is for locals (both old and new) to show up and see their lives reflected back to them—or encounter realities of the neighborhood they had never considered before.

RECIPE Story Circle
A story circle meets in the Savoy’s ballroom. Courtesy of Meghan Frank

Five Points was first developed for immigrant families in the 19th century, later became a black community subject to racist redlining, and is now seeing a period of rapid gentrification. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in Denver, the opportunity to bring together folks of different backgrounds who may have otherwise never been in the same room together is a triumph of its own.

Part of making that happen, however, is understanding that Frank’s purchase of the Savoy could have been perceived as yet another notch on the gentrification belt. “We’re new to this neighborhood, and Five Points is going through such enormous change,” Frank admits. “Or has already. I know we’re coming in at the end of a very big development push.” Theatre Artibus, however, is preserving a cultural space, not developing luxury condos.

Campbell, founder and director of Emancipation Theater Company, was around for that development push. For more than 20 years, Campbell lived in Five Points, as a member of the close-knit black community of the ’90s and aughts (though he says that today the community is stronger than ever before). He was there to watch “huge lofts go up” and once boarded-up and vacant storefronts turn into pricey remodeled shops. Unfortunately, many of the people responsible for such changes were not from the neighborhood.

“When folks from outside the community see property values and thinking that this is a good investment for them and their family, they’re not taking into consideration that for the longest period of time, Five Points was all we had,” Campbell says of the neighborhood’s transformation.

But there are still anchors of the Five Points community that continue to thrive, like Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center, the focus of Campbell’s scene in Recipe. In the scene, Campbell hosts an open mic poetry set, where fried fish, chicken, fries, and drinks are served, as is tradition at Brother Jeff’s Friday Night Fish Fry. Campbell describes Brother Jeff’s as a hub of the black community, offering opportunities to support local entrepreneurs and other community-oriented programs. (Brother Jeff is also the publisher and editor of 5 Points News, which covers issues of local interest.)

RECIPE Rehearsal Three Actors
Actors from Left to Right: Adrienne Martin-Fullwood, Emmanuel Spirit, and Mitch Marquez. Courtesy of Shannon Johnson

In addition to the story of Brother Jeff’s, three others are told, one of which involves puppets. The mix of the unique storytelling techniques culminates into what Frank and Rada describe as a meal. They ask that audience members take a leap of faith as they “try each course.” Perhaps not every dish will be to your liking, but there’s a little bit of something for everyone. And that’s largely thanks to the collaborative nature of the project. “More perspectives in the room creates a much richer tapestry of work,” Frank says.

A variety of perspectives is also what they hope to see in the audience. “If we as a humanity lose the ability to be in a room together and to tell each other stories, then we’re in big trouble,” Frank argues. The creative team agrees that if it were not for the power of storytelling, many of the opportunities to make connections would be lost.

Luckily for them, there are millions more Denver stories that can and should be told, and people who are hungry to hear them.

If you go: Recipe runs January 9–19, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Savoy at Curtis Park, 2700 Arapahoe St. Tickets are $20 for GA and $40 for “Great Neighbor,” which includes a free drink plus a free ticket for a community member. 

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