Bobby Bermea

 

Vanport Mosaic: story comes home

The Mosaic's citywide exhibits and events bring the many stories of Vanport back to life 70 years after the flood changed Portland history

“Stories need to be freed to do their work.” — Laura Lo Forti

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Memorial Day, 1948, was a seminal moment in the evolution of contemporary Portland. On that day, the city of Vanport, hastily constructed to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II, was wiped out when a dike gave way at 4:05 p.m. The swelling Columbia River came crashing through the breach, and by nightfall, there were at least 15 dead. Vanport, at one point the largest housing project of its kind in the United States and the second largest city in Oregon, was under water and some 18,500 people were left homeless.

A few of the fasces of Vanport. Photo: The City of Portland Archives

This Memorial Day week – Wednesday-Monday, May 23-28 – the Vanport Mosaic will commemorate the 70th anniversary of that cataclysmic event with a four-day festival of “exhibits, theater performances, a reunion/celebration of former Vanport residents, documentary screenings and recordings, poetry, tours of the historic Vanport City area and community engagement activities.” You can see the full schedule here.

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And In This Corner … La’Tevin Alexander Ellis

At Oregon Children's Theatre, the actor takes a swing at playing the great Cassius Clay on the way to becoming the greater Muhammad Ali

The day I met with La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, the star of Idris Goodwin’s And In This Corner: Cassius Clay — The Making of Muhammad Ali, opening Saturday at Oregon Children’s Theatre, he had just come from teaching middle schoolers about the eponymous character of his piece, a role that has significant meaning for him. Ellis is uniquely suited to the role of teacher in this instance. Though Ali had retired a decade before Ellis was born, the boxing legend was a family hero.

“When I was growing up, in my house, my momma had posters of all these great black people, men and women, both here in America and elsewhere, and one of the main ones, one of the most consistent ones was Ali,” he said. “My momma loved him, my grandma loved him, my grandfather loved him.” Indeed, for Ellis, Ali forms the third corner of a personal trinity that also includes Malcolm X and Bob Marley. “What I learned from (Ali) is, ‘Live your life like it means something to you. Be great no matter what somebody else says. Do what you want to do’.”

LaTevin Alexander Ellis, fists first. Photo: Owen Carey

Ellis, who grew up in Perry, Florida, and graduated from Florida A&M with a theater degree, came to Portland in 2014, one of many good young performers to join the city’s acting pool through Portland Playhouse’s apprentice program. If you know him at all, you know that his artistic life and political sensibility are deeply entwined. He’s the founder and artistic director of Confrontation Theatre, which aims to produce “engaging and challenging theater through the exceptionally unique Black perspective.” Somewhere, somehow, some part of his brain is always on the situation of black people in this country and what he can do about it.

This is also something he respects about Ali: “He was one of the first black men that I knew about that was a great athlete and who was not silent about the mistreatment of his people and his culture.” If you paid any attention at all to the anthem protests of this past football season, you know that such a stance does not come without cost. Now, imagine if you’re actually abstaining from joining the military when called upon. For this stance, for his outspokenness, for his visibility, the price for Ali was high. He was stripped of his championship and his livelihood for three of his prime fighting years, with the possibility of prison even hanging over his head.

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Spotlight on: Robi Arce and The Lost Play

In Milagro's 18th century lost comedy "Astucias por heredar," the director finds a link between today's issues and commedia's craft

Heritage, art, purpose: Robi Arce is a man on fire. These driving passions have merged to make Arce, who is Puerto Rican by birth and a physical theater artist by training, a man on a mission. Very little of anything he says is casual. He knows what he thinks, he knows why he thinks it, and perhaps most importantly, he knows what he plans to do about it all. Arce is very clear: He wants to change the world. “The physical theater work I do is fueled by social justice. I come from a colony. I know what oppression looks like.”

It’s not hard to understand where this serious mien comes from. As you read this, roughly forty percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power following the stumbling U.S. federal and local recovery response to the devastation of last fall’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria. For Arce, that’s a reality that’s personal. His family is still there. When he’s talking about their plight and he says, “the struggle is real,” there’s not a whiff of irony about it. That’s real talk.

Robi Arce: director, physical theater artist.

His love for his people and his culture is palpable. Time and again Arce, who directed El Teatro Milagro’s current hit Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío, talks about how he wants to be the engine behind theater by, for and about the Latino community, particularly the youth. He’s developing curriculum for this explicit purpose, for which he’ll be applying for a grant from the Regional Arts and Cultural Council. It’s not about excluding other people, he stresses. It’s about helping his own. “I know what the issues we go through back home look like. Being here, it’s a whole different world. I just want to focus on Latinos because I know the struggle, especially in these times, with what we are going through.”

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Spotlight on: E.M. Lewis and ‘Magellanica’

As Artists Rep embarks on an epic journey to Antarctica, an Oregon playwright talks about the epic journey that brings her tale to the stage

“Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe, one of those early sea-farers, named everything after either his queen or himself. In very, very old maps, the kind with sea monsters at the bottom, of the period immediately following his circumnavigation of the globe, the whole bottom southern hemisphere is called ‘Magellanica’.”

— E.M. Lewis

When you meet E.M. Lewis, you don’t necessarily think “epic.” She’s more like your favorite librarian, excited about every subject you ask for help on, and and nothing makes her happier than when she recommends a book that you enjoy. She’s friendly, bordering on bubbly, and laughs a lot. You wouldn’t necessarily look at E.M. Lewis and think risk-taker, rule-breaker, fire-starter.

But she is.

Once you start talking to her, you feel it. Simmering underneath, barely contained, sometimes so close to the surface she’s almost shaking, is a drive, a passion, an intensity that is pushing her, pushing her, pushing her. “I’m always a person who has lots of pots bubbling on a stove,” she says, and you not only believe her, you’re also struck by how apt a metaphor that is. This relatively quiet woman would, during the course of our conversation, all of a sudden smack the table with authority to punctuate a story or drive home a point. And that’s when you see it. That’s when you feel it. Epic.

E.M. Lewis, author of “Megellanica.” Photo: Russell J Young

Lewis is the author of Magellanica, an ambitious, five-act, five-and-a-half-hour odyssey to the end of the world. In this world premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre (it begins previews on Saturday, Jan. 20, opens on Jan. 27, and runs through Feb. 18) eight intrepid trekkers from different nations, different races, and at different stages in their lives’ journeys to the South Pole, ostensibly for science. But for most, if not all of them, the journey is about much more than that. You can be a scientist anywhere. There is a reason why certain people choose to go to the most extreme climate on Earth in their pursuit of knowledge, and that reason can be very, very personal. As Morgan Halsted, Magellanica’s atmospheric scientist, puts it: “No one goes to Antarctica accidentally. … We all have our reasons for being here.” Or, as Lewis says during the course of our conversation: “The more I read about the people who go to Antarctica, the more I began to understand that there are a lot of psychological reasons why people feel the need to go to a place of such great extremity and hardship.” Or, more succinctly: “Sometimes, you need to go far to bring back a piece of yourself.”

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Our grande dame takes a bow

Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol, Part 2 of 2. As she completes "The Humans" and prepares a wedding, a Portland icon gets ready for a big move

In the year 1996, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president elected to a second term in 40 years. The English Patient won the Oscar for Best Picture. Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a world champion, defeating Gary Kasparov. The Dallas Cowboys won their last Super Bowl. And Luisa Sermol returned from New York to her adopted home, Portland, Oregon.

“We lived in my parents’ basement again — they’re kind of my transitional housing (laughs)– until Rick found some work.” A year or so after she and her then-husband, Rick Waldron, arrived from New York, her daughter, Isabella, was born. In addition to being a new mom, Sermol started looking around and doing outreach work: the Haven Project, pairing underserved teens with professional actors, directors, and writers; Artists Rep’s Actors-to-Go; her continuing work with Portland Actors Conservatory, the training ground for new professional actors. Through this work she started to meet other theater artists in town, such as Lorraine Bahr and Haven founder Gretchen Corbett. Corbett subsequently cast Sermol in her production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Another relationship also facilitated her re-integration into the Portland theater scene, superseding all the others and becoming not just one of Sermol’s most productive artistic partnerships but also among her most enduring friendships: Louanne Moldovan. They had met when Sermol was in town doing Midsummer.

“Oh, I know! Hairdresser!” remembers Moldovan, “That’s how we knew each other. Because I went to the same hairdresser as her, Valerium, unbeknownst to each other. I was in there one day bringing a flyer to one of my shows as I always did, and he said, “Oh my gosh, you have to meet Luisa. She’s an actress and was in New York.”

Sermol concurs. “Louanne pops in and Valerium had wanted me to meet her. She’s handing out all these flyers for The Wild Party and you know Louanne. There’s all this energy.” Moldovan picks up the story: “You know me, I’m like, “Tell me all about yourself! What are you doing! Blah blah blah! And that’s how we first met, was through the hairdresser.”

Luisa Sermol: The grande dame. Photo: Owen Carey

When Sermol returned to Portland, opportunities for an Equity actress in town were not what they are today. But she remembered that Cygnet, a literary theater company, specialized in stage readings, which opened up possibilities. She re-established contact with Moldovan, who ran the company and was all over the idea. “She did the John Sayles piece about the truck drivers that Teddy Roisum was in. That was what we did first. Then we did a holiday show that was a hoot. Lot of funny material and singing and everything.” And the two became fast friends, cemented by going through pregnancy at the same time. “We went through pre-natal yoga together,” says Moldovan. “We went to Ringside and had big steaks together when we were craving protein.” That friendship — and creative partnership — continues to this day. (The day after Sermol’s current show, Artists Rep’s The Humans, closes, Cygnet will do a reading of The Holiday Show, which will feature Sermol, at Tabor Bread.)

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Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol

Part 1 of 2: Birth of an Artist. As the grande dame of Portland theater prepares to move on, Bobby Bermea traces the beginnings of her career

There is a moment toward the beginning of Artist Rep’s The Humans, not too long after the parents have arrived at the children’s New York apartment, before much of the shenanigans, revelations and pandemonium have ensued, when Luisa Sermol comes to a moment of stillness at the top of the stairs. While a scene is happening on the floor below, she just stands there … and even so, it takes an act of will to tear your eyes away from her. Much of The Humans is artfully choreographed chaos — but not this. Sermol comes to a stop and time stops with her. Though you know next to nothing about this Deirdre Blake’s life, on a visceral level you feel everything that has brought this character to this moment. You feel the weight of her life, the joys long past, the choices made, the brokenness, the frustrations, the boundless love. It’s a moment that not all actors have in them. There is nothing to do. You just have to be. And few actors do that better than Luisa Sermol.

Luisa Sermol: The North Star. Photo: Owen Carey

She’s the North Star of the Portland theater community. She’s our grande dame, our standard-bearer. She’s been acting in Portland for twenty years. She graduated from Juilliard. She’s won five Drammys. She’s worked at almost every major house in Portland. She’s tackled everything in this town from Shakespeare to Johnna Adams and she’s done it with power, precision and vulnerability — and she’s made it look effortless (when, of course, it is anything but). Her hallmark is being able to dig down to the depths of her soul and leave it all on the stage. If Theatre Thanos came down in his spaceship, she would lead Portland’s team of Drama Avengers out to fight him. Tony Sonera, for whom Sermol gave two of her award-winning performances, put it this way: “When you have the big role, with big shoes, with big expectations, when it’s too difficult for you to figure out, you bring in Luisa Sermol.”

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Spotlight on Anthony Lam

One actor, one character, three plays: fellow actor Bobby Bermea profiles the star of Quiara Alegría Hudes' war trilogy at Profile Theatre

Anthony Lam has an infectious and generous spirit, and a high motor both as a person and a performer: everything he does, he does with an intense energy. A relatively new actor to the Portland theater scene, he’s a family man – he and his wife, Kimberly, have three kids; Nolan, 7, and the twins, Lilah and Alice, 4. He loves the stage (“That’s what I trained for. I trained on stage. I always knew upon graduation that I was always going to look for work on the stage.”) but the majority of his work, how he pays his bills and supports his family, is in TV and film.

It makes sense. He was born and bred in southern California and he’s TV/movie handsome, the product of Nicaraguan, Chinese and Spanish genes. Though he lost touch with his father, his grandfather was a central figure in his life, and Anthony kept the name Lam to honor him.

Anthony Lam, relaxing offstage. Photo: Bobby Bermea

I met Lam only recently, because he is the lead (along with Crystal Ann Muñoz) of the show I’m currently working on, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize winning Water by the Spoonful, which is running through Nov. 19 in rotating repertory with The Happiest Song Plays Last at Profile Theatre. Water is the middle play in a trilogy – Elliott: A Soldier’s Fugue, Water by the Spoonful and Happiest Song – that follows a Puerto Rican family from north Philadelphia whose fate and fortunes are inextricably tied up in the U.S. military. The men of the family fight the wars. The women protest them and heal the wounds that are the result. Hudes weaves a beautiful, tragic, angry, and funny tapestry of lives, through which the one continuous thread is the character of Elliott Ortiz, who is played by Anthony Lam.

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