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Raising their 'Voices'

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GUEST OF HONOR: Playwright Lynn Nottage will be honored at a gala at the Clinton Center.
  • GUEST OF HONOR: Playwright Lynn Nottage will be honored at a gala at the Clinton Center.

Two of the nation's top minority playwrights are in Little Rock this week for The Arkansas Repertory Theater's first biannual “Voices at the River” event, a play-development program for African-American and Latino playwrights.

Luis Valdez, known as the father of Latin American theater, and Lynn Nottage, winner of a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for her play “Intimate Apparel,” will give talks and be honored at a gala dinner. But they'll be sharing the spotlight with four young playwrights who were selected to read their works at the Rep on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 16 and 17.

“Voices at the River” was conceived by Rep producing artistic director Bob Hupp and Brooklyn-based director Rajendra Maharaj after their visit last year to the Shakespeare Festival's Southern Writers' Project in Alabama. The forum develops and showcases the work of Southern writers. What if, they wondered, they were to bring the same concept to the Rep, but shift the focus to African-American and Latino playwrights?

“It became clear that there was a need for this sort of gathering nationwide,” said Hupp. “There is no other program like this in the nation.”

Their concept is now reality.

The bulk of the four-day event (which started Aug. 14 with readings of work by Arkansans) features the recent output of the four young artists, who have been in town since last week for workshops and to prepare their plays for public staging. The playwrights — Vanessa Garcia, Javon Johnson, Guillermo Reyes and Ajene D. Washington — were chosen from more than 70 respondents to a national call for entries.

The plays will be read by actors. “A traditional reading is done very much like a music recital,” explained Hupp. “The focus is the ideas and words of the script.” The audience will be seated on the stage.

Arkansans Verda Davenport Booher, Vivian Morison Norman and Spirit Trickey will be among those giving readings. The rest of the actors come from the national stage. There are several of particular note: Micki Grant, who has composed for Broadway, will appear in Washington's play, and Annette Cardona, who played Cha Cha in the movie version of “Grease,” will perform in Reyes'.

The readings will give the audience a chance to see what goes into the creation of a play and to engage in discussions with the playwrights afterwards. Receptions will follow the feedback sessions.

The Rep will honor Valdez and Nottage at a gala dinner open to the public on Thursday, and the two will give a Friday afternoon talk on the topic of the arts and social change. “This is a big deal for Arkansas,” says Hupp. “These are significant playwrights.”

Nottage's “Intimate Apparel” was staged at the Rep last year. Her play “Fabulation” won an Obie award. She is also the author of “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Valdez is perhaps best known to wider audiences as the director of the 1987 movie “La Bamba,” but it is for his stage work that he is considered the father of Chicano theater. He formed the El Teatro Campesino drama troupe in 1965, a project that worked closely with Cesar Chavez's farm workers movement before branching out and establishing itself as a professional company.

Valdez discussed the impetus for the troupe by telephone recently. “When I started out in college there was no Latino theater,” he said. “I saw this vacuum, and I knew that it would take more than just the ability to do plays. I needed to be a part of a movement.”

In the '70s, El Teatro Campesino inspired a rapid growth of Latino theater, mainly through the spread of companies to college campuses. “In 1970, when we had our first Chicano theater festivals, we had 15 groups on college campuses,” said Valdez. “Five years later we had 75.”

Valdez believes that the Latino theater movement — along with the growth of the country's Latino population in general — goes beyond ethnic culture and politics. “The first thing to understand,” said Valdez, “is that Hispanic is not a race. It's a part of the melting pot that is America. I'll accept the title ‘Father of Chicano Theater,' but what I really want is to be acknowledged as an American playwright.”

Valdez said the many awards he's received are evidence of the growing acceptance of Latinos as part of the American experience. “These are not so much signs of my personal success as signs that American theater is becoming less exclusive,” said Valdez.

That openness is in keeping with the purpose of the “Voices at the River” project. “Voices at the River has three goals,” said Hupp. “We want to continue our mission to contribute to the field nationally, and we want to continue to put Little Rock and Arkansas on the map culturally. But, above all, I hope that the Rep can be a vehicle to bring together people of all backgrounds.”

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