NEWS & NOTES

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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The gift(s) of David Ogden Stiers

The late "M*A*S*H" star, who lived in Newport, took an active role in the Oregon coast's cultural life. After his death in March, he kept on giving.

NEWPORT – Two months after his death, the generosity for which the actor and musician David Ogden Stiers was known in this central Oregon coast community continues.

The 75-year-old Stiers died March 3 of bladder cancer at his home in Newport. A well-known national figure at home in this small coastal town, he was best-known for his role as the stuffy Major Charles Emerson Winchester III in the TV series M*A*S*H, for which he was twice nominated for an Emmy Award. He was also a stage actor, debuting on Broadway in 1973 in productions of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters and as Peachum in The Threepenny Opera, and a frequent voice for animated film characters, including the Disney hit Lilo and Stitch and as Cogsworth, the imperious talking clock, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

David Ogden Stiers (left) with Alan Alda in a 1980 episode of “M*A*S*H.” 20th Century Fox

Stiers didn’t just live in Newport, he took an active part in the central coast’s cultural life, and his last will and testament reveals some of the many ways his influence continues. Filed April 17 in Lincoln County Circuit Court, it details numerous donations to nonprofit organizations. He left his collection of CDs and DVDs to the Newport Public Library and his collection of audio recordings (LPs and 78s), his wine collection, artwork and pen collection to the Newport Symphony Orchestra, which he often conducted. He also gave $50,000 each to the Southern Poverty Law Center; My Sisters’ Place; Samaritan House, Inc.; the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts; and the Children’s Advocacy Center of Lincoln County, as well as $50,000 to the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore to establish a scholarship program for persons planning a career in politics.

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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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Race and reading: The white echo chamber

A Delve seminar exploring James Baldwin's "A Fire Next Time" and Jesmyn Ward's "A Fire This Time" creates some heat

By JENNY M. CHU

I want to write about a dead elephant.

Late last year, my tuition was comped for the sold-out Delve Readers Seminar, “One Nation Still on Fire,” in return for a written reflection—the only way I could have afforded to attend. But even though this Delve gathering started on November 20, 2017, and ended on January 20, 2018—on the one year anniversary of the presidential inauguration of a demagogue—it has taken me months to process, a flight to a different country, and the space and distance from Portland for me to even begin. After three months—and missed deadline after missed deadline—I offer this painstaking reflection and these thoughts faltering, unfinished, heavy, and loaded…

In the change between fall and winter, the 18 of us in the seminar, a program of Literary Arts, bridged the turning of a year by reading and discussing two books: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Jesmyn Ward’s curated and edited essay collection, The Fire This Time. We also attended Ward’s Portland Arts & Lectures event on January 18.

Published in 1962, Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time contains two letters, one to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook,” and the other about his crisis of faith, “Down at the Cross.” Even after 50 years, Baldwin’s observations around race relations remain all too relevant, as if he penned them yesterday. In 2015, Jesmyn Ward in response to George Zimmerman’s slaying of baby-faced teen Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, edited the book The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Contemporary Black scholars, authors, and poets joined the omnipresent conversation that Baldwin and so many others started, lived, still live, and still suffer because race remains a harbinger of so many other social ills, inequities, and human injustices in this country.

A conversation, it seems, that many white folks are still coming to the table to join—late.

James Baldwin in Hyde Park, London/Photo by Allan Warren – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22305867

My frustration was compounded by my experience in the seminar as a person of color unpacking and talking about race in a room that was 77% occupied by highly-educated and well-meaning white people. A frustration that was visceral. Trying to convince others of a reality backed by history is a crazy-making feat. Hearing the same thing or having the same conversations about race with different and multiple white people, can do that—it can make you feel like you’re a broken record. And then it can make you feel broken. Who is the famous person who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results?

In Isabel Wilkerson’s essay “Where Do We Go from Here?” she writes:

We may have lulled ourselves into believing that the struggle was over, that it has all been taken care of back in 1964, that the marching and the bloodshed had established, once and for all, the basic rights of people who had been at the bottom for centuries. We may have believed that, if nothing else, the civil rights movement had defined a bar beneath which we could not fall.

But history tells us otherwise. We seem to be in a continuing feedback loop of repeating a past that our country has yet to address.

In Claudia Rankine’s essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” she observes succinctly, “The American imagination has never been able to fully recover from its white-supremacist beginnings.”

The dead elephant isn’t just about America’s racist founding. Nor is it just about the delusion of a post-racial America. The dead elephant isn’t even about how white Portland is, despite the growing racial and ethnic diversity in the country.

The dead elephant is the burden that people of color bear, in varying degrees, for being non-white in America—and which white people do not.

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White people are still able to choose when and how they decide to talk about race, and when and how they decide to care. It’s important that the seminar was offered. It’s important that the seminar was sold-out. It was important that we delved into both these texts, together. But Literary Arts is an incredibly safe place for white people to wax poetic about race. It’s a space designed and reinforced to make white people feel smart, as if their minimal intellectual efforts to have these “talks” and to read these “texts” is somehow enough.

The room at Literary Arts reminds me of what one of my white friends said upon moving from Portland to Los Angeles. He said, “Even though the people in LA seem more intellectually dim, the people are far more racially and ethnically diverse compared to Portland.” To him the cultural diversity was much more valuable in expanding his perspective. In a world that already centers whiteness first and foremost, he said, “It’s much more dangerous for a white person to only be surrounded by other white people.”

I wonder how many people left that room changed. I wonder how many people left more aware of their whiteness and their complicity in this racist country we’ve all inherited. I wonder how deep the texts and our conversations seeped; if the words of Baldwin, Ward, Wilkerson, Rankine, Anderson, Young, and many others found root in the tissues of their bodies; or if everything just stayed on the surface of their intellects. I wonder how many people left still thinking about, and most importantly, feeling what we had discussed together. Whether those white people chose to bear the load, or whether they left defending their innocence more stubbornly than ever, preserving their own comfort, leaving the burden where it’s always been: on the shoulders and backs of people of color.

As Baldwin so eloquently asserted, “…whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Blackness and whiteness are inextricably intertwined in this country. One does not exist without the other, and the inability for white folks to acknowledge this is what Baldwin called “…the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

*****

Before I go much further, I am not black and I am not white. I do not have the experiences of either. Though the way that the hierarchy of race works I am much closer to the experiences of white people than I am to black people. I am a Chinese-American woman raised by immigrant parents in a white suburb in Oregon. I grew up in Portland’s particular brand of whiteness – which is polite, microaggressive, and indirect. I have navigated whiteness expertly, because there was a period of time when I had so much internalized racism that I thought I was white. Being a lighter-skinned Asian aided by the model minority myth has provided me with specific opportunities and access compared to other people of color—and it is my responsibility when moving this conversation of race and racism forward to acknowledge this privilege. I have not suffered in the same way as other people of color, but all people of color have suffered under white supremacy. After years of assimilating, feeling ashamed of being Asian, losing my language, compromising and minimizing myself to fit into whiteness, which often meant being an ornament, a sidekick awkward and ugly, and then suddenly inappropriately sexualized, othered, fetishized, and tokenized all these years—I know absolutely, I am not white.

It could also be argued that good white people suffer under white supremacy. It’s dehumanizing: what kind of white savages have time and time again oppressed and re-oppressed others for their own selfish gain?

This post is not about hating white people. Though in my most immature moments, the frustrations are hard to tweeze out. I still have a lot of friends who are white, who I love and have loved, learned and lived with. For some, I have shepherded them into the awareness of their whiteness, have gone through the painful dismantling of their perceived innocence, and have helped them into the understanding of what their whiteness means in the context of this unjust country—and this has always been a deep labor of love.

However, my labor of love and patience for other white people to understand all of this weighted history and how it frames our present is not infinite, nor is it indiscriminate. I am human. I have a threshold.

*****

When I entered the seminar space that first night on November 20, into a room full and eager to discuss the “literature,” I was already dealing with my disillusionment and anger at the rigidity and self-righteousness of individuals. After recent eruptions in the social justice community, I had started questioning the effectiveness of my resistance work. I was constantly being confronted with the same circular, nearsighted, and myopic conversations, the vernacular of social justice speak, the rhetoric, the infighting, the hubris—I was losing my faith that we would ever succeed in this fight against white supremacy. And to the degree that my fellow Delvers were unaware: their whiteness, and their naive ignorance about their own whiteness and their well-meaningness around the literature and about race in particular, all but confirmed my despair and hopelessness that things would ever change.

It was pointed out by our guide Béalleka Makau, that only three of the 19 essays in The Fire This Time talked about the future. Another Delver recounted author Ta-nehisi Coates’s comment at the most recent Wordstock Book Festival about how difficult it was for him to have hope or to imagine a future when the present looks so much like the past.

It was either our first or second session together when Béalleka asked us what Ward meant by the words, “I burn, and I hope.”

I have been seeking an answer inadequately since that question was breathed into that room. But I know it has something to do with the dead elephant.

The dead elephant makes up the scaffolds in which we exist, and which bodies are ordered socioeconomically, socially, professionally, and politically. The United States is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, but the wealth and income gap is becoming more unequal. According to a 2015 Forbes article, a typical white household has 16 times the wealth of a black household. Portland is not much different. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey (ACS) 81% of Portland residents are white, and with the exception of Asians, people of color face higher unemployment rates and lower wages than white workers, and are employed in lower-paying industries.

White supremacy is not just the KKK, or lynchings, or police shootings, or extreme violence, but that is part of its monstrous history and its present. White supremacy, in its silent form is insidious. It’s economic. It’s social. It’s in policies and redrawn district lines. It’s how resources are allocated. Who gets infrastructure and well-paved roads and who doesn’t. It takes the form of the faces we frequently see in film or on TV, and the faces that are omitted. It determines who gets published and who our literary gatekeepers are (in an independent study that Lee & Low Books released in 2015 about 80% of folks that worked in publishing identified as white). It defines who gets to teach our ethnic studies courses. It’s in curriculum. It’s in how culture is defined. It’s in who gets the job; who gets to keep their jobs; who gets to own a home and who gets to accumulate wealth and equity to pass onto future generations.

As Carol Anderson in her essay “White Rage” affirms: “It goes virtually unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn’t have to take to the streets to face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures, and governors, who cast its efforts as noble…”

In addition to the large institutional and cultural structures that shape our lives undetectably, it’s deeply personal. Our identities are tied to our ability to know and access our ancestry. The stories that are told and shared and passed on, is a privilege. It requires an undisrupted lineage, one that isn’t peppered with displacement, war, slavery, rape, destitution, poverty. Some of us don’t know our pasts because they’ve been suppressed or erased or unknown. This is a direct relationship of whether you were a victor or a victim in this white-supremacist history.

*****

Inspired by Jesmyn Ward’s essay “Cracking the Code” about her search for identity, we started one of our sessions with a writing prompt asking us to trace our ancestral history as far back as we could remember. I didn’t have much. My mom was a refugee during the Vietnam—or American—War, depending on which direction you’re looking. My family history is one of dark unending holes. The traumas of my mom’s past have resulted in many consequences including my little brother’s generalized anxiety and my depression, among other things that reach deep into the dark.

Ward notes, “It’s impossible for most black Americans to construct full family trees. Official census records, used by so many genealogy enthusiasts to piece together their families’ pasts, don’t include our non-European ancestors.”

After we were done writing our memories down, our guide Béalleka asked us to share our histories with the person sitting next to us. My partner was a very kind and well-meaning man, who traced his entire family back to a single patch of land in Ireland. It was impressive. I shared mine, and after I was done he responded with, “Well, that’s very sad, Jenny.” He meant well, I know. But all of a sudden, just like that, I had felt unseen and pitied. I wasn’t looking for sympathy. My history, as incomplete and pockmarked as it was—was still mine. It was my mother’s, my brother’s, my aunties and uncles. I felt a pang of shame. Then anger.

In the essay, Ward takes the 23andMe DNA mail-in test to confirm her blackness, but she finds something else:

I had thought that my genetic makeup would confirm the identity that I’d grown up with—one that located Africa as my ancestors’ primary point of origin, and that allowed me to claim a legacy of black resistance and strength.

So it was discomfiting to find that my ancestry was 40 percent European[…]and less than 1 percent North African. For a few days after I received my results, I looked into the mirror and didn’t know how to understand myself.

After our pairs, our guide opened up the discussion to the group. A well-meaning and engaged white woman raised her hand excitedly to share. She said that she had also been inspired by Ward’s essay to take the 23andMe test. She nearly squealed as she continued her story. She mentioned the dark skin and dark hair of her great grandmother and grandfather. She used the word, “olive.” She used the word, “black.” Then theatrically she dropped her shoulders and said, “But when I got the results back, I’m all white.” She deflated into a caricature of herself.

Béalleka asked, “Well, what was so disappointing about that for you?” And this woman replied, “Oh, I guess I was just hoping for some Indian or African blood.” Then Béalleka probed further, “Why wouldn’t you use this opportunity to investigate your whiteness?” Then this white woman, as well-meaning as them all, responded, “I guess I just wanted something more exotic.”

A friend once said to me, “The reason why race is so hard to talk about, and to talk about rationally is because it’s in the body. It’s literally our DNA.”

Something unhinged in me that evening. There were a few other comments that were made, and the conversation continued until I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer. I interrupted the 77% white room and said to this woman, “I’m really sorry, but in full transparency I have to admit that I really bristled at your use of the word ‘exotic.’ That word has been used to other me, fetishize, and sexualize me my whole entire life.”

I was furious. For the rest of the evening I couldn’t focus. I thought of colonialism. I equated every single white person in that room as a colonizer. All it took was one person’s seemingly innocent and playful gesture in thinking that they could turn race into something that they could just have. As if race were something a white person could adorn themselves in, like a pair of earrings for a special occasion. I thought of gold. I thought of Christopher Columbus. I thought of all the violent things between.

*****

In Kevin Young’s essay, “Blacker than Thou,” about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who posed as a black woman and was fired from her job as president of the NAACP of Spokane, Wash., after her identity was exposed, investigates how her deception is a direct indication of her whiteness and privilege. Young says:

[…] an array of attempts to be not just someone else as anyone might, but to be exotic, even in her birth (which she said was in a teepee or tipi). When asked directly on the teevee if she was born in a teepee, she answered, “I wasn’t born in a teepee,” emphasis allowing that maybe, just maybe, she could later say she was born near or under one. The hoaxer is always leaving the pretend teepee door ajar.

Language is slippery. When white people want something or they want to escape their culpability around race, it is like watching them construct the slip n’ slide of racism—oh, isn’t racism fun for me. Of course, no white person actually thinks this. But their ignorance does not take away from the facts or statistics that mark them the historical benefactors and perpetrators of white supremacy.

Part of the frustrations with a well-meaning white person is that their intentions are in the right place, but a well-meaning white person obstructs our greater need for change. At worse, they siphon our attention and energy from the issues that really matter. For people of color that exist in this white-supremacist reality, who struggle against it, who work to tilt the scales back toward justice, we don’t have time for the well-meaningness of white folks. We need white people to ask the same probing questions. We need white people to be just as suspicious of these systems. We need white people to challenge racism in every corner of their lives, because it’s often where it’s most prevalent and self-reinforcing. We need white people to care more about the common good than they do about their own comfort, shame, or guilt.

I’ve been thinking about why white people are so resistant or defensive when confronted with their own whiteness, and I think Baldwin observes this in his essay, “Down at the Cross”:

Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.

I assume, despite a white person’s wealth or position in life, that they recognize on some deep fundamental level that white supremacy challenges their basic sense of what it means to be a good person. I would argue that the gravest thing at stake for a white person in ignoring history and how their whiteness is complicit in this history, is the one thing that money or power can’t buy: their humanity.

*****

On the evening of January 18, I came alone to Jesmyn Ward’s Portland Arts & Lectures event. I saw some of the Delvers in a nearby row. The lights in the great hall dimmed. A beautiful and gentle Ward walked up to the podium under the spotlight. She spoke about her children. She talked first about her daughter’s birth, and how she came out lighter-skinned than she had hoped. Then she talked about how she cried when she found out that she was having a boy. In the 2,776-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall occupied by a mostly white audience, I heard echoes of suppressed laughter and chuckling.

Jesmyn Ward

I assume that the white mothers in the audience must have thought that they were in on the joke: that little boys are harder to raise than little girls because they’re rascals. But Ward, a Black woman, a Black mother bearing a Black son, was not speaking about that. She spoke about mourning his mortality as soon as he was conceived. When would she have “the talk” with him? When he was 17, the age that Trayvon Martin was shot and killed? Or at 14, the age Emmett Till was beaten and lynched. Or at 12 years old, when Tamir Rice was killed by police officers? No, she said. She would have the “talk” with him much younger than that.

The dead elephant is the burden that black people bear in America—and which white people do not.

These issues are large, historical, pervasive, and insidious. They bleed out from our cells. They affect how we live, how we relate, how we love, who makes it into a literary space to discuss race intellectually, safely in a temperature-controlled and warmly-lit room. It determines who fills the auditorium to hear the first woman and the first person of color to be awarded the National Book Award twice, speak. It determines the safety and voyeurism of a white audience watching a Black woman talk about her Black babies. These systems make the reality of a white-dominant space still possible in contemporary literary Portland. The weight of these realities and inequities are felt, rippled out from the center and from the invisibility of white privilege, in white ignorance, in the well-meaningness of white people thinking that they’re always the center of every human experience.

Claudia Rankine in her essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” shares an exchange between her and a friend:

It’s extraordinary how ordinary our grief sits inside this fact. One friend said, “I am so afraid, every day.” Her son’s childhood feels impossible, because he will have to be—has to be—so much more careful. There is not life outside of our reality here. Is this something that can be seen and known by parents of white children?

This isn’t about sympathy, or pity. Pity is a subtle way of separating yourself from another person’s plight, because to feel sorry for someone you have to feel that you are better than them. What this is about is genuinely caring about another human being. Rankine continues her thought:

This is the question that nags me. National mourning, as advocated by Black Lives Matter, is a mode of intervention and interruption that might itself be assimilated into the category of public annoyance. This is altogether possible; but also possible is the recognition that it’s a lack of feeling for another that is our problem. Grief, then, for these deceased others might align some of us, for the first time, with the living.

*****

It’s not that some of the white Delvers didn’t try, or that some weren’t intelligent and sensitive. A very small percentage of the 77% in the room were deeply aware of their whiteness, while most were well-meaning, and another small percentage were resistant and deeply ignorant.

There were moments in the seminar when I felt I was swirling. I read the words of Ward, Wilkerson, Rankine, Anderson, Young, and many others, and was met by the whiteness of the room. I watched, felt, and experienced these authors’ observations about whiteness unfold in real life, right before my eyes with the well-meaning white people. Where Baldwin’s words, written more than 50 years ago, were a prognosis of a reality we were all currently living—but a reality that was only shared by a small percentage of us. I was consumed with the fissures and dysfunctions of society, which spilled over into my ever-eroding faith in humanity. I felt demoralized, how many more words and convincing do we need before things will ever change? We were trapped in a vortex.

One evening I said out loud, “I’m losing hope.” And another person of color fiercely interrupted me and jabbed her finger on the table emphasizing, “I expect change in my lifetime.”

I go back to the dead elephant. I’m also aware of how dogmatic and self-righteous the secularism of social justice work can become—how pedantic even this blog post is. I recognize how the social justice rhetoric reduces all of our humanity into pure ideology, which can make us ruthless to each other. When at the heart all we want is to be human to and with one another. As Baldwin said, “Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations…”

But where these words fail, they also wrestle. They are a desperate plea, an angry shout for understanding. Being human to one another is impossible without white people bearing the burden of this shared reality—there cannot be reconciliation without recognition.

And maybe the reason this reflection has taken me so long to struggle through is because this is my community. It is mine, with all the infuriatingly well-meaning white people and all of the incendiary, self-righteous social justice warriors. I am a Chinese-American child who has been equally reared by my immigrant parents as I have been by Portland’s particular brand of racism. The role of intermediary is a natural one for a person of my background and race—but it’s tiring. And I’ve labored here, and it might be compulsory, and maybe that is an expression of my love—I’m not sure. But as a writer, I know that somewhere the rhetoric and the hubris that comes with it will have to die for us to see each other, even if my compassion is worn thin.

Baldwin says, “I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

In Ward’s intro to the collection The Fire This Time, she writes, “I believe there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words. That sharing our stories confirms our humanity. That it creates community, both within our own and beyond it. Maybe someone who didn’t perceive us as human will think differently […]

*****

After Ward’s lecture, we returned to meet one last time on January 20. It was a smaller and caring group, lit by the afternoon light. We shared how touched we were by Ward’s story about her son. A white woman shared her own guilt about not being more active in resisting racism. She shared that she felt that reading alone or listening to podcasts about race was barely anything, but that she was listening, “I know it’s not enough, but I feel like I’m getting as close as I can to understanding.”

James Baldwin, center, in “I Am Not Your Negro”/Magnolia Films

In Baldwin’s essay he pleads:

Everything now, we must assume is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.

That afternoon, something shifted ever so slightly…and still not enough…but a hint…

And in the words of Ward, “I burn, and I hope.”

DramaWatch: Fences & Frogs

The week on stage features an August Wilson classic, a revival of a children's hit, Salt, Swans, Clowns, labor struggles, Todd Van Voris solo

Portland Playhouse has emerged over the past decade as one of the city’s top theaters for a variety of reasons: energetic young leadership, an invitingly casual atmosphere, and early sponsorship that resulted in free beer.

But you might think of it as The House That August Wilson Built. After all, it was a 2010 production of Wilson’s Radio Golf that first amplified the buzz about the young company beyond theater cognoscenti. Since then the Playhouse has had repeated success with Wilson’s majestic depictions of hardscrabble lives in the predominantly African American Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Lester Purry stars as former baseball hero Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s “Fences.” Portland Playhouse photo

The production of Fences opening this weekend is the seventh of Wilson’s epic century cycle of plays to be staged by Portland Playhouse. The story of an ex-baseball star toiling as a garbage man, it deals with the challenges of identity and self-respect for black people in the 1950s. It’s Wilson’s greatest hit, a Pulitzer and Tony winner (and a Denzel vehicle), so Wilson fans won’t want to miss it, and neither should those who don’t yet know the joy. Much more conventionally structured than his other, more discursively poetic works, this is an ideal introduction to Wilson’s enduring themes and settings.

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SALT on America’s wounds

Inspired by Gandhi's Salt March of resistance, Shaking the Tree's new venture blends art, theater, and dance in a collective raised voice

Shaking the Tree Theatre, under the artistic direction of the imaginative Samantha Van Der Merwe, incorporates visual art into each of its theatrical performances. With SALT, opening Tuesday for an all-too-brief six-day run, Shaking the Tree is flipping that concept on its head. SALT is the first of Shaking the Tree’s acts of resistance – “in direct response,” according to the SALT program, “to a Trump presidency and its implications of hate, exclusion, bigotry, and fear.”

Van Der Merwe was inspired to create this first act in Shaking the Tree’s four-year project by Gandhi’s speech on the eve of the 1930 Salt March (or Dandi March). In that speech, he famously encouraged his followers to resist peacefully. “We have resolved to utilize all our resources in the pursuit of an exclusively nonviolent struggle, he said. “Let no one commit a wrong in anger. This is my hope and prayer. I wish these words of mine reached every nook and corner of the land.” Van Der Merwe asked a cross-section of the city’s finest artists — from many cultures, genres, and backgrounds — to use Gandhi’s speech as a jumping-off point.

SALT teams around Samantha Van Der Merwe’s “Thread.” Photo: Meg Nanna

The Shaking the Tree space is divided into eight 8×8 boxes, and each artist (with Van Der Merwe’s piece, created out of salt, in the center) was given that space to create something, anything. Some artists will be performing as part of their piece, or have others performing. Some is visual art. Some have video. Some are interactive.

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DramaWatch Weekly: ‘Are you ready?’

Chris Coleman gives his trademark greeting at his last opening night with Portland Center Stage. Plus: openings, closings, highlights & more.

“Are you ready?”

As showtime approached for the Portland Center Stage production of Major Barbara on opening night, artistic director Chris Coleman left his aisle seat in row L and strode to the lip of the stage. Even to fairly casual followers of the company there must have been little doubt as to how he would greet the audience: “Are you ready?”

It’s how he’s begun his introductory remarks for years — possibly (did any historian of local culture have the foresight to note this?) since he came to the company from Atlanta in 2000. So, with that question and the usual thanks to sponsors, everything went according to custom. Which felt a little odd.

Coleman

As Coleman moved toward the stage, I set down the cup of coffee I was drinking and shifted in my seat, preparing to join in the standing ovation I expected would greet those three little words. April 20’s Major Barbara performance was something of a milestone, after all; the director’s final opening night at PCS after more than 17 years there. The company’s managing director, Cynthia Fuhrman, even made a point of sending out an email about the show’s significance and her desire to “pack it with arts community folks.”

And yet the evening felt decidedly muted, matter-of-fact, business-as-usual. No spontaneous pre-show ovation materialized (umm…should I have been the one to start it?). At the play’s end, Seattle actor Charles Leggett stepped out front to coax Coleman onto the stage, but the director merely grabbed a bouquet of flowers, waved back at the now-cheering crowd, then rushed off as though his taxes were overdue.

Continues…