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Theater leader receives ASU community award

April 02, 2009

David Hemphill, who has been proactive in bringing black theater to the Phoenix community, is this year’s recipient of Arizona State University’s A. Wade Smith Community Award for Advancement of Race Relations.

The award, given to an Arizona resident whose efforts contribute to the improvement of race relations in the community, was presented March 30 at the annual A. Wade Smith Memorial Lecture on Race Relations, held in ASU’s Memorial Union. One of the criteria for the award is demonstrated leadership and courage in the advancement of race relations.

As executive director of the Black Theater Troupe, Hemphill strives to ensure that the theater provides all segments of the population in the Phoenix metropolitan area high quality productions reflecting the African-American experience, according to Neal Lester, chair of ASU’s English Department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Lester nominated Hemphill for the award.

The theater is entering its 40th season and made its humble beginnings as a grassroots, creative outlet for youth in the 1970s.

For 13 years, Hemphill has consistently challenged his patrons with plays about tense race relations in America, gay and lesbian identities, and violence and drug use, according to Lester.

“While the productions are ethnically specific, the messages have provided communal stability during times of social and political change,” Lester wrote in his nominating statement

“The theater originally provided restless youth an outlet and hopefully prevented racial unrest to come to the valley,” says Hemphill. “Now, the theater creates a safe environment where courageous theater can be provided and helps erase the differences amongst ethnic backgrounds.”

In 1995 he created “From the Page to the Stage,” a fine arts education program designed to serve youth at risk. The program places underserved students in a weekly arts program during the school year. Teachers are able to incorporate history, science, English and drama into their regular curriculum by attending and then responding to a performance at the theater.

“David uses a multi-pronged approach to making theater and performing arts accessible, education new and always relevant,” says Lester.

Under Hemphill’s leadership, the theater created the “Priceless Matinee Series.” The program offers one free matinee performance to individuals who otherwise would not be able to attend. This includes at risk youth and senior citizens.

“Throughout its 40-year history, the Black Theater Troupe has maintained a foundational commitment to culturally diverse programming. Their productions underscore the fact that African-American experiences are inherently and dramatically influenced and impacted by other groups and cultures,” says Lester.

Earlier in the evening, Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C., delivered the A. Wade Smith Memorial Lecture on Race Relations. The title of her talk was “Unfinished Business: Immigration’s Economic Impact on America.”

Previous recipients of the community award are Doris Marshall, Elsie Moore, Betty Fairfax, Jean Fairfax and Raner C. Collins. More information about the award and the A. Wade Smith Memorial Lecture on Race Relations is at