At first, "dystopia" -- an imaginary place or state of being that's akin to a living hell -- seems an unlikely theme for the nonprofit literary arts organization Youth Speaks' Living Word Festival. But Youth Speaks, which is mainly reputed for its local and national standing-room-only teen poetry slams, is looking to raise a few brows. Still, the bold thematic content of the yearly festival, which comments on societal woes, is only half the story. Youth Speaks is also branching out into different terrain artistically, by making theater its main dish. While the organization's Living Word Project, which supports the festival, has been the theatrical arm for some time, it may soon be the legs, mouth, and brain of the group, too.
"We're moving way beyond spoken word and poetry," says Paul Flores, program director of Youth Speaks. "We're not just putting kids up at a microphone for three minutes anymore ... theater is our future." Flores says that the nonprofit -- which is currently funded by the Irvine Foundation, the Theatre Communications Group, and the National Performance Network -- is accomplishing its goals with the commission of new work and collaboration with top directors and theater artists. But, he adds, the plays will be far from conventional.
"It's about aesthetics, hip hop, and spoken word ... and really updating historical and classic texts and making them more relevant to future generations," he says. "We are breaking open the assumption that theater is made for old white people."
The fest continues through Oct. 9 at various venues around town
Admission is free-$15
To that end, the Living Word Festival: Dystopia is a weeklong theater fest that includes two commissioned world premieres on its hot-ticket bill. The first, Dante's Divine Comedy, is written, in part, by teen poets and directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang and Eden Jequinto; it riffs on Dante's work, but also aims to expose the injustices toward minorities in today's societies. The other debut is Fear of a Brown Planet, concerning three Chicanos in an internment camp. The show, performed by the group Chicano Messengers of Spoken Word, is an allegorical piece, says Flores (who is one of the performers), that can best be explained as a Chicano version of Sartre's No Exit. It comments on the societal prisons, like barrios and the lower tier of academic establishments, in which Latinos too often find themselves.
Other highlights of the festival include a new solo show by Rennie Harris, which tells the tale of his unlikely career path from Philly street dancer to rap-video choreographer to renowned modern-dance artist, and Generations, an intergenerational literary performance piece featuring, among others, Carl Hancock Rux and Beth Lisick.
"I'm excited about the festival," says Flores. "This year is our biggest year yet, because this is the year we put our theater up in front of everyone."