Artists with local connections are hoping to mine inspiration in St. Joseph.
On an unseasonably warm winter week in January, New York playwright Jessica Huang is getting a taste of the area, touring the Missouri Theater and visiting Cafe Pony Espresso. She’s here as part of an inaugural program that gives an artist a retreat from their usual surroundings for a jolt of creativity.
Called the “National Four Seasons Playwright Residency,” it’s a collaboration between five national organizations — The HMBG Foundation’s National Winter Playwrights Retreat (Run by Ann and Manuel Zárate) in Missouri, Ignition Arts in Oklahoma, Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in Idaho, the National New Play Network in New York and the Tofte Lake Center in Minnesota — that focuses on a single artist during the course of year. It offers them four weeklong retreats where they can focus and collaborate with people in the area to hone their craft.
For Huang, a playwright living in New York and raised in Minnesota, it’s giving her some time to work through her first musical and a play based on The Kim Loo sisters, four siblings with Chinese and Polish backgrounds who became the first Chinese-American performers to star in Broadway musical revues.
“They’re real women that had this incredible career that’s also sort of contending with being different in the entertainment industry and also working with your family,” she said.
Bringing the residency program from Colorado to her old stomping grounds of St. Joseph, Ann Zárate hopes to draw more creative people like Huang to the area to take in its local shops, historic architecture and rural surroundings to help them hone their craft in a different space.
“I was born and raised here, but I’ve been gone for 20 years. And it’s exciting for me to come back and bring a part of who I am now to this town. But more importantly, to bring some national exposure to the beauty of St. Joseph and to the things that already exist here,” she said.
No stranger to the Midwest, Huang, a University of Missouri graduate, grew up in Minnesota. Coming from a family that was mixed when it came to both race and religion helped inform her award-winning works like “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin” and commissions that have been performed in New York, Minnesota and Indiana.
“I think that my perspective on the world is straddling culture because I think of my background, not only racially, but also in my family, my mom comes from a Jewish family, my dad comes from a Christian family ... So I think I spend a lot of times living in two worlds at once and that leads me to explore,” she said.
With the musical Huang is working on (she’s writing the lyrics and book, in collaboration with a composer, Ashley Hanson), she’s digging deeper into those themes. Visiting the Missouri Theater, she said puts her in the right head space to imagine where the performers would have had shows decades ago.
“It was an old vaudeville house and the Kim sisters, who I’m writing about, had a whole stint as vaudeville performers. It was amazing, the theater was so beautifully kept and it’s in such great shape. Talking with (Missouri Theater technical director) Frank (Polleck) really brought it to life for me,” Huang said.
The program will end with Huang, who graduates from The Julliard School in New York City in May, going to the National New Play Network Showcase in New York.
Being a part of the first run of the retreat in St. Joseph, Huang said she’s been amazed by the area. Zárate said that’s the goal.
“Now, she gets to go out and say, ‘I had an amazing experience in Downtown St. Joseph, Missouri.’ That’s exciting to both be able to offer the opportunity for her to come and retreat and be loved on and have a space to write and create,” she said.