Portland Playhouse and repairing the legacy of racism

August Wilson’s “Radio Golf,” presented by Portland Playhouse, deals with development in an African-American neighborhood.

The outcome of the appeal of the zoning ruling that threatened to dislodge Portland Playhouse from its home in a church building  on Northeast Prescott never seemed to be in doubt.  As one of the City Council members said, “This is the most sympathetic denial I’ve ever read in a Hearings Office report,” and that was after council had voted 5-0 to overturn the ruling. No one was really in favor of kicking Portland Playhouse out of the church, and so council didn’t.

The best thing about the appeal, given that the outcome was pretty much assured, was the quality of the testimony in support of Portland Playhouse. It was passionate, smart and down-to-earth, and it showed that a wide swathe of Portlanders understand that the arts are both more than a normal commercial activity and  a private matter between an individual and an artwork.

The arts, as John Dewey taught us, have a social dimension. They give us a place to gather to think about important matters, “the illumination of the human heart,” as Playhouse artistic director Brian Weaver put it, and what happens when those hearts come in contact with each other, with all the misunderstanding and conflict that can mean. 

Portland Playhouse will continue to occupy its home on Northeast Prescott.

The King Neighborhood Association voted to support the Playhouse by a 20-0 count, which says a lot all by itself. And next door, the Sabin Neighborhood Association did the same.

The original decision, the one that ruled that the Playhouse’s occupancy of the church was in violation of zoning ordinances, hinged on very specific language in the rules that said that “theaters” were “commercial, retail” enterprises, not community centers providing community services. I’m willing to bet that if we did some archaeology of the word “theater,” we would find that the authors didn’t have anything like the Playhouse in mind when they wrote the ordinance nor did they imagine a circumstance such as our present one, when the community needs interventions such as the ones the Playhouse provides so much. But given that language, City staff couldn’t rule in favor of the Playhouse to begin with, even though they were obviously sympathetic.

Although City Council will likely simply give the Playhouse some sort of variance that will allow the company to stay in business, the language that both council members, City staff and those giving public testimony used, suggested that a non-profit theater, at least, can make an excellent case for being a “community service,” not a commercial enterprise. And this specific one, which has made bridge-building in its community, the King and surrounding Northeast neighborhoods, such a high priority, definitely fits the definition.

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We know that one of the ongoing conflicts in North and Northeast Portland concerns the changing demographics of the neighborhoods. Albina, including King, was once the center of African-American life in Portland. Beginning with the Vanport flood and continuing with the siting of I-5, Memorial Coliseum and Emanuel Hospital, and then the crack and gang epidemic of the ’80s and early ’90s,  Albina was de-populated, one way or another. The people who were displaced, voluntarily or not, were mostly African-American. In the past 15 years, the vacuum has been filled by mostly white residents, mostly younger, who moved into Albina because the rents and housing prices were low. We can call this process “gentrification,” but to me that doesn’t quite describe it.

In any case, the memories of the old Albina still remain, the injustices done to it by those who destroyed and redlined the neighborhoods are still relatively fresh. That’s part of our legacy as a city, this sacrifice of African-American neighborhoods and lives, one that today, maybe, the city as a whole is starting to understand, even though the steps can’t be reversed. And the ongoing anger of African-Americans who still live in the neighborhoods changing around them is totally understandable. A relatively innocuous proposal to make Williams Avenue a more bike friendly street, given the volume of existing bike traffic it carries, can become a racial issue in a flash.

The point of much of the testimony at the appeal was that Portland Playhouse had become a place where community repair can happen. The company has produced three plays by August Wilson in recent seasons, and just about everyone talked about them, took pride in them, found themselves in conversations about the history of the black community — in Pittsburgh where Wilson set his plays and in Portland, where many of the same issues arose.

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Really, this has all been a preparation for the testimony of Kevin Jones, who spoke at the hearing. I emailed him and asked if I could post what he wrote here, and he consented. If I had had any doubts about the role theater and the arts can play in the healing of our communities, Jones would have put them to rest.

“My name is Kevin Jones a resident of Portland. I’m a co-owner of Plural Consulting an organizational development and executive coaching firm. I am the founder of the August Wilson Red Door Project which uses the arts as catalyst for changing the racial ecology of Portland. I am also a professional actor and director.

The big question here is whether or not Portland Playhouse is a community enterprise or a commercial one.  From my perspective, it’s a new paradigm and one Portland desperately needs.  A commercial theatre that is a social and community venture.

What I know to be true is that as a professional actor and director, it is the only venue I’ve worked in, in Portland, where there is a true sense of equity and mixing it up between artists of color and the mainstream white community.  It’s not about numbers or compliance but about a model for working together in a way where people are willing to take risks and produce great art.  It’s the right model on a human level, and has proven to be the right model for business as well.  This is a Community Service, a community project and a role model for community organizations.

As we know too well young artists of color, and young people of color in general, looking for opportunities to develop, leave Portland.  There just haven’t been enough role models and support required for building a successful career and LIFE.  In my mind, this is a moral disaster.  This is why I personally have created the August Wilson Red Door project.  Our city needs organizations that are willing to take risks, be uncomfortable and in the process create a new world together.  A world where people of all colors/classes can live and thrive.

The questions for me which are most salient and relevant are:

  • Portland has a legacy around race.  Are we willing to contradict that legacy by making hard or controversial decisions?
  • What are the consequences of shutting down efforts that are making progress in the areas of equity and diversity?
  • Where does our equity strategy begin if not with organizations that are already making great strides and can be role models for the community?
  • Where does social entrepreneurialism fit in our city’s development?
  • What are your individual and collective commitments to creating a city that is a role model for other cities across the county—as we have with other environmental issues?

Portland Playhouse feeds the community it lives in. It should stay and be supported to grow, to learn, and to evolve and hopefully be a leader for other organizations that could learn a lot from its model.”

As it turned out, of course, Jones’ argument wasn’t “needed,” because everyone was already on board. But it was necessary in another way, because it challenges us to think more broadly about what he calls “social entrepreneurialism,” or social creativity, our resolution to make and live in a city that understands its past, is observant about its present and determined to make things as fair as we can.

Actually, I think we have in our city DNA at this moment the disposition to do that. The City Council vote is a small piece of evidence. The testimony at the public hearing is a larger one. And yes, if we are going to make progress, the arts are going to be deeply involved.

One Response.

  1. KImberly says:

    Thank you, Barry. Thank you, Kevin. And thank you Portland City Council. These are the kind of discussions that make me feel good, right now, to live in Portland and to be an arts advocate and funder.

Comments are closed.

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