Playwright Brenton Weyi was ready for a change of scene.
Leon’s executive director Eric Nord had lined Weyi up for a performance art series that was to have taken place in the gallery last month. The six-performances series, titled “Was, Is, Will Be,” was shifted online and delayed until May because of the novel coronavirus.
Most of the performers chose to record pieces to offer via Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to audiences at home. Weyi was the only one to decide to come in and perform live from the gallery and event space at 1112 East 17th Avenue in the City Park West neighborhood.
“You get tired of being in your own house,” Weyi said.
He’s been largely at his home near Cheesman Park since Denver’s stay-at-home order went into effect March 24. A few weeks before that, city venues such as the Denver Performing Arts Complex closed in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. Weyi, one of four playwrights in a new Denver Center for the Performing Arts fellowship program, had been readying for rehearsals at the performing arts complex for a showcase of “My Country, My Country” a musical he is writing.
During his Leon performance, Weyi performed a song from “My Country, My Country” and spoke of his family’s and wider history from west Africa that inspired the musical. Relaxed in a red sweater, he also shared tales from his travels and poetry, speaking into a microphone from behind a podium on which he’d propped a laptop. He urged his unseen audience to participate, occasionally checking his phone for Instagram messages from viewers.
Only Nord, who handled the live-streaming, was with Weyi in the gallery. Eric Dallimore, Leon’s artistic director, would normally have been in the gallery for the performance art series, which is in its third year. Dallimore watched Weyi from home.
“We’re trying to practice social distancing as much as possible,” Dallimore said.
Weyi described his hour in the gallery as “like giving a talk on a stage where the audience is really far away.”
That audience did respond to Weyi’s requests for questions or comments via the chat option on Instagram and Facebook. At the end, he summed up his performance in a freestyle rap that incorporated suggestions from his viewers. The first lines:
“It’s a crazy time.
“That’s why I had to give you
“Verses for humanity.”
The evening with a digital audience was “very energizing, in the same way I find a live performance energizing,” Weyi said. “I think there’s a lot of beauty in just the immediacy of the live experience.”
Leon’s Nord marveled at how Weyi overcame the limitations of these coronavirus times to connect with his audience. And the other performers who chose to make videos surprised Nord with their technical proficiency.
“It is encouraging to see people say, ‘Oh, if we can’t do it this way, let’s see if we can do it that way,'” Nord said. “Creative people, that’s what they live for.”
Weyi describes himself as an introvert who had found a good balance between relaxing at home and doing the work of an artist, which for him includes appearing on stage as an actor and singer. COVID-19 has thrown him off kilter.
“Now, I’m just home all the time,” he said. He lives alone with no pets. “I have plants.”
He’s also had writing to work on. And he’s been taking online classes in tai chi, meditation and improv. A friend on the West Coast has invited him to weekly freestyle evenings held via video conference that draw performers from across the country.
“There are some people who would never be caught dead freestyling in front of strangers,” Weyi said.
Weyi said his online communities have been forgiving of mistakes, which inspires risk-taking. It could be that people are more comfortable because they are in their own homes, Weyi said. He also sees the conveners working hard to create energy, and believes participants pick up on that and try to respond.
“I feel like people are a lot more willing and forthcoming to kind of dive in,” he said.
It’s also true, he said, that if you find the water is too deep and you end up feeling uncomfortable, it’s easy to switch off the camera.
“There’s always an out,” he said. “And you don’t have that out in real life.”
Denver switched from stay-at-home to safer-at-home the day after Weyi’s performance at Leon.
As the stay-at-home ended, Weyi was contacted by a woman who had seen his vocal group Storytellers Acappella perform at a wedding. She wanted to do something special for her daughter, who was finishing school and whose options for celebrating were limited by the coronavirus. Even under safer-at-home, public and private gatherings of more than 10 people are banned through May 26.
Soon after his solo performance at Leon, Weyi and the four other Storytellers were standing a safe distance apart outside Union Station, serenading the graduate.
Weyi said it’s unclear when his “My Country, My Country” will get its showcase, or what a performance might look like. Other events on his schedule, such as taking part in a Denver Art Museum series in which artists who work in different media curate exhibitions, are likely to be re-imagined as online events.
“It’s impressive to see how nimble a lot of things have been,” he said.