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Young Latino Artists Reaching New Audiences in Northwest Arkansas

January 16, 2017
Latinx Youth Theatre Project explores themes of acceptance, understanding in debut play

“I heard that in America, the streets were paved with gold. I didn’t know I would need to pave them when I got here.”

That one bit of dialogue, from the new play Follow Me @TioSam, captures the heartache and struggle of an immigrant father who has decided to leave the United States, and his family, to return to Mexico.

It is among the many lines in Follow Me @TíoSam, created by the nascent Latinx Youth Theatre Project, that are having a powerful impact on Northwest Arkansas audiences. The play focuses on the immigrant experience and explores themes of family, cultural alienation, understanding and acceptance.

Performed on four occasions earlier this spring, Follow Me @TíoSam caps its run on June 18 at the Walton Arts Center’s Nadine Baum Studios in Fayetteville, as part of TheatreSquared’s Arkansas Young Playwrights Showcase.

The play is the product of a unique creative collaboration between several prominent members of the Northwest Arkansas arts and academic community and a Springdale-based Latino youth art group, known as Stitches.

The principals united with shared goals: to create entertaining, culturally relevant theatre that reflects the region’s diversity and to engage young artists and performers from underserved communities to tell their story.

“I wanted to convey the message that, at the end of the day, what makes us different shouldn’t really matter,” says Stitches leader Samuel Rivera Lopez, 19, a Springdale visual artist, podcaster and musician.

Back row, left to right: Emily McCormick, Damian Dena, Savannah Vaughan, M. Sativa Vela, Daniel Gomez and Noah Arrindell; front row, left to right: Ever Geronimo Villalobos, CoCo Vasquez, Samuel Rivera Lopez and Martin Garay

The idea for the Latinx Youth Theatre Project emerged from a chance meeting between Samuel and David Jolliffe, a University of Arkansas English literacy professor. David had been working with Springdale’s Arts Center of the Ozarks to develop programming to reach new audiences, particularly for the city’s growing Latino population. He approached Sam after seeing him speak about the young immigrant experience in Northwest Arkansas on a panel about community cohesion in Springdale. Samuel, the play’s namesake character, jumped at the opportunity.

“There are not that many people who look like me in positions of influence within government or the arts,” says Samuel, who was born in Mexico and has lived in Springdale for nine years.

“To me, this represented a lot more than (developing) the play. It was an actual step forward in creating content and more opportunities for our community.”

David and Samuel’s meeting stirred up a whirlwind of creative energy. David enlisted University of Arkansas poet, Vicente Yepez, to interview Sam and a group of friends from the local Latino art community.

Over six weekends in early 2017, they told stories, wrote poetry and rapped about their experiences as immigrants. The group turned to Ashley Edwards, playwright and theatre professor at Northwest Arkansas Community College, who produced an initial draft of Follow Me @TioSam. Working with the Stitches group and director Michael Landman, a University of Arkansas theatre professor, Ashley honed the script over three weeks of writing and rehearsals. What resulted was an inspired piece of devised theatre that tells the stories of Latino youth utilizing song, rap, poetry, drama and humor.

“This play gives a voice to this really bright young artistic generation of kids who haven’t really had a chance to develop their own art,” says David.

Follow Me @TioSam follows an undiscovered Latino artist who faces discrimination and hardships with family. He pursues a mission to speak up for understanding and cohesion in his community by bringing together other undiscovered millennial artists to make their voices heard through art.

The play takes place in Samuel’s garage and its action revolves around a young politician who is trying to enlist the support of young Latinos.

“I wanted to convey the message that, at the end of the day, what makes us different shouldn’t really matter. Can we accept the differences and move on? Can I be myself and still be accepted?” says Samuel. “For all of us, it was writing about our experience being Latino, or being black or being white. We share a lot of commonalities. But a lot of times we focus too much on the differences.”

The Walton Family Foundation provided funding for the production as part of our commitment to helping promote new artists in Northwest Arkansas connect and engage with audiences that transcend ethnic, generational and socioeconomic boundaries.

EagleView/Edward MatthewsDamian Dena (left) and Samuel Rivera Lopez

Follow Me @TioSam was the opening production at the Northwest Arkansas Community College’s Spring Arts and Culture Festival in Bentonville. The Arts Center of the Ozarks hosted two performances and the play was also staged at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

“Before we even had the audience, I was feeling like this was a magnificent win,” says Michael, the play’s director.

“Just working with Sam and the group, I could see many of them becoming more confident about expressing themselves, having fun in sharing who they were. I could see them growing as individuals, potentially as artists.”

But what’s been most rewarding for the creative team is that the play has attracted a diverse audience. “Young, old, white brown – people are saying, ‘This work is essential,’” adds Michael.

Following the performance at Crystal Bridges, Samuel recalls being approached by a group of young immigrants from Northwest Arkansas’ Marshallese community. They were eager to meet the play’s star and enthusiastically recounted several lines of dialogue from the play.

“To see what we did, and the reception we got, it made me incredibly happy,” he says.

“Things like that don’t happen very often for people like me. We don’t always have that opportunity.”

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