Project Humanities director Neal Lester says the idea for Vital Voices grew unexpectedly from a Facebook conversation between himself and Tamika Lamb, performance artist and managing director of Savvy Pens.
Lamb says she had a "literary crush" on Hurston; Lester (also an English professor at ASU) wrote his second book on Hurston's work. The two instantly wanted to turn the conversation into something bigger, Lester says, and Stephens offered to help turn create a public series about "artists, literary folks, and people in general who have something to say."
Lester says the main purpose of Vital Voices is to celebrate those who have championed minority or otherwise voiceless communities, while keeping with the Project Humanities mission to share knowledge between academia and the larger community.
"The fact that we are taking it out of the classroom, I think, is important," he says. "[Vital Voices] will bring people out to talk, but not necessarily in an academic setting. There are no experts here."
Lamb says she often uses Hurston's work in her plays and writing workshops, and on Thursday will be performing a monologue about Hurston's life using quotes from her novels and autobiography. (Other performers include poets Stephens and Tomas Stanton of spoken word group Phonetic Spit.)
"She has been one of my biggest black literary heroes, because [of] how she wasn't appreciated until after her death," Lamb says. "So getting together with other people who love her too is exciting."
Lamb's goals for this first Vital Voices are modest: Get people to look at art in a new way, as a community, and have fun learning from each other's perspectives.
Stephens says they chose her hostel to host the first Vital Voices because of its uniqueness within Phoenix, and because it is a place that "is alive with stories" from the decades' worth of multicultural travelers it has housed.
"It is never scripted; we write the scripts here," she says.
With Project Humanities underwriting the costs, Stephens says she got to work and planned the initial event in just two weeks. Vital Voices will probably stay small over the summer, with organizers using these first attempts to figure out how to grow the series this fall.
Stephens says Vital Voices will sprout up at a different, "non-institutional" location, celebrating a different "lost voice," each month. She would not narrow down who will be featured next - Vital Voices may even expand past literary figures -- only saying that the chosen muses "will not [be] as mainstream ... we're not going to be doing one on Stephen King."
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There is no set curriculum for Vital Voices yet, Stephens says -- for a reason.
"All these authors we've chosen, they've thought outside the box, and lived their lives that way. So we need to run this event in a similar way, share that same spirit. We hope we can keep a very flexible model for [Vital Voices]. We don't want to figure it out too fast."
Phoenix Youth Hostel is at 1026 North 9th St. in downtown Phoenix. Vital Voices is free and open to the public. Discussion will be from 7 to 9 p.m., and attendees are encouraged to bring a piece by Hurston to discuss. Food will be provided.