TheatreSquared took a break from its regular season to hold its first — but hopefully not its last — Arkansas New Play Festival. Made possible by a grant from the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the festival featured nine plays exploring Arkansas history. Delivered as readings, each achieved the sort of intimacy — enhanced by the enviable space of Nadine Baum Studios — that's found at the heart of a script. What the playwrights reveal is a history that is equal parts beautiful and ugly.
Despite the variety in style and cast — from A.E. Edwards's one-person “Vinegar Pie and Chicken Beard” to Werner Trieschmann's “Disfarmer” to the double digit cast of Sherry Kramer's “Ivanhoe, Ark.” — the depiction of rural life emerged as a pattern. Arkansas's thorny relationship with race was a significant theme, as the plays encouraged audiences not to shy away from its shameful reality. Bob Ford's “Look Away” — which he also directed — was the talk of the festival, with audience members still wanting to engage in discussion about the play 24 hours after its Friday night run. The discussion that erupted after the show — over an infamous racial slur — spoke to the play's beautiful yet brutal exploration of power and legacy in the true story of two African-American men on the run from a lynch mob in 1930s Wilson, Arkansas. (Full disclosure: I had a role in “Look Away.”)
Kevin Cohea's “Sundown Town,” the story of the arrival of an African-American man named Moses to a town that punishes blacks still in town after sunset, seamlessly mixed a variety of characters to present themes of religion, redemption and love, enhanced by gospel music and wonderfully performances by the cast.
The festival's Young Playwrights Showcase gave us four shows from promising high school students and offered hope that the high quality of area theater will continue for decades. With this festival, its outreach to the university, and its encouragement of young artists, TheatreSquared is quickly establishing itself as an artistic force in the region, by investing in the stories and people of this region.