1 of 2
Carol Petersen, Speak Theater Arts
Allan Axibal, left, Miles Ellington Gregley and Rafael Agustin of "NWC: Three Hurtful Words."

The three performers who comprise the ensemble for "NWC: Three Hurtful Words" — a stage production they've been taking around the country since they graduated from the University of California-Los Angeles — is not your average entertainment trio.

Ecuadorian Rafael Agustin moved to the United States with his parents in 1988. "I thought America was this big wonderland like Disneyland, but things went downhill from there," Agustin said from Alabama during a telephone interview with all three.

Allan Axibal, a native of the Philippines who moved to the United States about 21 years ago when he was just 4, originally considered developing his talent for slam poetry into a one-man show about dealing with immigration issues.

Miles Ellington Gregley, who is black and grew up in Pasadena, was a little nervous at first about taking "a show like this" out on the road.

"NWC" is an acronym for three racial slurs that we can't print in a family newspaper, and the show has taken the country by storm with its hour-and-a-half presentation of Gregley, Agustin and Axibal giving their personal takes on what it was like to grow up in an atmosphere of racial slurs and stereotypes. It's this season's "On the Edge" series offering at Kingsbury Hall.

The three actors will be doing much more than just spending a couple of nights performing in Salt Lake City. In a unique project encompassing four Utah counties, they'll be "in residence" for nearly three weeks, conducting workshops, panel discussions and a variety of other community events, in addition to performing in Salt Lake City, Ogden, Logan and Park City.

Axibal, 25, said the three met at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., but the concept for the show didn't come together until they all transferred to UCLA. "Most of this started with Rafael, who was studying theater and TV and wanted to do a one-man show. I was doing slam poetry and Miles has a background in stand-up comedy."

They're various ethnic and talent backgrounds may differ, but all grew up in a time when racial issues played important roles in their lives. "Rafael went to Leisel Reinhart and Steven T. Seagle (co-writers and co-producers of 'NWC') and they started kicking around ideas for a one-man show. Rafael's stuff had a lot to do with immigration.

"They moved more into his personal life and then brought the rest of us in with our stories and it turned into something more important and compelling."

After that, said Axibal, "it pretty much took off in an uncanny way. We first staged it at UCLA, and the turnout was a lot bigger than we had expected. So we moved into a larger, 600-seat theater, and we were still turning people away. Then we got booked in a downtown Los Angeles theater. Within three-to-four months, we started the national tour."

The five of them — including Reinhart and Seagle — formed Los Angeles-based Speak Theater Arts as equal partners in the company. The three actors graduated from UCLA and have been touring with the show since 2004. "The reaction has been welcoming," said Axibal, "it's a comedy, and they laugh, but they also get the message that we're putting out there. There are two reactions — one to the title and one to the show itself. It's an ensemble piece, but each of us has some spotlight moments."

Rafael Agustin, who goes by the nickname "Rafa," said the material in the show is autobiographical. "It deals with our life stories and everything that happened to us. The heart and meat of the show is about when we first heard these expressions, and how they affect our cultural identity. We all shared similar experiences.

"We were discussing the n-word when we first began writing this, and we talked about what it means to be black."

When it comes to hateful language, " ... as Americans we are in a revolution about the way we address each other. People ask what they should say.

"While the show is more inclusive and comedic, it has a social message we can all get into. During our ethnicity workshops and outreach programs, we touch on bigger subjects, like race relations, the concept of how society is constructed and other themes. I share my story about how I lived undocumented for 14 years. What this debate really entails is legal and illegal workers all controlled by the same forces."

Gregory, a native of California, said the three guys were all a little skeptical at first. "We knew what we were doing was the right thing, but we didn't expect it to take off like it did. We like to say we're part of this debate about race. We have a respect for other views but dialogue is important.

"We were in New York City recently and there was an off-Broadway play about Uganda with a white guy playing all these Ugandan characters — and it worked."

Both Agustin and Gregory have been in Utah before. Agustin learned how to snowboard at Brighton, and Gregory spent about three days in Salt Lake City a few years ago. "I have a roommate in California who's a Utah Jazz fan," he said.

Greg Geilmann, general manager of Kingsbury Hall, said "NWC: Three Hurtful Words" will be in Utah to create "a dialogue on language and respect."

"This has played at 70 other universities and colleges. The National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education meets every May, and this year it was these guys performing. I hope this will lead to more collaboration with our sister schools in Utah."

Comment on this story

In connection with the "NWC" performances, there will be several community events as well, including a workshop by the Utah Arts Council on the role of the arts in controversial issues.

For a list of residency events and discussions in Salt Lake City go online to www.kingtix.com.

If you go

What: "NWC: Three Hurtful Words"

Where: Kingsbury Hall, University of Utah

When: Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $24.50-$29.50

Phone: 581-7100

Web: www.kingtix.com

Parental advisory: some language may not be suitable for children under 13

Also: Nov. 6, Utah State University, Logan;

Nov. 7 and 8, Peery's Egyptian Theater, Ogden;

Nov. 17, Eccles Center, Park City


E-mail: ivan@desnews.com