Poets speak out for diversity at packed Selah Theatre

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La Tasha Do’Zia-Early reads poems. (Photo/Jennifer Avery of Jenspirations, LLC)

Even though it was April Fool’s Day, all of the poems, stories, and songs performed last Saturday night at Selah Theatre were no joke. Writers from a wide range of backgrounds came together for an event titled “Sharing Our Truths: Voices of Diversity.” Sponsored by United ShenValley Artists (USVA)—an outreach program of Selah Theatre Project—the program included featured readers, a group activity, and an open mic.

La Tasha Do’Zia-Earley, the founder of Selah, and event organizer Heather Davis kicked off the evening with a call to remember and appreciate the rich diversity of cultures and backgrounds represented in Warren County.  Davis discussed the unique ability of art to encourage empathy between vastly different groups of people, a theme echoed by performers throughout the night.

Hamid Malikzay from Saudi Arabia. (Photo/Jennifer Avery of Jenspirations, LLC)

Immediately after the introduction, special guest performer Hamid Malikzay took the stage. A top student from Saudi Arabia, Malikzay is a well-known Qari, or reader of the Quran, who mesmerized the audience with his unaccompanied singing of passages from the Muslim holy book. Though sung in Arabic, Malikzay’s performance seemed to touch audience members deeply. His participation in the event was facilitated by members of the Islamic Center of Front Royal.

Poet Jose Padua, left, with ASL Interpreter Frank Bravo. (Photo/Jennifer Avery of Jenspirations, LLC)

Do’Zia-Earley followed Malikzay with a powerful reading of poems by African-American writers Langston Hughes, Sojourner Truth, Prince Ea, and Ntozake Shange.  Her expressive vocals and gestures transported the room as she took on the voice of each writer from a Harlem Renaissance genius to a women’s rights activist and former slave to a rapper to a contemporary playwright.

Civic Poet Tree. (Photo/Jennifer Avery of Jenspirations, LLC)

Reading originals poems, the next performer was Filipino-American writer Jose Padua, whose work highlighted the importance of not following the crowd and of standing up against prejudice. His dry delivery was at turns humorous and biting.

Local artist Cathy Wolniewicz eased the crowd into intermission by asking them to complete a group activity—the “Civic Poet Tree.” Each person wrote a hope for the future on a paper leaf and stuck the leaf onto a giant tree painted on a wall of the theatre. The resulting messages will be compiled into a group poem and sent to state and federal representatives.

At intermission, audience members got to know one another and enjoyed foods from around the world, including Korean chicken, fried plantains, taquitos, dolmades, Irish soda bread and Irish butter, pierogis, samosas and mango chutney, and latkes. As attendee Laura Kelly commented, “Many of the exotic dishes were representative of immigrant communities here in America, so just moving down the buffet was an educational experience.”

Rich Follett Sings. (Photo/Jennifer Avery of Jenspirations, LLC)

Bringing the group back together, local theatre arts teacher, poet, and actor Rich Follett played guitar and sang an original composition about peace. He also performed a poem and remarked on the fact that by listening to one another across cultures, everyone in the room was helping to build bridges and rise above hate.

Open mic performers included Gladys Sneed, a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico, telling her story of coming to America; Steve Allen May of Alexandria reading poems about WWII and one by a Japanese immigrant; Will Speakman performing a monologue about how he found his true voice; Kaelyn Speakman playing keyboard and performing a poem about her identity as a young woman; and Asad Kamel, a Pakistani-American playing keyboard and singing in Arabic. Saud Mohamed, a U.S. citizen and Muslim, also took the stage to explain the real meaning of the term jihad, which does not refer to violence but to the internal and external struggle for self-control and betterment. “Speaking out against hate is jihad,” Mohamed pointed out.

Asad Kamel. (Photo/Jennifer Avery of Jenspirations, LLC)

Other speakers included local fiber artist Melissa Yoder Ricks describing the positive and negative realities of her southern childhood; John Durgavich of Arlington reading about his global travels; Allen Dec, with poems about gender expression and spirituality; Adam Lutton with his survival and coming out story; activist Larry Yates describing the life of John “Bo” Flynn, who played an ongoing role in desegregation efforts in Warren County; Brenden McHugh, who recited Robert Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins” from memory; and local dance teacher Mary Olin, who read a closing poem about friendship.

Uncle Sam. (Photo/Jennifer Avery of Jenspirations, LLC)

In addition to these performances, event organizer Tammy Ruggiero invited local artists and art lovers to join the newly formed United ShenValley Artists to work together for positive change and to build bridges instead of walls. She encouraged everyone to sign up for a project that will involve the creation of artistic “bricks” that the group will assemble into a symbolic bridge.

She also announced the next Sharing Our Truths event, which will be a reading and open mic with the theme “Art Saves Lives,” to be held Friday, June 23 at Selah Theatre.

Lady Liberty. (Photo/Jennifer Avery of Jenspirations, LLC)

In the first few days after the April 1 reading, several audience members and participants let the organizers know that they had already written new poems inspired by the event.

For more information or to participate, please email heather@selahtheatreproject.org.

Find Selah Theatre Project here: https://www.selahtheatreproject.org/

Find United ShenValley Artists on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/United-ShenValley-Artists-An-Outreach-of-Selah-Theatre-Project

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