Talking race: the color of now

An overflow crowd at Imago Theatre delves into Oregon's racial history, race conflicts in America, and the role that art and artists play in the discussion

When the doors finally opened and the long line wandering down the sidewalk began to surge forward, the intimate Imago Theatre began to be overwhelmed by a human tide. Every seat, it seemed, was taken. I don’t recall seeing the theater this packed even in the heyday of Frogz, Imago’s huge and long-running anthropomorphic-animal hit. For that matter, I’d forgotten the place even had a balcony, which on Monday night was packed, as the saying goes, to the rafters. Old people were there, and young people, and the generations between, and this being Portland there were more white people than people of color but the mix was evident. Almost immediately a baby started crying, a sound not usually heard in theaters unless it’s a sound effect for a play. This was a real baby, in real time. “Cool,” said Chantal DeGroat, the actor and moderator for the evening. “Rock ‘n’ roll. Rock. And. Roll. To the families.”

Jones and DeGroat: "What's RACE got to do with it?" Photo: Peter Irby

Jones and DeGroat: “What’s RACE got to do with it?” Photo: Peter Irby

The event was a conversation called “What’s RACE Got To Do With It?,” produced by the group The Color of NOW and hosted by Third Rail Repertory Theatre, which shares the Imago space. Part performance, part talk show and part back-and-forth with the audience, it included a monologue to an unborn child – a child who, given the state of the world and its racial volatility, would remain unborn, an idea derailed – by actor Joseph Gibson, and a little music from Ben Graves, and a long conversation about the nitty gritty of race in America and Oregon in particular with the actor, director, and activist Kevin Jones, artistic director of the August Wilson Red Door Project, an organization whose ambitious goal is to “change the racial ecology of Portland through the arts.”

It’s a tall order, given the ratcheting of racial tensions across the nation and much of the rest of the world in recent times. A presidential candidate who frankly and regularly stirs up racial fears, demands closed borders, and seems to embrace violence among his followers. The extreme incarceration rates among African American men. The volatile events of the past week, including what appear to have been unprovoked slayings of black Americans by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, followed by an apparently retaliatory mass shooting of police officers in Texas, events piled on a long line of shootings, chokings, beatings, church arsons, and other acts of explicitly race-charged violence. The full house at Imago was no doubt at least partly due to the extraordinary concentration of violence in the past week, but this event was planned long before those deaths hit the headlines and smart-phone screens of the nation.

Actor Joseph Gibson, spinning a tale. Photo: Peter Irby

Actor Joseph Gibson, spinning a tale. Photo: Peter Irby

He talks with a lot of cops, Jones said at one point, and the fear works both ways: “They’re scared. And so trigger-happy. Not -happy. But they’re scared. They’re freaking out out there.” There’s a difference between the ways white cops and black cops think about young black men, he added. White officers, who generally don’t live around black people, don’t know the culture, and so they see danger, and react rather than respond. Black officers see the faces of their own neighborhoods, and maybe their own kids, and so they wait a little longer. Race is an idea, Jones noted: “How you see the world is how it shows up.”

Black people are tired, several people mentioned – “catatonic” over recent events, Jones commented, and DeGroat described a sort of unbidden trauma: “I was driving. I just totally burst into tears.”  And people of color are weary of having to explain things to white people. Yet, almost inevitably, that was what occurred on Monday night. When you live something 24 hours a day, you know more about it that someone who drops in to visit now and again.

Much of the evening’s discussion was about the nature of whiteness and what it means. DeGroat has had in her lifetime at least three different names for her ethnic identification, she commented, but white people are still white people: it’s everyone else whose group identity changes. “What’s the new ‘white’?” she asked. (She added that, with one white parent, she’s white, too, even if nobody sees her that way.) Jones talked about Oregon’s own racial history, and its founding as what he called “a white utopia” – a place that would officially discourage nonwhite settlement, and so create a cohesive culture that worked the way white people wanted it to work. The idea echoes all the way to the current “Keep Portland Weird” movement, he suggested – “a mentality to keep some people out and let others in.” A vexing problem, he added, is that “we don’t understand how to dismantle the mentality of a white utopia.”

There was heat, and there was light. The term “white privilege” inevitably arose, and Gibson, the monologist, expanded it to talk about male privilege, and the need for everyone to own up to the sorts of privileges they enjoy, and what those privileges cost to other people. An impassioned lament about “preaching to the choir” was delivered. Jones talked about understanding systems that create prejudice and inequality, an approach that might sidestep some of the us-or-them mentality that goes into race relations: “The race narrative needs to be updated,” he said. As DeGroat commented more than once, people are at different places in this conversation, and what seems obvious to one person is new to another.

Little speeches were made. Genuine questions were asked. A few controversies arose: Was the constant sharing of video clips of recent shootings necessary to spark action, or a form of violence porn? And things, for the most part, remained polite. Still, there was anger. Late in the evening an African American woman approached the microphone, leaned down, and spoke her mind. “I have not once heard the term ‘white supremacy’,” she said. “It’s more violent than the way we’re talkin’ about here.” Her comment drew applause.

The long lineup for concessions before the conversation. Photo: Peter Irby

The long lineup for concessions before the conversation. Photo: Peter Irby

Monday’s event seemed very much like an unfinished conversation. Certainly what “good” it might have done in terms of solving America’s deep race problems is impossible to measure. Seeds are planted, and sometimes ideas grow, and all that individuals can do is plant seeds. Theater people are no better or worse than any other group of people, and yet there is good reason for artists of all sorts to become leaders and active participants in the national discussion, because artists tell stories, and in the end how we deal with other people is very much about the stories we tell and believe about them and about ourselves.

One thing that did not get spoken on Monday night – the subject is vast, and the time was brief – is the role that theater people and other artists bring to the telling of stories. Whose stories get told, and whose get ignored? How are the stories told? Who tells them? Who listens? What is the role of theater and other arts organizations in expanding the conversation, in making it emotionally understandable and at the same time spreading more light than heat? Who gets hired? Who doesn’t? These are essential questions that contemporary artists and their followers need to confront.

To be continued.

*

The next chapter, at least locally, comes tonight – Tuesday, July 12 – at McMenamins Kennedy School, with the local launch of the anthology What Does It Mean To Be White in America? The book “contains more than eighty personal narratives that break the white code of silence,” including a story from Portland artist and writer Anne Mavor, whose installation I Am My White Ancestors will be at Clackamas Community College in October, and fellow Northwest participants Tereza Topferova Bottman, Jan Priddy, Patrik McDade, Leah Mueller, Carol Weliky, and Janie Starr.

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