Spotlight: Rising actors Andrea Vernae and Kailey Rhodes

In Artists Rep's "An Octoroon," two of Portland's brightest new stars take on the season's most dangerous script

The 2016-17 Portland theater season was brightened considerably by breakout performances from two of its newest stars, Andrea Vernae and Kailey Rhodes.

Vernae strode the deck of the ship in Portland Playhouse’s’s pen/man/ship with ferocity and grit, infusing her character Ruby with incisive intelligence and sense of purpose. It was an arresting performance, grounded by Vernae’s rich gravitas. When she speaks, you believe her. If you’d seen her earlier in the season in Profile Theatre’s Antigone Project, you recognized her performance in pen/man/ship as simply promise fulfilled. When people speak of her work, words like “strength,” “intense,” and “powerful” get thrown around a lot. Krista Garver in Broadway World called her “a force to be reckoned with.” This would appear to be true not just of Vernae’s work in that one piece, but of the young artist in general.

Kailey Rhodes (left) and Andrea Vernae: moving up. Photo: Bobby Bermea

Rhodes made her mark with deft precision and impeccable timing in Artist Rep’s dazzling revival of The Importance of Being Earnest. In a cast filled to the brim with sterling performances, Rhodes stood out. She’s an effortless, economical performer, with a natural instinct for what’s needed and what isn’t. She steps into heightened realities and makes them feel totally natural. When Earnest opened she wasn’t a complete unknown to Portland audiences. After all, she’d been nominated for a Drammy for her work in Chicago (Metropolitan Community Theatre Project). But her move to the larger stage wasn’t just seamless, it was dynamic.

Now Vernae and Rhodes are onstage together in one of the new season’s most audacious and potentially controversial shows, Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ Obie Award-winning An Octoroon, which opened Saturday night at Artists Rep. Their transition from newcomers to appearing in Portland’s most talked-about production has been fast. But like most such stories, it was years in the making.

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BOTH OF THESE YOUNG ARTISTS are relatively recent transplants to the Portland theatre scene, having arrived just in the past three years. Both are southerners, Vernae hailing from Miami, Florida, and Rhodes from Macon, Georgia, the hometown of Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers. (When I noted that that history certainly merits bragging rights, Rhodes quipped, “Well, our music festival is called Bragg Jam.”)

In high school, Vernae had dueling passions — theatre and basketball. “But don’t get it twisted. I wasn’t some superstar of the basketball team. I just loved basketball.” Her senior year, her school made it to the state championships, where not only sports competitions were going on but arts as well. The first day of the festival, she attended some performances of plays nominated and was thunderstruck. “Ho-lee shit,” she thought, “I gotta do this. I want this kind of passion. I call my daddy and I’m like, “Daddy, I know what I want to go to school for. I want to be an actor.”

In a very real sense, Vernae’s proclivity for acting comes from a much deeper place. “I come from a family of storytellers. Dinners at my house are just like, lots and lots of storytelling. This goes back to the African tradition of oral storytelling and griots.” Indeed, Vernae’s conversation is peppered with references to her mother, grandmother and aunties dropping knowledge and sharing wisdom.

Vernae attended Florida A&M (“FAM U”), an HBCU (Historically Black College and University) school. “HBCUs are really big in my family. I knew FAM U had the best theatre program out of all the HBCUs, aside from Howard.” At Florida A&M, Vernae received a comprehensive theatrical education. “The program I came from, we trained in everything, in lights, in costume, the whole works.”

With graduation looming, Vernae received a call from LaTevin Alexander Ellis, who had taken part in the Portland Playhouse apprenticeship program.1 “He was like, ‘Dre, you got to come out to Portland. I think it’ll be a great fit for you.’ I’m like, ‘Bruh, I don’t even know where that is and no, I’m not going to Oregon. Period.’” Vernae attended URTAs (the University Resident Theatre Association auditions — where undergrads apply for grad schools) where she did, in fact, attract the attention of Nikki Weaver, who runs the apprenticeship program at the Playhouse. “I got a callback from her and she was like, ‘I feel like I know you already.’ I applied and I got in.” Her parents were reluctant for her to travel so far away but Vernae persevered.

Vernae created a stir in Portland Playhouse’s “pen/man/ship” earlier this year. Photo: Brud Giles

“The apprenticeship was hard. It was a great little introduction to the city but it was hard work. But I’m no stranger to hard work. We had to do everything. It was five women. It was tough. But the artists I trained with in this city, Matthew Kerrigan, Chris Harder — they taught classes that I was just — inspired and in awe and just so grateful for the Playhouse for introducing me to these people. I was receiving training in stuff I’d never even heard of. Like Viewpoints — never heard of that before I came out here. Suzuki — none of that until I came out here. And yeah, I’m really grateful for the apprenticeship, for Nikki and Brian (Weaver, artistic director), because they’re the reason I’ve had as much success as I’ve had here.”

There were some growing pains but also some real victories. “I have a need to speak articulately when it comes to talking about being black,” says Vernae. “A lot of people are afraid of that. When I first came out here to Portland I felt the need to put on a mask. I was like, ‘I’m around all these white people.’ Coming from Miami and coming from a predominantly black school I was just like, ‘Um, I like — country music (laughs). It was hard. One day something just clicked for me. And I thought, ‘Fuck it. I’m just going to be who I am. And you can either take me as that or not. But I’m here.’ I became a woman in Portland. I owned who I was in Portland. It was easy to do that when everybody looks like me. But to have to do that here in a new place where no one looks like me, I just felt like I didn’t have to hide anymore.”

During her apprenticeship, Vernae did manage to get out and see some of the work being done in town, including making it to Artist Rep’s The Miracle Worker. “Val (Landrum) is something else. I’m in love with her.” And she remembers seeing seeing all the pictures of resident theater artists on the wall and thinking, “Damn, I wanna work here.” She started auditioning around town, started getting work and decided, “Okay, I can stay here.”

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BEFORE LONG, VERNAE FOUND herself in Artist Rep’s A Civil War Christmas. During the run of that show, an event was held after one of the performances where there was music and dancing in the lobby. Outside, a young couple, only recently transplanted to Portland, were walking around exploring their new city. They walked by Artists Repertory and noticed the festivities and wanted to join. They danced on the sidewalk and knocked on the window and got the attention of Andrea Vernae. She went and opened the door — and that was the first time she met Kailey Rhodes.

Rhodes and her husband, Matt, had their lives all mapped out for them — if that had been what they wanted. Like Vernae’s, her family connections are strong and extensive. “My husband and I both got our first jobs in our home town. I was a teacher. I got a job at my alma mater and he got a job with a company that he interned with in high school. Everything was really easy. Both of our parents live in Georgia, his grandparents, my grandparents — everybody lives right there. Everybody knew who we were.” But that wasn’t enough for the young couple. “We were on the road to, ‘Are we gonna buy a house here? Are we gonna do that life?’ We both realized if we stayed, we were never gonna leave.”

First, they made a list of qualities they would want in a new city. “We wanted a city that had music, that had theater, that had recycling (laughs), food, the outdoors, and a diversity of perspectives than middle Georgia.” Then they made a list of cities they felt had those qualities, and Portland was the city where opportunity first arose. “So we sold both of our cars and moved out here. We moved into an apartment neither of us had ever seen.”

Rhodes’s command of technique is all the more astonishing considering she’s had relatively little formal training. In Macon, “There were two community theaters and that’s it. I did a lot of theatre growing up. One of those community theaters had a youth actors company. I guess that was the most training I got, like weekend classes. I was a dancer. Took a lot of voice.” That community theater seems to have a proud tradition: “All of my peers in that acting company majored in theater. Every single one. One of them is on Broadway right now. One of them is doing theater in Seattle. One of them is doing theatre in Chicago. Everybody majored in theater but me. Really.”

Rhodes (right) with Jamie M. Rea in Artists Rep’s all-woman cast of “The Importance of Being Earnest” last spring. Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

She had another love — teaching. “I love teaching. I have a teaching heart.” She took a break from theater while she went to school, first at the University of Georgia, then she got her masters at Agnes Scott in Atlanta. “That was my masters. Got a master of arts in teaching; that was pretty awesome, and I’m really proud of it but nothing could — I had a great job, I had a great life, I love my family, but it couldn’t stop there. I was 25.”

When the time came to find a new home, she and Matt scouted out Portland in person. She reached out to the Portland Area Theatre Alliance and asked them what show they should see. PATA hooked them up with tickets to go see a play … Foxfinder at Artists Repertory Theatre. Foxfinder was a pivotal moment for Rhodes. “I remember seeing it and being so moved.” She made up her mind she wanted to do theater in Portland.

Both actors approach the creation of a character similarly. Text is paramount. For Rhodes, she then moves to the physical, perhaps as a result of her dance training. “I first start with the text. What’s the text telling me about the character? The second thing I do is I really think about their body. So, for this character in An Octoroon, I think a lot about her torso and how she moves and bends. I think about where her torso is oriented to her hips. Is it like right over it? Is it slightly forward or is it slightly back? You know Harry Potter? The animation in the final movie, the brother that uses the resurrection stone to bring his love back from the dead — there’s this image of her, and she’s in a hoop skirt. She’s a marionette and she’s spinning. That image is something that I really fixated on for Dora. This doll — creepy, and then it’s really easy to lay who Dora is on that.”

The final goal of this technique is not simply performance but revelation. “I feel like acting is a bad word for what we do. Acting implies deception. I feel like what we’re doing is revealing a lot of truth. We’re offering an experience for people to come and feel. And feel at one with ourselves and each other.”

For Vernae, the process is slightly different. “Definitely start with the text first. I write down a list of all my given circumstances; everything that the script tells me that this character is. Then I have to visualize who I think she is. And I mostly always go to people in my family. And then I write a full-fledged story about her life and her background history just for myself. And how she got up to this point in the play where everybody meets who she is.”

For Vernae, it always comes back to storytelling. “I think that’s what theatre is for me. I get the chance to tell stories and have people be captivated by a world they might not even know and hopefully learn and feel something.”

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TWO YOUNG WOMEN OF THE SOUTH making their first forays into the wider world. One black, one white, both sensitive and intelligent artists, and each immensely talented. It seems somehow inevitable that they both ended up in An Octoroon.

In recent years, Artists Repertory Theatre has not shied away from tackling incendiary subject matter: RaceWe Are Proud to Present…The Invisible Hand and the aforementioned Foxfinder come to mind. Last year, the company brought in internationally acclaimed theater artist Roger Guenveur Smith and his one man show Rodney King — which led to one of the more contentious and controversial talkbacks in recent memory. Rather than backing away from potentially volatile material, Artists Rep doubled down and brought in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon.

Jacob-Jenkins’ work combines melodrama, minstrelsy, Brechtian stagecraft and brutal American history to make a decidedly combustible theatrical cocktail. Black actors wear whiteface, white actors wear blackface and redface, stereotypes aren’t avoided but leaned into, and a twisted aspect of American life and history is revealed in all its ugliness for the world to see. An Octoroon is based on Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, a melodrama from the 19thcentury. It’s a difficult read nowadays but for Jacob-Jenkins it’s always held a fascination. In the prologue, where an actor stands in for the playwright, he lays this out explicitly. Much of the dialogue for his piece is lifted directly from Boucicault’s original. But there are alterations to the dialogue, and in the dramaturgy as a whole, that give Jacob-Jenkins’ work a distinctly contemporary sensibility and meaning. Even with that, there is so much put on stage that conventional wisdom — and, hopefully, compassion — has said we should never see again, that the experience borders on overwhelming.

For Damaso Rodriguez, artistic director of Artists Rep and co-director of An Octoroon with Lava Alapai, these “distressing” aspects of the piece are not prohibitive and in fact, make the play necessary. “These are incendiary times in Portland,” he says in his director’s notes for the show. “Doing (An Octoroon) has afforded our community of theatre makers the opportunity to confront our own relationship to the institution of racism.” Likewise, Jacob-Jenkins states: “I believe that ugly feelings have a place in the theatre! If you cannot feel angry or upset … or scandalized or grossed out … in the theatre, where else are you supposed to feel safe to do that?”

Vernae and Rhodes onstage together in “An Octoroon.” Photo: Russell J Young

It’s a legit question and without a doubt, looking for the answer is one of the functions of theater. It’s easy to talk about the necessity of art to shock, to challenge, to provoke — the other guy. It becomes just a bit messier when you (or in this case, I) are the one being shocked and provoked — whose buttons are being pushed. And the artist taking on that responsibility of provoking and challenging an audience has to do so intentionally and with a clear sense of purpose. It’s a profound responsibility.

“It’s terrifying,” says Rhodes, “but it’s okay that it’s hard.” Vernae adds: “When I first read the play I didn’t know what to expect. I was like, ‘I don’t know what I just read.’ I read it with a group of friends. We were laughing and I’m like, ‘Yo, I don’t know if I should be laughing.’”

At the same time, both artists feel like the play performs a necessary function amidst the current political climate. “We medicate ourselves with these illusions to help us escape from life’s realities,” says Vernae, “and it’s always harder to deal with life’s truths so we lie to ourselves, distract ourselves, then we run ourselves in a circle and we finally crash and burn. I don’t think the show is dangerous. I think it’s unapologetically truthful. It will make people have a lot of realizations about what’s been going on in our country that they have tried to convince themselves wasn’t happening. The reason the country is in the current political climate that it is, is because we have lived in denial for so long, in this illusion of what America is supposed to be.”

Rhodes concurs: “I don’t want people to walk out of this show thinking, ‘Look how far we’ve come.’ I think, that progress has been made is undeniable but it is not the point of this piece of art to me. This is not pat-on-the-back art. It is encouraging us to really look at our past and use it as a reference point to where we are and where we need to go.”

It’s telling that both artists, despite their contrasting acting styles and the heightened aesthetic of melodrama, rely fundamentally on truth and honesty to flesh out their performances. “Damaso and Lava always say take everything that we do back to truth,” says Vernae, “Make it as real as possible.”

“Dora is a not really exaggerated portrayal of our racist past,” Rhodes says of her character. “I am embodying a vessel of a really uncomfortable truth. I feel grateful to our directors for helping me walk a line where she’s not so cartoonish as to not be a mirror anymore. I’m from the South. She’s the perfect example of systemic racism where she does not feel like a perpetrator. She feels these are absolute truths in the world. It’s just the way it is. She’s never thought about it. Obviously we are no longer in the plantation South. But this kind of unconscious existence and moving through your privilege and moving through space with your privilege that people willfully don’t look at and willfully don’t examine is very much still alive. ”

Of Minnie, Vernae says, “This character in particular, I know so many women in my family that are like her. So I take pieces of each one. Like how my auntie does this with her hands, so I’ll steal that. My grandma is just so colorful with how she uses language and how she plays with words so I layer that on top as well.”

Both actors, naturally, feel the weight of race, politics, privilege (one way or another) and history.

“I’m just speaking as Kailey,” says Rhodes, “I’m not speaking as every white woman. I’m aware of the honor of this moment and being the voice of it. I’m never insinuating that I’m done growing or learning or listening.”

Says Vernae, “Minnie represents — and I’m going to try say this correctly, I guess — who I think every black person wishes how they could function in this society. And that’s unapologetically be themselves twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, no matter who they are and they don’t have to switch on and switch off. I was talking to my grandmother and she was like, ‘Yeah, you gotta know how to switch it on and switch it off.’ And I’m like, ‘Why do I have to do that?’ I think that’s just so taxing for me as a black person. That’s frustrating for me. And that’s what Minnie is. She allows freedom in every aspect of herself. Although she’s a slave, she knows that’s just a job. She’s able to separate that. ‘That’s just a job. That’s not who I am.’”

Both actors expressed again and again how important it was that Alapai and Rodriguez — and by extension the rest of the cast and crew — created an environment of open, honest, respectful communication and exploration.

“We did a lot of unpacking during the process,” says Vernae. “We had a lot of real conversations. With this play you have to be willing to talk about it first, and be as open and honest and as truthful as possible and be like, ‘Hey this is what happened. This is the truth of it. We did this.’ And that’s where the healing begins.”

“Usually, in a show,” adds Rhodes, “I’m ready to get to performances. With this show, I’m sad that we’re in performances because it means that I’m not with my people, sitting around a table, talking. Our two directors who are incredible — it’s not easy to co-direct and these two did it like a dance, like it was just beautiful.”

The process has been revealing for both actors. “You asked us what we first thought when we read this play,” says Rhodes. “It’s funny, I don’t even remember who that Kailey was. It’s so much more complicated than I thought. My awareness of everything.” Then, after a moment, “I don’t know if it’s so much more complicated now or so much simpler.”

For Vernae, “I think it’s encouraged me to listen more and to talk less. Listen, listen, listen. It’s also helped me to realize the unpacking I have to do now with my own self and the healing that we as black people have to do within our own community. Being a vessel for that for my family, for my friends.”

All of this is a lot. An Octoroon is more than a lot of works of theater. This is not just learn your lines and pretend you’re somebody else. It could be intimidating. But of course, theater is a collaborative art form, so no one has to shoulder the burden on their own.

“During our dress rehearsals,” recounts Rhodes, “in the space, the cast, crew, everybody was on their feet. They were in it.”

Vernae agrees: “That’s what’s been great. Everybody’s so passionate, so supportive, and I feel like I can fall but that’s okay because I have so many people around to catch me.”

An Octoroon is here, now, showing at Artists Repertory Theatre through October 1st. It’s an uncomfortable piece of theater for an uncomfortable time. For audiences, the task will be to approach it with the wisdom, intelligence and sensitivity with which these two young artists approached it. If that happens, then maybe there is an opportunity for learning, growth and even healing. That’s lofty aspirations for a play, but that is, after all, what artists do.

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1 . Portland Playhouse’s apprenticeship program is making quite a name for itself. Several of our brightest young stars have come through there now: Vernae, LaTevin Alexander Ellis, Josh Weinstein, and Alex Ramirez de Cruz — who also stars in An Octoroon — to name but a few.)

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Also read An Octoroon: a punch and a gasp, TJ Acena’s ArtsWatch review of Artists Rep’s production.

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An Octoroon continues through Oct. 1 on Artists Repertory Theatre’s Alder Stage. Ticket and schedule information here.

 


 

With this story Bobby Bermea joins ArtsWatch’s list of regular contributors. Bermea, a prominent actor, director, and producer in Portland, will explore the stories behind the stories on the city’s cultural scene. Follow him on Twitter: @beirutwedding

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