Before she joined the Latinx Theatre Project, Nicole ‘Coco’ Vasquez admits she never imagined herself performing on stage.
The 18-year-old student had taken an introductory drama class at her community college and last year auditioned with the new Springdale, Arkansas-based theater company, mostly out of curiosity.
The experience turned out to be transformative for Coco – igniting a passion for acting and writing. More than that, it provided her a lesson in the power of theater – to entertain, uplift, unite, enlighten and even provoke.
“I never really understood what was possible with theater until I got introduced to this group of young performers and I saw how art is really the soul of a community,” says Coco.
As a founding member of the theatre company, Coco played a starring role in the creation of an arts organization aimed at reaching new, underserved audiences of color, primarily in Northwest Arkansas’ growing Latino community.
The project began as creative collaboration with the NorthWest Arkansas Community College, prominent members of the local arts community, the Arts Center of the Ozarks and a Latino youth arts group, Stitches.
The idea was to create entertaining, culturally relevant theater that reflects the region’s diversity and to engage young artists and performers.
Over six weeks in the spring of 2017, Coco and her fellow cast members collaborated with local playwright and theater professor Ashley Edwards to write their first original play, Follow Me @TioSam.
The play was an inspired piece of devised theater that tells the story of Latino youth – and the immigrant experience - using song, rap, poetry, drama and humor. It followed an undiscovered Latino artist who faces discrimination and hardships with family and focused on themes of cultural alienation, understanding and acceptance.
Follow Me @TioSam opened to enthusiastic audiences at the NorthWest Arkansas Community College’s 2017 Spring Arts and Culture Festival in Bentonville.
Just being given a chance to find our voice and tell our stories, in a welcoming environment, it was really beautiful.
The Arts Center of the Ozarks hosted two performances and the play was also staged at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The group’s 2017 season was capped with performances at TheatreSquared’s Arkansas New Plays Festival in Fayetteville.
“I think what we’re doing with the Latinx Theatre Project is really important, because a lot of people from the immigrant community never felt they were represented in theater until now. A lot of the plays don’t involve anybody who looks like them,” Coco says. “Just being given a chance to find our voice and tell our stories, in a welcoming environment, it was really beautiful. It gave us a type of acceptance that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The Walton Family Foundation provided funding for Follow Me @TioSam as part of its commitment to supporting artists and arts organizations in Northwest Arkansas with audiences that transcend ethnic, generational and socioeconomic boundaries.
“There are some incredibly compelling and underrepresented voices in our region and the opportunity to amplify them through art is really exciting,” says Joe Randel, a senior program officer with the foundation. “The project shows how much talent exists in Northwest Arkansas and how supporting grassroots arts organizations can unlock that potential and help people tell important stories about their community.”
Following the success of the first play, the foundation provided a second grant to help the Latinx Theatre Project begin the process of establishing itself as a permanent non-profit arts group. The company has held several additional community performances around Northwest Arkansas. It opened a second play, Scratch That, at several regional venues in the spring of 2018.
“There are so many stories we want to tell,” Coco says. “I absolutely love the process.”