TJ Acena

 

Listen: talking Native arts & culture

In "We Can Listen" at The Old Church, Native artists talk about invisibility, buried history, creativity, and contemporary challenges

“I make art to perpetuate culture,” Portland artist Shirod Younker told a crowd at The Old Church Concert Hall a few nights ago. Of late, he added, he’s been working on building traditional canoes. “Making canoes helps me understand my community. By doing this we learn what’s important to our ancestors and I can apply these lessons to my own life.”

Artist Shirod Younker at The Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: Molly MacAlpine

Younker, a printmaker, illustrator, and carver and a member of Oregon’s Coquille Indian Tribe, was speaking at We Can Listen, a series that has been working to cultivate listening in Portland with a series of free events highlighting the lives of marginalized people. On May 8 the series, now in its second year, presented Native Perspectives on Arts, Culture and Justice, a discussion with native artists about their work, how their identity informs their work, and how their work intersects with social justice.

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‘Fences,’ then and now

August Wilson's classic American play, in a vital production at Portland Playhouse, is set in the 1950s and seems necessary for today

America always struggles to reckon with its racist history. There’s a resistance to bringing up the past. As if history has no bearing on where we are today. As if those who suffered under slavery, or the Trail of Tears, or the Chinese Exclusion Act, were some other people in some other place. But looking back is the only way to find understanding and empathy. That’s what Portland Playhouse has done with its production of August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning 1985 play Fences.

Fences is part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” ten plays exploring the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century. Set in the 1950s, it follows the life of Troy Maxson (Lester Purry), a middle-aged sanitation worker who once dreamed of playing major league baseball. Denied his dream because of the color line, he has consigned himself to a simple life with his wife and son.

From left: Bryant Bentley, Lester Purry, Erika LaVonn, Bobby Bermea. Photo: Brud Giles

Wilson’s script takes its time, allowing the audience time to fall under the spell of his protagonist. As the patriarch of the Maxson household Troy looms large in the family, always the center of attention. He’s a natural storyteller, drawing in his friends and family with embellished tales about his own life, and eager to give out advice on everything. But just below his charming exterior is a storm of anger and resentment, a terrifying force the family must navigate.

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About that turkey of a play …

The premiere of Larissa FastHorse's "The Thanksgiving Play" at Artists Rep skewers liberal guilt and whitewashed history. It's also very funny.

Going into The Thanksgiving Play at Artists Rep I was prepared for a little laughing and a lot of uncomfortable cringing. I’ve come to expect this from modern satires touching on the traumatic legacies of racism in America. They often punch you in the gut when you least expect it. But The Thanksgiving Play, which is receiving its world-premiere production hereproves to be more laughs than cringes. A lot more.

That isn’t to say that playwright Larissa FastHorse isn’t making a smart critique of our country’s inability to grapple with our history. But instead of tackling the entire bloody and complex history of America’s genocide and erasure of its native peoples, she narrows her focus to something simple and unassumingly simple: How do we talk to kids about Thanksgiving?

Building the better Thanksgiving pageant, from left: Chris Harder, Michael O’Connell, Claire Rigsby, Sarah Lucht. Photo: Russell J Young

Set in a classroom, the show opens on drama teacher Logan (Sarah Lucht) and her partner Jaxton (Michael O’Connell). They are the whitest of white upper-class liberals. In the first 10 minutes they:

  • Mention shopping at a farmers market.
  • Talk about yoga a little too much.
  • Constantly try to out-perform each other as the most progressive.

Together, they plan to devise an ethnically sensitive, historically accurate Thanksgiving play for children that also celebrates Native American history month and meets the various objectives set by the school board. To help them in this endeavor they have enlisted local elementary teacher, and obsessive history buff, Caden (Chris Harder) and Alicia (Claire Rigsby), a superficial actress from L.A. hired to provide a Native American perspective.

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‘Hamilton’ in Portland: Historic!

The national company of Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking, dazzling Broadway musical lights up the Keller. Got your ticket?

The audience erupted in cheers Wednesday evening as the lights went down in Keller Auditorium and we were instructed to turn off our cellphones. The anticipation was palpable in that moment. I realized, Oh my god. I’m about to see Hamilton.

If you’re not familiar with Hamilton – in which case, welcome to our arts blog, I’m not sure how you got here – it’s a musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. If you’re struggling to remember who Alexander Hamilton was, he’s one of the founding fathers, most famous for promoting the U.S. Constitution and setting up our financial system.

Hamilton was incredibly well-received by critics and audiences when it opened in 2015, and has quickly become a cultural touchstone. How did Miranda make a musical about one of the lesser-known founding fathers such a success?

By putting it together in ways people wouldn’t expect.

Joseph Morales and Marcus Choi in “Hamilton.” Photo © Joan Marcus 2018

Miranda makes it clear from the start of the show that this won’t be like any other musical you’d normally see. The opening number, Alexander Hamilton, builds slowly with the cast rapping the history of Hamilton’s youth while adding layers of more traditional musical harmonies before ending in an enormous crescendo.

Wednesday’s Portland audience really lost their minds after that.

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‘The Mermaid Hour’ rolls around

Preview: The author of Milagro's new national "rolling premiere"--“I want to make sure the diversity I see in life is represented on stage.”

When David Valdes Greenwood was workshopping The Mermaid Hour back in 2014 one piece of feedback he got was that the play would be “impossible to cast” because it was “too diverse.” The show centers on a 12-year-old transgender girl and features a very ethnically diverse cast.

But that didn’t deter Greenwood. “I want to make sure the diversity I see in life is represented on stage,” he said during a “getting to know” visit to Milagro Theatre in early March. His commitment to diversity hasn’t deterred theater companies, either. Later this month, Milagro will be staging the world premiere of The Mermaid Hour, along with three other companies, as part of the Rolling World Premiere Program of the National New Play Network.

Playwright David Valdes Greenwood

Each year the Play Network puts on a showcase of selected unpublished scripts for its Rolling Premiere. Theater companies from all over the country attend, looking for new work to put onstage. If three or more companies decide to produce a show, NNPN provides financial support for the theaters to bring the playwrights to the theaters for some rehearsals and a night of the production. The plays must be produced within a 12-month period.

The Mermaid Hour first appeared in the Rolling World Premiere 2016 showcase. Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona, opens the first run this week, opening March 15. Milagro follows on March 22. Mixed Blood Theatre, in Minneapolis, and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, in North Carolina, will produce the play as well.

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Gambling with ‘Macbeth’

Shaking the Tree's new version of the Scottish Play takes bold and calculated risks. The result is striking, even if they don't all pay off.

If you are a regular theatergoer you’ve probably seen Macbeth. Possibly multiple times. Possibly too many times. But a director with a vision can make a particular production stand out from all the others in your memory. All it takes is some ambition. And Samantha Van Der Merwe is nothing if not ambitious. But if Macbeth teaches us nothing, it’s that ambition can come at a price.

Walking into Shaking the Tree it’s immediately obvious that Van Der Merwe has a strong vision for the show. Instead of filling up her cavernous warehouse space she pulls in, creating an intimate theater-in-the-round. Four huge paper screens intersect in the middle of the white stage, cutting it into quadrants. It’s an immediately intriguing image.

Jamie M. Rae is a Macbeth in blood-red. Photo: Gary Norman

Van Der Merwe’s concept is one out of time and place. It’s that futuristic yet ancient minimalist aesthetic that feels familiar yet oddly alien. Inventive use of lighting and sound do a lot of heavy lifting in this show. There’s almost no furniture or props, and the color palette is black and white with occasional splashes of dark red. The concept embraces the performative, combining nicely with Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy and direct address.

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Long, cold, and worth it

Artists Rep's premiere of E.M. Lewis's Antarctic drama "Magellanica" – all five and a half hours of it – tells an epic tale of lives on the edge

Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis’s new show Magellanica opens with a scientist holding a parka and some luggage. “No one ends up in Antarctica by accident,” she says matter-of-factly. It’s true. Those who head deep into the frozen continent do must have strong resolve. The journey is long but those who make it hope for great payoffs.

Magellanica, which had its world premiere on Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, embraces this ethos with a five-and-a-half hour run time. The question you’re probably asking is, “Does the payoff justify its length?” The answer is a definite yes.

Don’t worry: There are three intermissions and a dinner break.

From left: Vin Shambry, Sara Hennessy, Allen Nause, Michael Mendelson, John San Nicolas, Joshua J. Weinstein, Barbie Wu, Eric Pargac. Photo: Russell J Young

Set in 1986, Magellanica follows five scientists, one cartographer, and two crew members to an international research station at the South Pole, the most inhospitable place on the surface of the earth. Some of them are there to study the newly discovered hole in the ozone layer. Some are there to escape their own pasts. Some are doing both at the same time.

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