Bob Hicks

 

Sparrow and the whole shebang

"His Eye Is on the Sparrow" at Portland Center Stage sets Ethel Waters in the middle of a world of cultural upheaval

The soil of American popular music has long been watered by black gospel, which in turn was watered by the work songs and spirituals of the slavery days, and those songs were built on the rhythms and instruments of West Africa. At some point it all met the melodic structure of European folk music and the theatrical sass of Tin Pan Alley, often flattening into the minor key of international lamentation, and created a garden gumbo that was all the better for its multiple and serendipitously clashing flavors: a brash, free-flowing, restlessly transforming American stew.

Ethel Waters stirred the pot.

To people who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, Waters was a figure of elderly power and spirituality, famous as a gospel singer, particularly in the Billy Graham Crusades, and iconically for her rendition of the spiritual His Eye Is on the Sparrow, which she had famously performed in the early 1950s Broadway and movie adaptations of Carson McCullers’ novel The Member of the Wedding. For people of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, Waters was something altogether feistier and more glamorous: before she joined the sacred industry of saving souls she was one of the biggest names in show business, a pioneering black star of Broadway and the movies, a recording artist whose jumpy, elegant, playful, and sometimes heart-shattering voice spanned the worlds of the blues, jazz, vaudeville, musical theater, swing, and, yes, occasionally gospel.

Maiesha McQueen as Ethel Waters: power and passion. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

It’s that budding and scrapping star of an Ethel Waters we meet, for the most part, in the musical biography His Eye Is on the Sparrow, which opened Friday night in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage in a production featuring the powerful and brooding Maiesha McQueen as Waters and – off to the side but of utmost importance – Darius Smith at an upright piano as her accompanist and musical provocateur.

Continues…

ArtsWatch Weekly: film fest x 3

Grab your popcorn: PIFF, Portland Black Film Fest, African film fest fill the screens; 10 tips for a busy week onstage; Arvo Pärt, more

Film fanatics, this week is yours: You’ve just hit the trifecta.

The 40th annual Portland International Film Festival opens on Thursday.

The Portland Black Film Festival, featuring films about black life in America, is the newbie of the three, but arrives with some zing. It also opens on Thursday, at the Hollywood Theatre, with Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, and continues through February 22 with 10 features, including Pioneers of African American Cinema. The centerpiece, this Saturday, is the blaxploitation classic Coffy, with action star Pam Grier as special guest.

And the 27th Cascade Festival of African Films, which features films by African filmmakers from the African continent, kicked off on Friday and continues through March 7. It continues a grand tradition of bringing hard-to-find films to town – this year more than 30, including feature films and shorts. Coming up Friday is The Cursed Ones, from Ghana, about a pair of village outcasts accused of witchcraft. Every offering at the Cascade Fest, which takes place at the Cascade campus of Portland Community College, is free.

“I Am Not Your Negro” at PIFF and the Portland Black Film Festival.

PIFF, the granddaddy of the local festivals, continues through February 25 with more than a hundred movies from Afghanistan to Venezuela, in languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish. It kicks off Thursday evening with director Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, which arrives with a passel of admiring-to-ecstatic reviews and a nomination for best documentary feature at this year’s Academy Awards. It’ll also be screened February 18 in the Portland Black Film Festival. Based on Remember This House, the final, unfinished novel of the great American writer James Baldwin, it explores “the absurd – and deeply tragic – relationship between the United States and skin color.” Some of the festival films will have broad commercial releases, and some will be available in art houses or on cable. The PIFF screenings will provide your only opportunity to see some others.

Spend a little time going through the schedules for all three festivals, then make your plans.

“The Cursed Ones,” directed by Nana Obirir Yeboah, at the Cascade Festival of African Films.

 

 


 

TEN TIPS FOR A BUSY WEEK ON THE BOARDS:

Pen/man/ship. Portland Playhouse takes on Christina Anderson’s acclaimed play about a ship at sea headed for Liberia in 1896 at a time when the American Colonization Society is campaigning to send African Americans “back” to Africa. Opens Saturday.

Marjorie Prime. Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer finalist has a top-notch cast at Artists Rep: Vana O’Brien, Chris Harder, Linda Alper, Michael Mendelson. It’s science fiction about aging, technology, and memory loss: O’Brien plays an 85-year-old woman whose memories are prompted by an artificial version of her late husband. Opens Saturday.

Swimming While Drowning. Milagro produces the world premiere of Emilio Rodriguez’ play about a gay teen who leaves home and his homophobic father and winds up in an LGBT homeless shelter in Los Angeles. Opens Friday.

His Eye Is on the Sparrow. Maiesha McQueen stars as the great gospel singer Ethel Waters in Larry Parr’s musical biography, performed in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage. Opens Friday.

Trifles/Dutchman. Defunkt brings back a couple of old one-acts with contemporary inclinations: Susan Glaspell’s 1916 Trifles, a play with feminist overtones about a murder in the country; and Amiri Baraka’s 1964 Dutchman, about a young black man and a seductive white woman who meet on a subway. It was Baraka’s last play under his birth name LeRoi Jones, and coincides with his turn toward black nationalism. Opens Friday.

The Pillowman. The new Life in Arts Productions kicks off with Martin McDonaugh’s dark, brutal, chillingly beautiful drama about child murders and storytelling in a totalitarian state. Jamie Rea directs Bobby Bermea and others. Opens Friday at The Headwaters.

Interlude. Six dances by six choreographers, danced by six company members of PDX Contemporary Ballet, all in the intimate space of CoHo Theatre. Friday-Sunday.

Missed Connections and Other Love Stories. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Readers Theatre Rep brings readings of three short plays that offer a rueful look at love: David Ives’s Sure Thing, Peter Barry’s Sex with a Mathematician, and Brooke Berman’s Defusion. Friday-Saturday, Blackfish Gallery.

Cabaret Boris & Natasha. The latest edition in this adventurous series at Performance Works NW features dancers Mike Barber and Subashini Ganesan, oboist Catherine Lee, PETE’s Amber Whitehall in a piece “made of hungriness and failure,” and more. Friday-Saturday.

In the Blood. Victor Mack directs Suzan-Lori Parks’s contemporary adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, focusing on a woman with five “illegitimate” children who’s trying to break out of poverty. Opens Friday at Portland Actors Conservatory.

 


 

Composer Arvo Pärt

A WHOLE LOT OF PÄRT. The Portland choir Cappella Romana is undertaking an Arvo Pärt Festival that kicks into high gear Thursday through Sunday, featuring the music of the Estonian composer who is perhaps the most-performed living composer in the world. Oregonians have some deep connections with Pärt and his music, and ArtsWatch writers have taken note:

When Oregon met Arvo. Brett Campbell tells the extraordinary tale of Pärt’s 1993 agreement to compose a new work for the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene – a partnership that almost fell apart in a crisis of confidence, and ended in triumph the following year: “The ovation went on for a full 15 minutes, until, amazingly, the shy Pärt himself leapt up to the stage, a beatific smile beaming from the dark cloud of his beard, then embraced [conductor Helmuth] Rilling and the singers in turn.”

Arvo Pärt Festival: spirituality in sound. Daniel Heila explores the “holy minimalism” of Pärt’s devotional music: “The Eastern Orthodox composer’s departure from modernism was marked by an intense reexamination of all that he knew about music and an exploration and embracing of its sacred history.”

A Pärt pilgrimage. Oregon music student Justin Graff recalls his journey to Estonia to meet his musical hero and what he found, and shared, down a long rural road.

 

 


 

ArtsWatch links

 

Theater for Barbarians. Maria Choban gets on her ancestral Greek and goes to a bunch of Greek plays around town. They tell her more about contemporary America than ancient Greece, she writes: where’s the raw, wild passion?

Kill the NEA? What it might mean. The new presidential administration is taking aim at the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We consider what might happen if both federal agencies actually get the ax.

Fertile Ground reviews: Young Bloods. Brett Campbell takes in Broken Planetarium’s Atlantis and Orphic’s Iphigenia 3.0 and discovers theater made by and for a bold new generation.

Global Voices get a fair hearing. A.L. Adams drops in on the first weekend of Boom Arts’ mini-festival of readings of international plays (it concludes this weekend). The upshot? “Global Voices” is all over the map – and that’s a good thing.

Cappella Romana: choral conundrum. Bruce Browne, reviewing the choir’s performance of Finnish composer  Einojuhani Rautavaara’s All Night Vigil (Vigilia), argues that this music from the 1970s deserves much wider attention. And he praises guest basso Glenn Miller: “He is so modest and self-deprecating, you wouldn’t know his capabilities, except his vocal quality is that of the voice of God.”

 


 

About ArtsWatch Weekly

We send a letter like this once a week to a select group of email subscribers, and also post it weekly on the ArtsWatch home page. In ArtsWatch Weekly, we take a look at stories we’ve covered in the previous week, give early warning of events coming up, and sometimes head off on little arts rambles we don’t include anywhere else. You can read this report here. Or, you can get it delivered weekly to your email inbox, and get a quick look at all the stories you might have missed (we have links galore) and the events you want to add to your calendar. It’s easy to sign up. Just click here, and leave us your name and e-address.


 And finally…

We end with a couple of requests. First, if you have friends or family members who you think would enjoy our cultural writing online, could you please forward this letter to them? The bigger our circle of friends, the more we can accomplish. Second, if you’re not already a member of ArtsWatch, may we ask you to please take a moment and sign on? What you give (and your donation is tax-deductible) makes it possible for us to continue and expand our reporting and commenting on our shared culture in Oregon. Thanks, and welcome!

Become a member now!

Kill the NEA? What it might mean

The new administration wants to kill federal arts and cultural funding. That would squeeze every corner of the country, including Oregon.

One thing about the new administration: It’s moving at lightning speed. And it’s doing pretty much what the new president said it would. So while all the firings and hirings and executive orders and pipeline reboots and refugee get-the-boots swirl around us, it makes sense to believe that the administration wasn’t kidding when it targeted the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and federal backing of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the garbage dump. Expect the effort to begin soon, while the administration still has its congressional party votes mostly in line. And expect potential allies in Congress to be engaged in other, bigger fights.

Which is not to say the shutdowns are a done deal. Down-in-the-trenches activism matters. There’s always the chance that these relatively small targets will get lost in the shuffle. And there’s always the chance that the effort to kill them will be weak, while the administration aims most of its firepower at bigger issues, and enough congressional Republicans will see casting a vote to protect a couple of small-potatoes programs as a handy way to show they are independent. On the other hand, these national cultural programs have long been targets of the Republican right, which could see this as its best moment to just get rid of them.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 production of Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” with actor Jeena Yi, was funded partly by the National Endowment for the Arts. Photo: Jenny Graham

So it’s prudent to start to think about what life without the NEA and NEH might be like. (Most of the CPB’s budget is already independent, and it could probably make up most of what it stands to lose from private donors.) The New York Times’s Graham Bowley has a good rundown on the federal picture in his piece What If Trump Really Does End Money for the Arts? And Bob Keefer of Eugene Weekly takes a look at possible consequences in Oregon in his piece Trump Endangers NEA Funding for Local Arts. (Oregon Arts Commission leaders were meeting Thursday to decide what to say publicly and how to say it.)

Continues…

… and oddly, as a pitched political battle sweeps the nation, life goes on. How will the arts world respond to the extraordinary events of the day? How, if at all, will this most divisive and pugilistic of administrations respond to the world of art? Shoes could drop at any moment: the administration has already stated its intent to kill the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, and to end federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While Nero threatens to cut off the fiddles, here are a few highlights of what’s going on in and around town.

*

IT’S FIRST THURSDAY this week, when many galleries open their new monthly shows, so visual art is on our minds. The Portland Art Museum has opened Rodin: The Human Experience, a major show of 52 bronzes, and Constructing Identity, an important overview of historical and contemporary work by African American artists.

Louis Bunce, “Apple”, 1968. Oil on canvas. 41” x 48”//Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

And the invaluable Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem has opened Louis Bunce: Dialogue with Modernism, a retrospective on the late Oregon artist, who Paul Sutinen, in his ArtsWatch review of the show, identifies as a key figure in the city’s cultural life, the catalyst for making Portland a city of modern art. “It is an important show,” Sutinen declares. “It is a great show. It is accompanied by a monograph on Bunce by Roger Hull. It is important. It is great.” And then he explains why. See the sort of thing that the Savonarolas of the federal purse are eager to upend.

Continues…

Kid power: Fly Guy, Teen Musical

Staged!'s "1980's Teen Musical" and Oregon Children's Theatre's "Fly Guy: The Musical" bring some fresh young blood to Fertile Ground

When in doubt, check the kids out.

Portland’s 2017 Fertile Ground Festival, the city’s annual explosion of new plays, dances, solo shows, musicals, circus acts and other performances, ended Sunday after a 10-day run that coincided with an extraordinary stretch of contentious and possibly cataclysmic national upheaval, when attention was riveted on other things.

I’ve been thinking about all the shows I didn’t get to: probably a dozen I really wish I’d seen, but the big mess of life got in the way. Several held promise of speaking more or less directly to the issues of the day: Bonnie Ratner’s Blind, about race and neighborhood control; Eliza Jane Schneider’s Displaced, about world homelessness; Tim Blough’s Badge of Honor, about race and politics; Rich Rubin’s Left Hook, about urban renewal and disappearing black neighborhoods and the fight game. The bad thing is that I missed them. The good thing is that, given Fertile Ground’s nature as a trial lab and launching pad for new works, they might pop up again.

So what did I get to in the festival’s final weekend? Two kids’ shows: the premiere production of Fly Guy: The Musical at Oregon Children’s Theatre, and if we can stretch the definition of “kids” just a little bit, the staged reading/singing of Staged!’s work-in-progress 1980’s Teen Musical.

Continues…

Let’s see, now, where were we? Big inauguration, American carnage, big threats, bellicose speech. Bigger protest, millions of women, pink hats, sea to shining sea. Twitter wars unabated. Health care on the skids. War on reporters. Alternative facts.

And, oh, yes, tucked away there in the corner: a vow to kill the National Endowment for the Arts. And kill the National Endowment for the Humanities. And “privatize” the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which has mostly been privatized already, anyway. Cost-cutting. Getting tough on the budget. Victory for the taxpayers. (NEA 2016 budget: $148 million. NEH 2016 budget: $148 million. Percentage of total federal budget, each: 0.003. CPB 2016 funding via federal government: $445 million. Percentage of total federal budget, all three agencies: less than 0.02. Federal budget 2015 for military marching bands, $437 million. Taxpayer expense to build or renovate National Football League stadiums, past 20 years, mostly through local and regional taxes: more than $7 billion.)

A fiscal conservative or libertarian can make an honest argument for eliminating the NEA and NEH on grounds that they’re simply not an appropriate use of taxpayer funding; culture should be funded privately. Here at ArtsWatch we don’t agree with that analysis. We believe there are many valid reasons for government financial aid to culture, and that the payoffs to taxpayers are many, from economic – in healthy cities, the arts are job and money multipliers – to educational and much more. Historically, consider the continuing dividends of the WPA and other cultural projects underwritten by the federal government during the Great Depression of the 1930s: In Oregon, for instance, Timberline Lodge.

But there’s much more to this move than a courteous philosophical/economic disagreement. The move to defund the NEA has a long and embattled history, dating at least to the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s and ’90s, when a resurgent right-wing political movement convinced that artists were mostly a pack of degenerate liberals discovered that attacking the arts was a splendid red-meat issue for its base. They didn’t succeed in killing off the national endowments, but they did weaken them. The new administration seems to think it can finally finish them off. That would weaken state agencies such as the Oregon Arts Commission, which gets funding from the NEA, and in turn weaken arts organizations across the state, which get money from the OAC and, often more importantly, a stamp of approval that helps them raise private donations. Killing the endowments would be a rash move that would save hardly anything in the national budget and cause deep mischief to the nation’s well-being. It strikes us as petty and vindictive and, frankly, foolish.

It’s also a reach that might fail. Republicans like culture, too, and understand its value, and often support it generously. Traditionally, that has included Republican politicians. Will they fall in line with the new administration, or will they quietly scuttle its gambit? Keep your eye on this thing. We will, too.

 


 

Duffy Epstein and Dana Green in the premiere of the D.B. Cooper play “db.” Photo: Owen Carey

THE FERTILE GROUND FESTIVAL, Portland’s sprawling celebration of new works in theater, dance, solo performance, circus arts, musical theater, comedy, and other things that ordinarily happen on a stage, continues through January 29. ArtsWatch writers have been out and about, writing their impressions. You can catch up with some of them below:

Continues…

Fridtjof Nansen’s polar express

Lawrence Howard's Armchair Adventurer series heads toward the North Pole with the tale of the great Norwegian explorer and statesman

East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. But Rudyard Kipling didn’t say anything about north and south, and as Lawrence Howard points out, when you’re living on a globe, eventually they do meet: It’s inevitable.

Howard, the cofounder of Portland Story Theater and spinner of a string of Armchair Adventures, has chronicled in several tales the travails, disasters, endurance and occasional triumphs of the men who attempted to conquer the South Pole in the early years of the 20th century: Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, and their crews.

Lawrence Howard reimagines the icy north. Photo: Scott Bump

With his new solo show, Nansen of the North, Howard for the first time in his polar adventures heads north instead of south. And he travels backward into the 19th century, a place he’s taken us before with his Armchair tales about The Essex, a Nantucket whaler that was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, thus inspiring Melville’s novel Moby-Dick; and John “Babacombe” Lee, a Victorian thief and laborer who survived three hangings after being convicted on slim evidence of slitting a seaside spinster’s throat in 1884.

Continues…