The Social Justice Project Blends Poetry, Dance, Politics at Mesa Arts Center

Local artists are putting their creative spin on social justice conversations surrounding immigration, LGBTQ rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement in a collaborative performance piece they'll present Friday, May 1, at Mesa Arts Center.

It's part of The Social Justice Project, an ongoing enterprise in promoting community awareness and dialogue that was developed by Phonetic Spit artists Myrlin Hepworth and Tomas Stanton. Phonetic Spit uses hip hop and poetry to "combat illiteracy, cultural alienation, and silence."

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During a recent rehearsal for the performance, held inside an ASU dance studio on the Tempe campus, we watched Stanton emerge from the wings, walking slowly across the stage while unfurling a roll of the yellow caution tape used at crime scenes.

It's one of many powerful elements in the show -- which also includes a haunting vocal and guitar performance by Vaughn Willis harkening back to heinous acts committed during pre-hashtag days. Poetic riffs delivered by Stanton spotlight social media trends that reveal much about America's collective consciousness. From hoodies to hands up, signifiers of social injustice abound.

Performers conjure names that have come to symbolize an ongoing struggle for civil rights: Matthew Shepard, Trayvon Martin, Leelah Alcon, and several more. Some share personal stories rooted in social injustice. The performance also includes recordings of music affiliated with the civil rights era, and a mother's plea that her son's death not be in vain.

The production, which shares the name of the initiative it's a part of, also includes dance solos performed by Liliana Gomez, Ashley Baker, and Jay Bouey -- plus snippets of songs about immigrant struggles performed by a trio of musicians that includes Carlos H. Urtubey, Cassandra Hernandez, and Donna Janowski. Participating artists also include Sydney Jackson, Joy Young, and the DJ Panic.

Stanton conceived the performance as a fusion of spoken word, live music, movement, and personal narratives created in the style of Newspaper Theatre -- which is part of a theatrical form called Theatre of the Oppressed created during the early 1970s by the late director and dramatist Augusto Boal of Brazil.

The production is directed by Xanthia Walker, a Phoenix New Times 2015 Big Brain performing art nominee. Walker founded Rising Youth Theatre with fellow ASU alum Sarah Sullivan. Based at Phoenix Center for the Arts, the non-profit engages youth with professional artists including playwrights to create original theater works reflections contemporary challenges facing youth -- including incarceration, homelessness, and foster care. They've also engaged fellow creatives in presenting pop-up performances called the Light Rail Plays for folks riding Valley Metro light rail through Central Phoenix.

Walker says The Soul Justice Project piece "is about finding the human story that is present or absent from our daily consumption of media stories about issues of justice." After performers chose issues they wanted to address, the group collaborated on ways to weave them together into a compelling performance.

Spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who has performed at Mesa Arts Center, was on hand for last Tuesday's rehearsal, which was the cast's first full run-through. After conferring with Joseph, Walker offered the following note: You've got the basics down; now let's ramp up the storytelling.

"We're not naïve enough to believe that the show will change the world, but we do believe in the power of words to ignite first steps," reflects Stanton. He says the arts can help to "humanize issues that are challenging to discuss and to create a platform and safe space for dialogue."

Stanton notes that audience members are welcome to stay after the performance to ask questions, participate in a community dialogue, and learn about "opportunities to take direct action." Local organizations including the Isac Amaya Foundation, which supports youth pursuing higher education, will be on hand before and after the performance to share information about issues addressed in the piece. Event organizers note that a portion of the proceeds from the performance will benefit the foundation.

The Soul Justice Project performance takes place at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 1 at Mesa Arts Center. Find more information on the Mesa Arts Center website.

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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble