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Get ready for an ambitious New Year: The first two productions of 2000 tackle issues of ethnicity, identity and spirituality.

Directions in Diversity

Did someone say Richmond was a conservative town? You'd never guess it by looking at the first plays out of the gate this year, two challenging and complex dramas that put minority characters in the spotlight. Starting Jan. 13, the Shard Live Performance Collective will offer "Marisol," the apocalyptic story of a young Puerto Rican, at the Firehouse Theatre. The next day, TheatreVirginia opens "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," August Wilson's depiction of blacks searching for identity in the early 1900s.

More than just dramatizing specific aspects of the Latin- and African-American experiences, these shows pose big questions about America, human nature and the universe. Such lofty ambitions shouldn't dilute the entertainment value, though. Thanks to the pioneering work of two energetic directors — Shard Live's Richard St. Peter and Kent Gash at TheatreVirginia — both plays should include generous doses of vitality and celebration along with the intellectual stimulation.

St. Peter has been trying to get "Marisol" on stage for more than two years. But the controversial material tends to scare potential producers away. "[The play] tackles just about every issue you can imagine," says the director. "It deals with the homeless, the environment, it deals with racism, the military-industrial complex, I could go on and on."

The play tells the story of Marisol, a young Latina working as a copy editor in New York, who has subverted her cultural heritage in order to fit into the white world. She is confronted by her guardian angel and told that a war is about to break out in heaven. When that war turns the world upside down, Marisol has to rebuild her life, physically and psychologically. "Not only is she forced to strip away the veneer of WASP-ishness that she's put on," St. Peter explains, "but she also strips away the Puerto Rican-ness. It becomes a story about redeeming humanity and all of us. It ultimately transcends culture."

St. Peter made his initial mark on the Richmond theater scene last spring with his impressive work directing "subUrbia" at Theatre IV. He followed it with a bravura production of the lesbian love story, "Stop Kiss" for Richmond Triangle Players in the fall. While St. Peter's cultural background mixes French, Native-American, Irish and Cuban influences, he has a particular interest in Latino playwrights. "I just have a fascination with Latin American culture. I think there's more to it than Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez," he asserts.

One of the attractions for St. Peter is the freewheeling use of supernatural and allegorical elements. "Jose Rivera [who wrote 'Marisol'] is heavily influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He's all about magic realism," he says. "What it does is give me liberties to make the world however I want. It's a great, great challenge."

Magic realism poses a different challenge for Gash who is directing "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." The play depicts a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911 where all the residents are African-American. "A lot of times the play is done in an extremely hyperrealistic sense ... but there's a whole other powerful undercurrent running though it that is perhaps more abstracted and more spiritual," explains the animated Gash. "If there's anything that's going to be a distinction about this production, it's that we're making [the magical elements] more manifest."

These otherworldly elements include voodoo, which Gash concedes may antagonize some people. "Voodoo and other African-based religions are still seen with a great deal of skepticism," he acknowledges. "[One of the characters] calls voodoo 'heebee-jeebee stuff,' which is how a lot of people in the audience may perceive it, especially initially. But as the play goes on, [the use of voodoo] becomes about something else."

Though Gash calls Alabama home, he has made a name for himself in Richmond for putting a distinctive spin on the shows he directs here. A year ago, he was at the helm of TheatreVirginia's nontraditional production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which featured an all-African-American cast. While "Joe Turner" focuses on the black experience in America, Gash asserts that the play has universal appeal.

"[Playwright] August Wilson put his finger on a sense of rootlessness and restlessness with 'Joe Turner,' the inability to completely feel like you belong," Gash says. "I think it's something we all struggle with. We want to find our own identity, and yet no one exists in a vacuum. We want to find a way to be OK as we move through the world. That's the tension, that's the struggle."

Will both "Marisol" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" find an audience in Richmond? Gash is confident: "I think [the Richmond] audience is really intelligent and really open to theatrical journeys. They'll go with us, I trust them."

St. Peter believes his production will draw people's attention in the way that a car accident does. "I think it's going to be a big mess," he says, smiling. "But I think it's going to be a good and interesting big

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