Jaime Ituarte visited New York City for the first time last year. Before he went, his friends gave him the standard tourist warnings about crime. In Ituarte's case, such advice was even more important because he is legally blind. Still, he says, he could recognize dangerous neighborhoods. "They smelled like piss," he explains.
"Of course, if I was a thug, I'd pick on a blind guy. What's he going to do? Pick you out of a lineup?"
Ituarte was in New York to meet with a theatre company interested in producing one of his plays. At 30, the Tempe resident is beginning to achieve success in a most unlikely field.
Ituarte lost most of his vision nine years ago. Since that time, he has used humor to survive in a world that, to him, consists only of shadows. Ituarte started telling stories at parties about the way people treated him on the street.
"People expect you to look blind," he says. "They want you to do these Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder things, `blindisms.' And you know, I've never met a blind person who sat too close to the TV or who poked their eyes out with something." Three years ago, while taking theatre classes at Arizona State University, Ituarte wove his humor into his first play, V.I.P.--for "Visually Impaired Person."
Last year, V.I.P. was performed as a student production on the ASU campus. Last week, Ituarte's second play was performed by a professional company, the New York-based Theater by the Blind.
Now Ituarte has been named resident playwright for a new local theatre company, the Phoenix Show Space Theatre. Dennis Britten, a former ASU theatre professor, has assembled a troupe of 45 actors, 10 of whom represent minorities. Britten's ambitious dream is to perform quality theatre on subjects involving disabilities and minorities.
Next week marks the new company's debut. The company is putting its commitment to minority audiences into action by opening V.I.P. in Guadalupe. On Wednesday, November 27, the Phoenix Show Space Theatre will perform the play for town residents at the Guadalupe Boys and Girls Club.
Britten hopes to find a permanent home for the company. But until then, the company plans to create its own audience by taking its shows to local community and retirement centers. The company will offer an array of work, from selections by Gilbert and Sullivan to a musical on women's issues, called Real Women Do. And, of course, new work by Jaime Ituarte.
Ituarte grew up in Glendale. After high school, he studied art, then worked as a bank teller. He was 21 when he started losing his vision because of an inherited disorder known as Leber's optic neuropathy. His eyesight became increasingly worse until he was fired from his job because he couldn't distinguish currency denominations anymore.
"I'd wake up in the morning and I could see the digital clock, and it got fuzzier and fuzzier," he remembers. "I didn't want to get out of bed. Then I couldn't work and I didn't get out of bed."
For a year, Ituarte says, he became "Mr. Joe Nonproductive Citizen." Eventually, he started to take Braille and mobility lessons. Learning to use a cane was his path to independence, but the cane was also an obvious label that he was disabled. He cried the nights before his lessons because he was so afraid of traffic. "That was my big coming-out party, learning to use my cane."
Counseling sessions gave him the courage to enroll in college. At ASU, he studied psychology for a time, but wanted to work in a more creative field. That's when he discovered theatre. Writing has been a way for Ituarte to deal with the radical change the loss of his vision wrought in his life. One scene in V.I.P. depicts a Bible-thumping Holy Roller who offers to heal the blind character at a bus stop. Another scene includes a rude waitress in a college deli who mistakes the blind man's cane for a riding whip.
Ituarte even mined his own counseling sessions for material. "I used to think being a minority was tough for some people," the lead character tells his psychiatrist, "but it doesn't affect your daily life like a disability does. I used to wake up in the morning, put on my socks, and say `Woe is me. I'm Hispanic.' Now I say, `Woe is me, I'm visually impaired. Where are my socks?'"
Ituarte is confident that his New York experience, as well as his work with the local company, will bring other opportunities. He brags that his name was listed as a playwright for New York's Theater by the Blind in the theatre listings of the New York Times.
Ituarte doesn't plan to limit himself to working with theatre companies that focus on disabilities. He characterizes the attention he's received so far as "blind-boy-writes-play." "I know it sells," he says. "This just happens to be politically correct. It has some sort of curiosity value to it."
Jim Leonard, playwright-in-residence at Arizona State University, praises Ituarte's work. "He's a damn fine writer," Leonard says. "He's not out to show off Jaime Ituarte. He's out to tell a good story. He's a true writer in that he's a bullshitter."
Ituarte sees things "emblematically," Leonard says, and skillfully uses details to imply the big picture. "He goes for the gut of a scene. And he thinks from every character's point of view."
Being blind and Hispanic--and writing so honestly about those issues--has fueled Ituarte's career, Leonard says. But he's concerned that Ituarte could be dismissed as the theatre world's flavor of the week.
"I don't want to see him written off because he writes about what he knows about," Leonard says. "His plays are not strictly autobiographical. They're truthful. His subject matter has moved beyond blindness, way beyond."
While the attention his work has received has been gratifying, Ituarte has worried that it focuses only on his disability. Leonard advised him to be pragmatic. "I told him not to shy away from it. He's in for a world of grants."
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Ituarte hopes to have another opportunity to work in New York City. After all, he enjoyed his stint there as a tourist.
He talks about visiting the usual tourist spots--Broadway, 42nd Street, the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center--as if it were perfectly normal for blind people to go sightseeing. Then the playwright from Tempe casually mentions that his tour guides on these jaunts were blind actors.
"That's kind of funny, isn't it? A bunch of blind people seeing the sights."
V.I.P. opens Wednesday, November 27, at Guadalupe Boys and Girls Club, 8409 South Avenida del Yaqui in Guadalupe. For complete details, see THEATRE listing in Thrills.