People Gather To Read Banned Plays In Phoenix

By Jude Joffe-Block
Published: Friday, October 3, 2014 - 7:13am
Updated: Friday, October 3, 2014 - 9:35am
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(Photo courtesy of Mary Stephens)
The first Banned Play reading in Feb. 2013 of Amiri Baraka's "Great Goodness of Life."

There’s a budding tradition here in Phoenix. People have been gathering to watch actors – sometimes experienced, sometimes not - read plays that have been banned or censored.

The series started about a year and a half ago.  

They are no frills productions, people reading from scripts in front of a live audience, followed by a dialogue.

“The plays are a combination of mostly banned, mostly censored, but highly controversial,” said Mary Stephens, the creator of the series and the producing director at Performance in the Borderlands, a performing arts initiative at Arizona State University. “I’d say about 80 percent have been censored.”

So far there have been about a dozen readings. Stephens said some plays were censored 60 years ago, others more recently.

When Stephens put on the first reading she wasn’t sure what kind of audience it would draw.

“And we had this kind of inter-generational, inter-racial [crowd.] Many queer folks were attending. [People were] sitting till 10:30, 11:00 at night to talk about the issues in Amiri Baraka’s Great Goodness of Life, that was our first one,” Stephens said. “And I think we were all pretty blown away that a play reading could attract this much support, and actually have people sitting around talking about ideas.”

Since then the audiences have continued to grow.

The play reading on Friday evening is Radio Mambo: Culture Clash Invades Miami. It used to be taught in the Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson public schools.

When the school district dismantled that program in 2012, many referred to books that disappeared from student reading lists as “banned.”  

Though, to be fair, the Tucson Unified School District objects to that characterization.

“To have the play be something that has been banned or was removed and censored, as recently as 2012, is something that, places the urgency right in our own backyards,” Stephens said.

Radio Mambo was written in the 1990s by Culture Clash, a Chicano performance troupe based out of Los Angeles.

One member of the group, Richard Montoya, will be in tonight’s reading. Montoya and his co-authors traveled to Miami to do ethnographic research on the ground, and then wrote the play based on the many interviews they did.

It’s about that city’s multicultural population and ethnic tensions.

“It should tell us something about who we are as Americans,” Montoya said. “And that is really at the core of much of the work of Culture Clash and my work. I’m trying to humanize folks and looking at the similarities, as much as fanning the flames and looking at the disparity.”

The play is full of monologues of characters depicting Miami’s diverse residents, as well as the authors’ own impressions of the city as outsiders.

Montoya said for him, the hard part about the play being removed from Tucson’s curriculum was the impact on students and teachers there.

“It wasn’t so much that. ‘oh my play was banned, my play, my play.’ No, there were students involved and teachers and cultural workers,” Montoya said. “I never believed that Arizona should boycotted. As cultural responders we need to be here, investigating and doing our work.”

In fact, Montoya is doing just that. He is part of a team creating a new original piece about Arizona’s border in Nogales.

Stephens and Performance in the Borderlands are behind that project. Also participating is Sean San Jose of San Francisco’s Campo Santo Theater Company.  

“We will have a full length original piece devised with Arizona artists from these artists coming and visiting doing research in 16 months,” Stephens said. “And then it will premier in Arizona and then go on tour.”

That’s coming up.

But for tonight, you can catch the free reading of Radio Mambo at Combine Studios at 7 pm on Friday.



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