One of his online profiles states that he is an active playwright in his spare time. It should also include successful. Kenneth Grimes has written, directed or acted in dozens of plays since he was a teenager. In high school he received a $500 grant to produce a play he had written called, “Ride the Rugged Seas.” It played at Lincoln Park Housing projects. He enlisted his friends as actors and used the grant to buy items for the audience, including popcorn.
“The appeal of writing is that you can create places that don’t exist,” says Grimes, a former Denver Public Schools English and drama teacher. “I loved to write, so much that I’d write other people’s papers” when he was in school.
Today, Grimes is part of a team that has brought a popular book to life.
Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, a new family musical created by Grimes, David Wohl, and Susan Einhorn, is based upon the Coretta Scott King Award-winning – and popular Reading Rainbow — book by the same name, written by Margaree King Mitchell and illustrated by James Ransome. The musical is inspired by the atmosphere, language and music of the late 1920s through the early 1960s, evoking rural Arkansas near the Mississippi Delta. The all African-American, 17-member cast, including national and local artists, runs Sept. 26 – Oct. 18 at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (CPRD).
The upcoming performances are the result of strategic collaborations and a walk of faith for Grimes that began more than a dozen years ago when he was contacted by Wohl, who was seeking a writer to help him bring the book to life. Grimes, a director of the 4-H Youth Program at Colorado State University Denver Extension, had built such a positive reputation with his spare-time activity that when Wohl asked, staff in the arts program at CSU recommended Grimes.
“We got a pretty good draft and sent through a friend of a friend to Susan Einhorn (in New York). She liked it, but saw it could be better so we became a team,” says Grimes, who notes a great synergism in the creative process.
Each of the co-creators had different sleeping patterns that worked out to be productive for all involved. When everyone was setup at one of their homes, Grimes did early morning writing, around 5:30 a.m. The composer, a night owl, would join in around 9 a.m., and the process just jelled from that point for the musicians to working late into the evening on what had been written earlier that day.
While that process was smooth, other components have not been. “To do this show has really been a faith walk,” says Grimes, who has a bachelor’s and graduate degree from CSU. “We don’t have systems of support in place to really help (independent) artists to pull off production on this scale without a lot of angst. Securing grants can be difficult with timing, and funding cycles are not conducive to production. The risk becomes more on the person doing it. It’s a real challenge.”
Meeting the challenge “entailed going to New York to do a portion of the play and having it critiqued by the country’s best producers. One of the producers was Stephen Schwartz, who served as the moderator sponsor” of the New York review.
Schwartz has written such hit musicals as “Godspell,” “Pippin,” and “Wicked,” and has won three Grammys, three Academy Awards and six Tony Awards. Certainly, Uncle Jed’s had hit it big with such and audience. Not quite. Grimes and his co-creators had to pay to travel to New York for that prestigious round of critiques. To do that, a concert reading of a few songs for the show was held at CPRD in 2004 as a fundraiser. It was primarily loved ones who supported the concert reading. And it was enough to take the show to the Big Apple.
Once in New York, they had to produce 15 minutes of the musical and then return in three weeks with 30 minutes. Since that time the musical has been recognized by a number of reputable arts organizations. Finding a location in Denver for the upcoming show has been a challenge, but fortunately one of Denver’s cornerstone arts organizations, CPRD, is able to accommodate the show’s run. Cleo Parker Robinson is the choreographer for the musical and Michael Williams is the musical director.
Grimes says, “Cleo, she is a force of nature – really great to work with her. It’s amazing all the things they have going on over there.”
CPRD, celebrating its 45th anniversary, is a multifaceted arts institution that has developed into an internationally esteemed organization that operates beyond the traditional performing arts model. There are four pillars of the organization, namely, the CPRD ensemble, academy, theatre, and education programs. Working in concert, CPRD programs have created an oasis where a varied population – by gender, race, age and ethnicity – gather to study and appreciate a modern, cross-cultural approach to creative community development. Today, CPRD represents one of the largest cultural arts institutions in the Rocky Mountain region serving more 60,000 people each year.
Gwen Brewer, longtime CPRD board member and current board chair, says, “Most people only think of them for their performing side. Education has been a cornerstone since their inception 45 years ago. Every week (CPRD) is in schools and recreation centers working with kids. They try to fill the void when funding left for the arts in public schools.”
Coming off its 6th annual fundraiser for community education programs, “Dancing With the Stars” with an estimated 700 in attendance, CPRD is poised to keep it moving not only with performances like Uncle Jed’s but also “Bamboula: Musician’s Brew” set to debut at the University of Denver Newman Center the same night that Uncle Jed’s kicks off.
“We have no small thoughts,” says Parker Robinson, who revels in the two companies within CPRD that allow her to be involved in two events in one night. “I hope Uncle Jed’s goes to Broadway.”
Grimes adds, “We are hopeful that this will launch us to take it nationally. We are proud that Denver should be more of an exporter (of artists) versus always importing. Both are good, but we have some great talent in Denver that needs to be seen locally and nationally.”
Over its run, certain performances of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop will be devoted to youth, seniors, sororities, higher education and even producers. Mitchell, author of the book, is expected to attend one of the shows.
Grimes online bio also says that he is a community activist that believes in the power of “collective visioning” as a means for “barrier removal” to get things done. That is true. His long-term commitment to bringing Uncle Jed’s Barbershop to life along with his co-creators is proof.
About Uncle Jed’s Barbershop – The Musical
Uncle Jed’s Barbershop is a musical celebration of the only Black barber in 1928 Monroe County, Arkansas, Jedediah Johnson (“Uncle Jed”). In 1962, 43 year-old Sarah Jean Carter has returned from Detroit to her childhood home of Monroe County in order to attend the funeral of Uncle Jed, her favorite relative. After finding herself unable to speak at the funeral, Sarah Jean encounters her 10-year-old self. Adult Sarah Jean and Child Sarah Jean embark on a journey that takes them back and forth between their shared past with Uncle Jed and the present. Their interacting and conflicting memories of him challenge Adult Sarah Jean’s willingness and capacity to take Child Sarah Jean with her into her future.
When she was younger her uncle took her along with him on appointments on customers’ porches, living rooms and sharecropped fields. He also lets her in on his plans to finance and build his own barbershop. To Child Sarah Jean, Jed’s confidence and reassurance are “like money in the bank!” The musical follows Jed and Sarah Jean’s travels and interactions with family, friends and members of their vibrant community.
The cast features Mary Louise Lee, singer, actor and First Lady of Denver; Ken Prymus from Broadway shows “Cats,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and the “Wiz;” Nora Cole from Broadway shows “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “On The Town; and Terry Burrell from Broadway’s original “Dream Girls,” among its principles.
For more information and tickets visit http://www.cleoparkerdance.org/.