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Arts & Culture

Life in poetry: Teacher and poet Deirdre Van Walters advocates for youth groups, theater

Deirdre Van Walters.jpg
Basement Poetry
Deirde Van Walters is a spoken word poet and president of Basement Poetry.

Editors note: This story is part of a series in February exploring the contributions of local Black poets, singers and other artists.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Deirdre Van Walters lights up when she speaks about the students she's working with at Freemansburg Elementary School.

For decades, Van Walters has been known as an advocate for the arts and as a volunteer in the community.

A spoken word poet, she currently serves as president of Basement Poetry and is a teacher with Touchstone Theatre's Young Playwrights' Lab.

Beginnings at Paul Robeson

Her passion for arts began early on, she said.

The daughter of renowned jazz musician Houston Person, Van Walters attended Rutgers University in New Jersey and was an ensemble member of Paul Robeson Black Arts Ensemble, a theatre company affiliated with the founders of Crossroads Theatre.

Crossroads theater, established in 1978 by Ricardo Khan and the late L. Kenneth Richardson, was the first in the Garden State to focus its productions on African American theater traditions. In 1999, Crossroads received a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre in the United States.

In recent years, Van Walters has worked as a community programs manager at Bradley-Sullivan Center LGBT Community Center, and in her current role as the community engagement specialist at Wider Circle.

It's there that she coordinates events and activities, mainly for recipients of Medicaid and Medicare.

"Wider Circle is about promoting community because we've become so isolated, especially with COVID," Van Walters said. "Research has shown that those who are living in that isolated environment, their health tends to decline, so we hope to change that."

Mentoring young poets

In 2015, while performing at an open mic event in Easton, Van Walters caught a performance by members of Basement Poetry.

She said the group's bit reminded her of college days at Rutgers where she studied under legendary actor, Avery Brooks.

After the show she introduced herself.

“They were being really honest and really true to their work. The words were so powerful and you could tell [they] were not reciting, they had something to say and it really touched me. I remember receiving those compliments [with Crossroads] and before I could even ask, they invited me to be a member.”

In 2016, one of the group's first productions, "Her" was featured at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival where it received rave reviews.

The production, which spoke of female empowerment, brought forth another idea.

"We asked our patrons to please bring a feminine [hygiene product] with them because we wanted to give those to the homeless. Many homeless females don't have the basic sanitary [pads] and things they need," she said.

Under Van Walters' leadership, the group established itself as a 501c3, so they could take monetary donations.

"We like to pay our artists, even if it's something as small as a meal," she said. "We've received a lot of love and support from the community, which I'm grateful for."

The work created by Basement's members is vital, she said

"We try to take a strong look at what our community needs and speak the things that make people uncomfortable, racism, gender identity, behavioral health, all the things that people still don't feel free to look at from another perspective," Van Walters said.

Van Walters' poetry often touches on issues such as social justice, inequality and mental health.

Her "In Memory of Christian Taylor," piece was written about a Texas teen who was shot and killed in the Dallas suburb of Arlington after a struggle with police in 2015.

"Needing help yet, not trusting, just able to identify my need. There are numbers I never chose to feed. I become withdrawn and without. They've labeled me unstable, yet their schools just fed me lies instead of a nurturing guidance. Another number now coincides. My color seems to threaten ignorant minds that cannot see... beautiful me," Van Walters recited in a video posted to Facebook in 2018. "Some early intervention could have helped. I do not doubt yet...not one single determination ever helped this brother out. Society of two keys were never granted. For me to be free, only suffer I the unjust equalities just for being me."

In celebration of Black History Month, Walters will join fellow members of Basement Poetry at a celebration held Feb. 25 at the Charles A. Brown Ice House, 56 River St., Bethlehem.

The event will feature several high school students, many of whom have worked with her.

For info, click here.

"A lot of us have that creative bug in us, but if we don't have that safe space, we may never know our greatness in the artistic realm."
Deirdre Van Walters, volunteer and arts advocate

Playwrights in the making

Van Walters is equally as dedicated to her work as a teaching artist with Touchstone Theatre's Young Playwrights' Lab, or YPL.

YPL is now in its 17th year and mentors students from four schools in the Bethlehem Area School District.

As part of its after-school activities, students learn how to write a play and other tips on how to become playwrights.

Last year, 130 students submitted their work and 10 of those were selected to be featured in productions led by Touchstone's ensemble actors.

"It's really rewarding to watch them from the beginning where they think, 'Oh, I don't know what to do, you know,' to being excited about writing," she said.

"We hope to encourage our young people to create and empower them with the tools and a safe space for them to do that. A lot of us have that creative bug in us, but if we don't have that safe space, we may never know our greatness in the artistic realm," she added.

Life lessons, looking ahead

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Touchstone Theatre
Deirdre Van Walters at Touchstone Theatre's "Christmas City Follies" in 2020.

Van Walters credits Black poets such as Ntozake Shange, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Langston Hughes as inspiration, but it is perhaps her father that instilled one of her finest life lessons.

“Outside of school work, it didn’t matter if he was on tour in Japan, I had to write a book report for him once a week. The report had to be on a prominent African American because he really wanted me to be in touch with my history,” Van Walters said of Houston. “To this day, he is still performing at 89 years old. I admire the heck out of him. He has been so true to his passion.”

She hopes to mirror his drive and motivation, but within the theater scene.

“It's just a dream and I hope the dream comes true, but I would love for us [Basement Poetry] as a theater company, even though Ice House is our home theater per se, I would love for us to actually have an alternative school of performing arts," she said.

“A community-based and piece of real estate to be able to share and facilitate community, and I would love for our program to be able to grow to a point that we tour more and work with other communities. To share our talents and gifts and to continue to give some power, strength and love to our community.”