By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
Choreographer Christopher Page-Sanders not only brought “The Scottsboro Boys” to the attention of the Vintage Theatre. He brought an authenticity to the musical that leaped out from every blood, sweat and tear-filled pore of it.
“Christopher is a Black man who is willing to walk in the vulnerability of what it means to be a Black man, which was an essential component to ‘The Scottsboro Boys,’ ” Director Betty Hart said of the choreographer for her deeply impactful, pre-pandemic production.
The so-called “Scottsboro Boys” – a name steeped in its own inherent racism – were nine African American teenagers, ages 12 to 19, wrongly accused of raping two white prostitutes in 1931 Alabama. When the women were spotted by two policemen jumping out of the box car of a train, they got out of their predicament by claiming the young Black men gathered nearby had attacked them. The resulting trials and retrials sparked an international uproar, even as the defendants were forced to spend years battling the courts and enduring the harsh conditions of the Alabama prison system. Their death sentences were eventually overturned, but it would be 15 years before the last of the wrongly convicted men were released or escaped.
It was, simply put, one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in American history, and it helped give rise to the civil-rights movement. And it inspired two landmark Supreme Court decisions: That you can’t have a trial without legal representation, and that you must be judged by a jury of your peers.
The saga was made into an acclaimed Broadway musical in 2010 – three years before the last of the nine was finally, posthumously pardoned. It would be the final collaboration between John Kander and Fred Ebb, the writers of “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”
Page-Sanders, originally from St. Louis, is best known in Denver for his work as a member of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble and as Artistic Director of the NU-World Contemporary Danse Theatre, which he founded with his husband, Bashir Page-Sanders.
He first became known to the local theatre community directing successive Bob Wells musicals for the Littleton Town Hall Arts Center: “Sister Act” and “Ain’t Misbehavin” in 2018 and '19. When it was announced that Hart would be directing “Crowns” at the Vintage Theatre in 2019, Page-Sanders made himself available (and known) to Hart through a Facebook message. It worked.
The next year, Page-Sanders returned the favor when he pitched “The Scottsboro Boys” to Vintage Theatre Artistic Director Bernie Cardell. “He told Bernie, 'You need to get the rights to do this musical, and you need Betty to direct it,’ ” Hart said.
What Page-Sanders brought to “The Scottsboro Boys,” Hart said, was, firstly, “a tremendous amount of information. He is a choreographer who researches the way directors research – and that information fuels everything that he does.”
The musical opened on February 7, three months before the police murder of George Floyd but decades into ongoing injustices against Black Americans that made the current relevance of “The Scottsboro Boys” plain.
“You can’t see what was happening to those men in 1931 without seeing what is happening to Black men today,” Hart said.
In the previous year, Elijah McLain had been murdered in Aurora, and the Netflix drama "When They See Us" reminded us that Donald Trump, the current president of the United States, had paid for full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty for the five Black teenagers wrongfully accused of raping a Central Park jogger in 1989. Two days before "The Scottsboro Boys" closed, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was fatally shot in her bed by police officers entering her Kentucky apartment. Since 2017, 59 percent of those shot to death by the police in the United States have been people of color, according to statista.com.
The "Scottsboro Boys" cast of 13 called for an all-Black ensemble, save for one. And Hart wanted as many African American artists on her creative team as well.
“We could not have done the show that we did without diving into the waters of race and generations of racism," Hart said. "In that sense, Christopher brought something to the production that no white choreographer ever could have.”
Despite the pandemic, 2020 has been a breakout year for Page-Sanders. He won the Colorado Theatre Guild’s Henry Award for choreographing “The Scottsboro Boys.” He appeared in the video series “Amplify,” the Arvada Center’s proactive response to the Floyd murder (produced by Hart). In addition to running his own company, he was involved with several projects for Cleo Parker.
And on Friday, Page-Sanders will make his (virtual) debut as a theatrical director when Vintage Theatre starts streaming “From Vintage, With Love.” It’s a feel-good holiday offering conceived, created and directed by Page-Sanders, featuring Randy Chalmers, Elisha Horne, Isa Jane, Traci Kern and longtime Page-Sanders collaborator Mary Louise Lee.
“Christopher Page-Sanders is magic,” Kern said. “He creates such a safe space for you as an artist to explore and be vulnerable and find things inside of you that you didn’t even know you had.”
Kern describes “From Vintage, With Love,” as a staged concert with no dialogue, “but there is a storyline if you watch for it,” she said. “It’s about love and friends and family and dealing with all of the stuff that can come up around the holidays.”
Had COVID not happened, Aurora Fox audiences would be enjoying Page-Sanders' work right now as the choreographer of "Black Nativity." But they can see hints of it in the company's online pivot, titled "The Music of the Black Nativity," a virtual concert event based on the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. It's directed by Kenny Moten and Trent Hines, and features performances by Mosés Brown, Faith Angelise Goins-Simmons, Anna Maria High and Kenny Moten, with special appearances by Nyna Moore and Bashir Page-Sanders. Tickets are on sale at aurorafoxartscenter.org.
That Page-Sanders is one of only a handful of African Americans who have choreographed a theatrical musical in Colorado over the past 20 years (others on that short list including Candy Brown, Janice Guy-Sayles, Cleo Parker Robinson and Lawrence Curry) is one of the Colorado theatre community’s great shames. But Kern is confident we’ll soon be seeing a lot more from Page-Sanders as both a choreographer and director.
“If he’s not completely booked through end of 2021, then we are all missing out on the biggest opportunity ever,” she said.
Hart will be first in line.
“He’s an amazing human being,” she said. “He’s one of the kindest, most compassionate and giving people on the planet. He’s become a brother to me. I will collaborate with him anytime, anywhere.”
The real Scottsboroo Nine.
'The Scottsboro Boys' cast
Video bonus: Watch Christopher Page-Sanders in ‘Amplify’
Christopher Page-Sanders/At a glance
Christopher Page-Sanders was trained in dance at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA) in St. Louis and the University of Missouri-Kansas City: Conservatory of Music and Dance. He is the Artistic Director of NU-World Contemporary Danse Theatre, which he founded with Bashir Page-Sanders. He has performed with the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, Hannah Kahn Dance Company, Owen\Cox Dance Group, Wylliams-Henry Contemporary Dance Company, Moraporvida Contemporary Dance Company and the Leah Glenn Dance Theatre, among others. As a choreographer and teacher, he has created concert dance work for: Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Davis Contemporary Dance Company, Deeply Rooted’s ECS, COCADance, as well as teaching and lecturing at the Denver School for the Arts, Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center, William & Mary College and the Central Visual & Performing Arts High School. He currently serves as the Modern Dance Director for Park Hill Dance Academy. Locally, he has choreographed theatre productions for Town Hall Arts Center and Vintage Theatre Productions.
(Photo of Bashir and Christopher Page-Sanders by Satwian Watson.)