Brenton Zola’s passion to make the world more human began while growing up in Denver. He remembers catching flack from kids at school for being different as a first-generation immigrant to this country and instinctively burying his Congo heritage.
Now, he works to share his heritage others. In the last few years, the playwright and artist dug into his heritage to produce a play with DCPA and a radio program with WBUR about the struggle to end colonialism in Congo, where his family has deep roots. These tales were delivered through traditional African oral-storytelling methods – rhythmic collaborations between audiences and narrators – that he’s reconnected with as he’s explored his own identity in adulthood.
This weekend, you can see the latest installments of his explorations at the Denver Art Museum and Understudy Denver, the gallery space under the stairs at the Colorado Convention Center.
On Saturday between noon and 4 p.m., Zola (who went by his last name, Weyi, until recently) will bring his pop-up “Freestyle Confessional” booth outside of the Denver Art Museum, where he and a musician will perform improvised songs about individual people who step alone into their tiny space.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening at Understudy, he’ll perform “Griot: An African Storytelling Experience,” a one-man show (with some musical backup) that brings small audiences into an intimate, magical space to tell stories influenced his interactions with people who come to see the show.
“Griot,” he said, is “a small, intimate African storytelling experience where people are invited into a mythical village. It’s a performance of music and fable, and there will be some elements where the audience tells their own stories.”
Understudy is also hosting Zola’s visual work through the end of the weekend in a static show called “Persona: A Portal to the Selves Within.”
They’ll be his last projects in Denver for a while, as he’s planning to head to California to pursue a Master of Fine Arts at UCLA.
“Griot” came out of a recent residency Zola held in Morocco, part of a six-month trip to the African continent, and years examining his roots.
He told us there was a “tension” in his early life. Growing up in Denver, he remembered catching flack from kids at school who noticed things about his status as a first-generation immigrant to this country, an accent in his voice or the clothes he wore. His heritage in Congo was something he instinctively buried.
But Zola said he began to appreciate his roots in his early adulthood. His ancestors’ storytelling traditions felt like paths back to the things he’d suppressed.
“It’s a way for me to reconnect with those roots and reclaim that identity,” he said.
It also dovetailed with his interest in improvised, freestyle lyricism, something he’d honed and brought into his growing body of work.
While he was shut in with the rest of us during the pandemic’s depths, Zola told us 2020 turned out to be an unlikely year of collaboration. He thrust himself into a new ecosystem of digital creative spaces, spending hours in aural spaces on Clubhouse and with visual artists and storytellers on Zoom.
Before COVID, he’d already thought about expanding his “creative footprint.” This new, digital contact with so many artists inflamed his itch to get out into the world. Late last year, he had the chance to be a resident in Morocco with Experience House, a multidisciplinary arts incubator. He was ready to surround himself in a new landscape.
“I was just soaking up a lot of that energy,” he told us. “A lot of the things I was thinking about were: I come from this very long line of storytellers and community leaders, and I’ve never done an experience that was a one-man show.”
“Griot” was the outgrowth of that line of thought, which he developed at Experience House and as he traveled the continent for months after his residency ended.
“It was scary,” he said of writing the piece. “This show is combining a lot of things I’ve done over the years.”
Freestyle, myth, call-and-response and more are all present in the show. The ancient storytelling techniques he’s been reconnecting may be new to a lot of people that see his show. But though his influences are old, he said they connect to a lot of the interactive, experimental performances that have come to Denver in recent years.
Directly engaging the audience, he said, helps transform viewers beyond what might happen in a more passive viewing experience. It’s true for both “Griot” and “Freestyle Confessional.”
“All of these things that I’ve been doing have been about removing the masks and getting to the person we often hide from the outside world,” he said. “It brings people back into a space of their own humanity.”
Zola said leaving Denver will be bittersweet, but he’s excited to grow.
While he’s come into his own in the city, he said the taste of bigger, broader creative forces in the last year has whet his appetite for more.
“Denver’s my home. Denver’s the place I grew up, and I’ve absolutely loved the creative culture here,” he told us. “There’s definitely bitterness in that. And then the sweetness: I think this last year especially, I’ve traveled so much, it’s been really great to get back out in the bigger world.”
Working Denver can be an “uphill battle” for some artists. He said the city has one of the “most DIY” scenes in the country, but that bootstrapping, shoestring mindset is something that can burn an artist out. Zola said he’s looking forward to accessing the resources and creative capital that is more available in a bigger town.
“When you go to places like New York and L.A., that have millions and millions of people, just that density and the atoms bumping up against each other, you’re going to feel that energy,” he said. “A lot of my career, I’ve been swimming upstream. But I’ve been asking myself, what does it mean to flow with the current?”
Still, grad school only lasts for so long, and Zola said it’s anyones guess where he lands with future projects.
“At a certain point,” he said, “the road will lead back to Denver.”