Denver’s Su Teatro marks 50 years, and its spot as one of the third-oldest Latino theater group in the U.S.
Anthony J. Garcia, who never seems to be at a loss for words, grew quiet when asked why his Su Teatro Cultural & Performing Arts Center is one of only three Latino theater companies in the U.S. to have survived for decades.
“Owning our space and investing in it is crucial,” Garcia, 69, said this week of Su Teatro (Spanish for Your Theater), which is indeed the third-oldest Latino theater company in the country. “The two largest Latino arts organizations in the state — us and the Museo de las Americas — own our spaces, and that’s given Su Teatro stability compared with some of the companies that just want to produce art.”
That stability, and that passion — connected directly to the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and ’70s — helps explains why it’s gotten federal arts funding and toured its award-winning shows at venues ranging from New York’s Public Theater to stages in Los Angeles, San Antonio and elsewhere. Garcia seeks out and presents works from young playwrights in Colorado and nationally, and he’s become known for it.
Located in a mural-accented, historic theater at 721 Santa Fe Drive in the Art District on Santa Fe (formerly the site of Denver Civic Theatre), Su Teatro was founded by a group of University of Colorado Denver students in 1971. Throughout the 1970s they performed agitprop and activist works designed to focus on Latino civil rights, Garcia said.
Garcia, who wrote some of the company’s earliest original works, said Su Teatro’s not quite so political anymore, though it certainly doesn’t shy from such topics. Now executive artistic director, he continues push Su Teatro and its performers to present bold new voices in drama and musicals, but also films, concerts, dance productions, comedy festivals and more.
Over the last 30 years or so, Su Teatro has also met a consistent, four-plays-per-season schedule while serving tens of thousands in a population largely ignored in arts programming — Colorado Latinos and Chicanos and Indigenous people, some of whom hail from families that have been living in Colorado for hundreds of years. Su Teatro’s affordable tickets and plays that deal with subjects relevant to audience have made the theater a cultural oasis.
“White audiences have sometimes been afraid to come because of the language or because they might feel like they’ll get made fun of,” Garcia said. “But we welcome everyone.”
Having been paused by the pandemic, the nonprofit theater company and arts complex is finally celebrating its 50th anniversary with shows that span its history, such as Garcia’s “Serafin: Cantos y Lagrimas,” which he banged out in 53 hours on a malfunctioning typewriter his ex-wife had given him. It’s based on his father’s diaries, and deals frankly with his father’s alcoholism.
“It was one of my first pieces and was performed by Angel Mendez-Soto, who’s still working with us,” Garcia said. “He’s reading these parts of this character decades later — much older than I was when I first did it — and I’m like, ‘Oh (crap), I forgot we’ve produced like 40 original plays since then!’ ”
For the anniversary, Garcia has also staged nearly a dozen readings of past works, and is bringing back entertaining hits such as “Chicanos Sing the Blues” (currently running through June 26; tickets are $17-$20 per show, available at suteatro.org). As noted, some of these classics improbably feature the original performers, such as “superveteranos” Yolanda Ortega and Albuquerque’s Manuel R Roybal Sr.
Roybal, Mendez-Soto and Ortega are part of what Garcia calls the theater’s “four cornerstones,” along with Debra Gallegos. But Su Teatro is just as well known for trying out new voices.
“Northside,” Colorado poet-laureate Bobby LeFebre’s interview-based look at gentrification in what’s now known as Denver’s Highland neighborhood, may also return later this year. The play arrived during the years-long exodus of working-class residents and people of color from the area. As in much of Denver, that sudden vacuum created a cultural amnesia where community once thrived. It was one of Su Teatro’s most popular plays, extended for weeks beyond its original run due to sold-out performances.
Nearly as exciting: the theater company this summer will finally pay off its building, having snapped it up for a relatively affordable $780,000 in 2011 after working out of smaller spaces. It sold its $500,000 building in the Elyria neighborhood, a former high school, to finance the Santa Fe location.
Garcia said he’s invested about $500,000 into his current, aging structure over the last decade. Running a wide-ranging performing arts company and theater is expensive — Su Teatro’s annual budget only recently topped $1 million, thanks to donations and organizations like SCFD, and for years hovered at one-third of that.
“That’s very, very small for a theater company,” Garcia said. “We owe about $100,00 still on the building and are fundraising $50,000 by selling ‘seats’ for that, which will be matched. We sold about $11,000 over the weekend, so all I need is 40 people to give me $1,000 and we’re done!”
Garcia’s optimistic but not naive. He knows some still consider his company niche, or even esoteric. But as he and his collaborators have shown, mainstream audiences will respond to the work, too, if given the chance. And in the gallery-heavy, increasingly expensive Art District on Santa Fe, that’s who surrounds Su Teatro these days.
“So many developers are buying up land on Santa Fe and pushing people out so quickly, but Su Teatro will be one of the few that stays,” Garcia said.
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