‘The Hillsboro Story’: Weaving a web of memories

In a new book, performance artist Susan Banyas integrates multiple voices and viewpoints, revisiting a 1950s school desegregation battle in her Ohio hometown.

“Two months after Brown v. Board of Education legally ended school segregation…my sleepy segregated little hometown, Hillsboro, Ohio, the county seat of Highland County, was jolted awake by a fire at the colored school; and History and Memory came marching into town like the Fourth of July Parade the day before.” — The opening passage of The Hillsboro Story, a new book by Susan Banyas.

“In the wee small hours of July 5, 1954, I popped wide awake and looked at the clock. Two o’clock. I quietly dressed and tiptoed downstairs. Armed with a can of gasoline, a bottle of oil and a clutch of newspapers, I kicked and struggled my way through a tangle of growth that choked an abandoned alley at the back of lots to the little cloistered school and up the steps.” — From an unpublished memoir by Philip Partridge, former Highland County engineer.

“I am eight years old, and women and children appear and disappear outside my third-grade classroom window. They carry signs with messages. OUR CHILDREN PLAY TOGETHER, WHY CAN’T THEY LEARN TOGETHER?…There I am, floating in my inner tube in the plastic pool in the backyard on Danville Pike, soaking up the cultural commotion, riding my bike around in it, watching it from behind a window at school, fascinated by the drama, the characters who come and go. But I have no story to hold it, and I remain mute, in the dark, wondering, haunted.” — from The Hillsboro Story.

“How does a kid arrive at a resolution that shakes his world? Is there a sense of justice even in young children.” — From Partridge’s memoir. 

Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, mothers and children in Hillsboro, Ohio protest continuing segregation of the town’s schools. Photo courtesy of Susan Banyas.

Back to a place of one of many beginnings

“It’s hard to know where a story begins,” Susan Banyas says on a recent afternoon, sitting in a Ladd’s Addition coffee shop a few blocks from where she lived when she began the lengthy artistic exploration that has become her book, The Hillsboro Story.

Indeed it is. You might consider the beginning of The Hillsboro Story to be one of those days when young Susan gazes out a Webster School window, her attention momentarily pulled away from Charlotte’s Web, being read aloud by Mrs. Mallory, and onto the puzzling protest that goes on outside, day after day for two years. But maybe it started with Philip Partridge, a white man wanting to further the cause of social justice, deciding to torch the decrepit, Reconstruction-era Lincoln School, where blacks were sent, figuring that its destruction would force integration of the town’s other schools. 

Perhaps you’d need to go back to Partridge’s politically aware childhood epiphany that he would one day “do something that would strike a blow at the way things were.” Or might it start back further still, in the legacy of quiet activism by Banyas’ Quaker forebears, who built a secret room in a cistern to hide fugitive slaves as part of the Underground Railroad?
Then again, one of the many short segments of narrative, reflection, oral history and commentary that make up the text of Banyas’ book is called “This Is the Beginning – May, 2003, Hillsboro, Ohio” — marking her first meeting with the grass-roots freedom fighters she refers to as the Marching Mothers. But since the process behind the book — pulling together not just the interviews and research, but also personal memories and emotions, impressions of place, resonant coincidences and dreams — is so much of what constitutes the book, you could as aptly point to its beginnings in the mid-1980s, when Banyas, began innovating and teaching a hybrid storytelling performance form she calls Soul Stories. 

The Hillsboro Story is Banyas’ own Soul Story, on paper and writ large.

The now of the story

Author, teacher, performance artist Susan Banyas. Photo: Quincy Davis

On Thursday, September 19, Banyas will visit Broadway Books (1714 NE Broadway in Portland) at 7 p.m. to present a reading from The Hillsboro Story. Multidisciplinary artist that she is, she’s prepared a 12-minute multi-media synopsis of the story and will use music by her frequent collaborator, the jazz musician David Ornette Cherry, to augment her reading of excerpts from the book.

The story at an earlier stage

Though she moved to Astoria a few years ago, Banyas has had a long career in Portland as a dancer, writer, performance artist and teacher. I’ve been a fan since I first wrote about her work for Willamette Week in the late 1980s, when she ran a studio on Southeast Stark Street called Dreamswell. So perhaps you’ve encountered her work before, maybe even something called The Hillsboro Story.
Yet another beginning, you could say, came in 2010 when Artists Rep presented The Hillsboro Story as a work for the stage. 

The Oregonian (well, really it was me — I was the paper’s staff theater critic at the time) called it “one of the most important pieces of theater presented in Portland this year”:

“The Hillsboro in Banyas’ multilayered memory play isn’t the city in Oregon, but a small town in southern Ohio, not far north of the Mason-Dixon Line,” I wrote.

“In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which essentially declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. But black children in Hillsboro still were relegated to a segregated, Reconstruction-era schoolhouse. The county engineer, a white man, set fire to the school to try to force desegregation, but still the local school board dragged its feet.

Enter “the Marching Mothers,” as Banyas calls them, and the NAACP and the first Northern test case for the high court’s Brown decision.

…In her view, integration is a concept that includes the civil-rights sense of racial desegregation but is much broader and deeper. It encompasses (Martin Luther) King’s ‘beloved community’ ideal, built on a vision of what he called ‘the solidarity of the human family.’ It speaks to its semantic relative, ‘integrity,’ with the corresponding implications of strength and balance. It reflects her interdisciplinary way of making art, which dances gracefully between the whimsical and the profound.

Even though it deals with events a half-century ago, its underlying themes are resonant and relevant today — so much so that Portland Public Schools created an extensive curriculum based on ‘The Hillsboro Story,’ not only to help students understand the historical facts and themes of the play but also to learn how to look at their own lives and surroundings through the craft of storytelling.

As Banyas puts it in an introductory essay she’s written for the play, ‘Memory is not about the past, any more than a right angle is about geometry.’”

Susan’s web

Embedded in Banyas’ memory and her emotional connection to the varied aspects of the story is Charlotte’s Web, her “favorite thing about third grade.” The themes of friendship, community, concern for the welfare of others, and the importance of bold action in support of a just cause — all of these connect E.B. White’s classic children’s tale with the values Banyas espouses throughout The Hillsboro Story.

Another commonality is the idea of messages embedded in a web. Banyas’ book is written as a series of short sections, sometimes as short as a few paragraphs, seldom longer than a few pages. Their overall structure is complex, sometimes elliptical, occasionally repetitive, rarely chronological or linear. Many sections are scenic in nature, some more documentary and historical, some personal and reflective, while others are straightforward oral-history transcriptions. The content ranges in scope from the details of how the desegregation fight progressed to the practical and emotional ramifications for those involved, to dark observations on the mechanisms of economic and geopolitical power. The subtitle — “a kaleidoscope history of an integration battle in my hometown” — is telling. It’s her story and she tells it her way; but that way insists on an ever-shifting multiplicity of voices and perspectives, and utilizes a sometimes dizzying fluidity in regard to time, moving rapidly from 1982 to 1955, back to 1982, to 1990, to 2003, back to 1955, then eventually to the mid-19th century, the 1960s and ‘70s, 2015… 

“It’s a quest,” she says during our coffeehouse conversation. “I tried a more conventional method, and I just wasn’t interested in it. One of the questions I wanted to ask with all this was: How powerful is it to take a single memory and walk back into it?”

Susan Banyas’ great-great-grandparents moved to Highland County, Ohio in 1837. The area’s Quaker population would work for justice, sheltering fugitive slaves in the 19th century, and helping to home school protesting black students in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Susan Banyas.

At points, the book reflects upon its own methods: “A story’s choreography is global and geographic when you step back and look at life this way — how you circle around and have chance encounters, how your life starts to take a shape, how, little by little, your blues hit the heat of imagination and you are somewhere else.”

Or, as she puts it when her quest brings out a particularly strange and fortuitous confluence of personal histories: “I feel like Nancy Drew on acid.”

A template

Banyas acknowledges that her account is far from a conventional history. “It must not have been an easy sell to publishers,” I remark.

 “The academics wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,” she says with a rueful chuckle. “And who’s at the center of it? Me. So I’m more suspect from the point of view of a straight-ahead publisher.”

But the project found a home with publisher Todd Thilleman, whose Spuyten Duyvil press specializes in “avant-garde books…honest and reality-based imaginative texts…shot-in-the-dark efforts,” according to its mission statement. 

“He saw it as an art book, a kind of documentary,” Banyas said. “And that worked for me, because it’s really a template. It’s meant to bounce you into your own thoughts, not to resolve itself. I didn’t want it to be like The Help, where you just go away and congratulate yourself on having read the book….

“I hope it’s used for people to start recalling their own memories — talking to Uncle So-and-So, looking into privilege and history and what’s right in front of us that we’re not talking about. I think we always have to ask: Who’s controlling the narrative? I hope people wake up to their own experience and don’t take anyone’s word for anything.”

Word wide web

Toward the end of the book, Banyas periodically poses a question to some of the people involved in the desegregation battle all those years ago:

“‘If you were Charlotte,’ I ask…, ‘what word would you choose to weave into the web — to save the world?’” Among the answers she hears are “friendship,” “curiosity” and “fair play.”
I wonder what word Banyas would choose. “Integration,” perhaps? “Connection”? Or maybe “Soul Story.”

You have to start somewhere

“As a movement artist, I wanted to write a book about the movement and spiritual intelligence of protest because as a white person, schooled and socialized in America, I was denied access to this intelligence because of fear and ignorance,” Banyas said in an interview with writer Deborah Kalb. “I had to re-member, piece a history together, retrieve the parts of my memory — history that had been kept in the shadows, demonized, or simply ignored.”

“News was becoming national,” she writes of the desegregation case reaching the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. “My sweet little home town would have a hard time hiding out in the hills now, pretending to be a Norman Rockwell painting.”
Some of the most engaging, illuminating moments in “The Hillsboro Story” come when Banyas subtly indicts the mid-American orthodoxy she grew up with — that ignoring, that willful ignorance — by juxtaposing mundane, superficially innocent lifestyle details with broader social developments. It’s her way of stepping — fitfully at first, then purposefully —  out of that Rockwell world and into her truth.

About the summer of 1967 she writes: “The whole country is awake now…tuning in and turning on a new social order.
“I carry on in the social order and get a summer job as a lifeguard at the Chillicothe Country Club where I can swim laps, practice my diving moves, work on my tan while on the job. The wealthy housewives stretch out on the reclining lawn chairs, gossip, rub Coppertone into their skin, smoke Salems, order club sandwiches from the kitchen, made and served by the Black help, read Vogue and Redbook.

“Four hours north, Detroit burns for four days.”

About having married at age 20, she muses: “Fortunately, I have seen my first Felliini film, and the strange people in Juliet of the Spirits have captured my imagination, but for now, I am stuck in a trailer park on the outskirts of Athens, Ohio trying to cook a pot roast. You have to start somewhere.”

Not long afterward, teaching jobs bring her and her husband to Oregon, where she becomes fast friends with a free-spirited and opinionated colleague: “Rosie and I laugh so hard, I am born again.”

Still ready to laugh: Susan Banyas near her home in Astoria. Photo: Dorinda Holler.

Of conspiracy and credulity

“Sometimes meaning is amplified by seemingly whimsical gesture, as when she gives a bit of background on her school’s namesake, Daniel Webster,” I wrote in  my review for The Oregonian of The Hillsboro Story play, back in 2010. “Describing him as a ‘centrist,’ she says the word while giving a little limp wriggle, as if to denote a slippery spinelessness.”

Now, as then, I’m bothered by the aspersion. Partly because I don’t think political values have to be extreme to be authentic or useful, partly because I wish that Banyas availed herself of a bit more centrist-style caution. 

As much as I’ve always liked her and her work, and as much as The Hillsboro Story is engaging and illuminating overall, I sometimes found it tough to read. On top of its determinedly non-linear structure (plus a lamentable number of copy-editing and proof-reading gaffes), it strains so far to make points about systemic corruption that two-thirds through we’re far from Southern Ohio and instead are mired in digressions about the deaths of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.  

She recalls the deaths of JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, writing “I grew up on Nancy Drew and Perry Mason. I can spot the criminals…I am only fifteen, but it is clear to me that the whole thing was an inside job.” How Perry Mason can be the basis of such certitude I don’t know, but fine. Before long, though, there’s discussion of “corporate mafia,” “Vatican mafia,” “shadow government,” a “black underground communication network,” “the new world order” and so on. She recounts claims by Philip Partridge, the engineer-turned-arsonist, that secret agents used invisible laser weapons to cause him various illnesses. Then she Googles a few things about experimental weapons research, connects dots to Obama-ordered drone strikes and the like and concludes, “I don’t need to fact-check remote control torture to postulate whether Philip Partridge was writing about real or imagined experience” — as though possibility establishes fact.

Both Patridge and Banyas may well be right about such sinister forces at work. But such claims read here more like histrionics than history. 

Memory serves

And yet, her overarching argument is hard to quibble with. Discussing the efforts of the likes of Constance Baker Motley, Daniel Ellsberg, Sen. Frank Church, and, by extension, the Marching Mothers, Banyas writes: “The social engineers fighting to unify society through equal protection were shadow-boxing against covert, internalized, systemic racism and a deadly game for geopolitical world domination, a ‘grand strategy’ of complete control of earth’s resources through supremacy in the military, marketplace, media, and most of all, memory.

“..This story is not about small-town drama, although drama drives the story. The story is about power, about who controls memory, who has the authority to speak.”

Home school of the heart

In a way, The Hillsboro Story is an answer to one of the questions that Banyas quotes from Philip Partridge’s memoir. Yes, there is a sense of justice even in young children. And Banyas has artfully traced her way back to its origins in her own life, as well as followed its call outward, into the lives of others. 

 “It really gets down to relationships,” she says as we finish our coffee. “You can’t argue those — or judge them. They’re very personal. It’s always a little mysterious to me that history isn’t written more in this way — it’s so relational.

 “The women of Hillsboro taught me a lot about love and common sense at the heart of justice.”

TBA report: aggressive whimsey, meditative chaos, kinetic violin

Martha Daghlian reviews performances by Laura Ortman, Takashi Makino, and Asher Hartman and Gawdafful National Theater

PICA’s Time Based Art Festival (TBA) was held at locations around Portland from September 5th through 15th. The festival brings together a diverse roster of artists and performances. Martha Daghlian reviews three notable offerings.


Laura Ortman (with Marcus Fischer and Raven Chacon)
Lincoln Hall
1620 SW Park Ave
September 6 & 7

Brooklyn-based violinist Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) brought her intense experimental style to Lincoln Hall in two performances for the 2019 TBA festival. Ortman was accompanied by Portland artist Marcus Fischer and by her frequent collaborator Raven Chacon (Diné) of New Mexico. A prominent figure in experimental and Native music scenes, Ortman has been developing her unique sound for decades but has recently garnered international acclaim for her video “My Soul Remainer” which was included in this year’s Whitney Biennial (In fact, all three performers were featured artists in the Biennial; Ortman and Fischer as solo artists and Chacon as part of the arts collective Postcommodity.)

Laura Ortman. Courtesy of PICA.

Saturday night’s set began with the dim stage backlit by blazing red light and the slowly building buzz and rumble of looped and distorted guitar and synthesizer. Ortman commenced the evening by uttering a few garbled proclamations into a loudspeaker that sounded like the muffled, staticky voices of a radio station just out of range. 

From then on, Ortman danced around the stage tirelessly, accenting her playing with dramatic lunges and sidesteps. She moved almost frantically at times but maintained a sense of deep focus even in her freneticism. She scribbled away at her instrument as though trying to set it on fire by friction and at one point carried this sentiment to an extreme when she scraped an alternate violin against a mic’d-up panel of wood covered in sandpaper. The sound was nearly unbearable. Then, finally, she picked up the board and knocked it on the stage to release a small pile of sawdust. She tapped and thumped her instrument like a bizarre drum and used a wooden whistle to evoke the tones of a train, a bird, or an idle human. Her playing veered from screeching to cinematic to sweetly melodic, driven by her insistent kinetic energy. 

Accompanying Ortman’s forceful performance were Fischer and Chacon’s heavy (and heavily distorted) guitar/synth/tape loop combo, which, though compelling in their own right, at times threatened to completely obscure the headlining artist’s efforts. In contrast to much of Ortman’s recorded music, which allows the listener to hear every affecting nuance and note she plays, the show at Lincoln Hall was dominated by the monolithic dronescape that continued almost unbroken for the full 90 minutes. Ortman’s violin was like a small bird flying through a hurricane, variously engulfed by clouds and shoved to and fro by the wind. Whether this was a conscious decision within the three performers’ collaborative process or the result of the way the venue’s sound was mixed, it was hard to dismiss the possibility that listeners might be missing out on a certain level of sonic detail. The wall-of-noise effect became slightly monotonous after a certain point, making the moments when Ortman took over feel all the more exquisite.

Memento Stella, Takashi Makino
1945 SE Water Ave
September 14 & 15

Memento Stella, according to Japanese filmmaker Takashi Makino, means “remember we are stars.” It is also the title of his most recent work which TBA screened at OMSI’s Empirical Theater over the weekend. Makino’s work is decidedly abstract and has evolved from Stan Brakhage-style direct film manipulation in his early career to his current mode of intricately layered digital footage and lens effects that create wildly flickering hypnotic textures on the screen. Memento Stella is his longest film to date with a run time of 60 minutes. For the Sunday evening showing I attended, the artist was present to perform a live soundtrack on synthesizer. The piece was composed by Reinier van Houdt, who also performed at Saturday’s screening. 

Takashi Makino
Takashi Makino. Courtesy of PICA.

The audience was warned at the outset that although we might recognize specific images, the idea was to relax into the visual chaos and let our minds drift free from representation or narrative. The film began with tiny twinkling shards of light on a black background that resembled a more lively version of television static or perhaps stars moving at warp speed or a cloud of agitated dust particles viewed in raking light. We weren’t supposed to worry about making visual associations but I couldn’t help myself. It took some time to fully settle in and stop trying to make sense of what we were seeing (was that water? It had to be water!) but eventually the vast field of vibrating, swirling forms and particles began to feel absorbing and meditative. Tiny patterns and broad motions clashed and harmonized in turn. The experience was akin to the start of a psychedelic trip or the moment you fall asleep, only to be suddenly startled awake. Makino’s live performance of van Houdt’s soundtrack was also ambient, but its composition contained subtle peaks and valleys that prevented the sonic fatigue that can accompany noise music. 

At certain moments the total immersion became nearly overwhelming and a sort of existential dread crept in to the point that I actually felt afraid for a moment. After the show, other audience members reported having similar feelings of anxiety or foreboding and we all agreed that we felt a bit altered. It was as though we had all had a strange dream together. Maybe the experience wasn’t always relaxing, but it was powerful and unique, and isn’t that what art is supposed to be?

The Dope Elf (Asher Hartman and the Gawdafful National Theater)
Yale Union
800 SE 10th Ave
Additional Performances: September 20, 21 & 22; October 11, 12 & 13; October 18, 19 & 20
Doors open 7:30 PM / Showtime 8:00 PM

The Dope Elf, the latest production of Los Angeles artist Asher Hartman’s excellent Gawdafful National Theater Company, kicked off its month-long run at Yale Union during TBA’s second weekend. It stands out as one of the weirder and more exciting works featured in this year’s festival. Hartman and his crew have transformed Yale Union into a fey sort of “trailer park” in which handmade, treehouse-like structures and repurposed garbage/sculpture hybrids are scattered throughout the cavernous gallery. The company are artists-in-residence in the literal sense – they have been living on set since the production began and will continue to do so through the final performance on October 20. The Dope Elf is a three-part show that unfolds over three consecutive evenings each weekend of the run; I saw what was described as a modified version of Play 1 in a media preview performance. (A 24-hour live stream can be found on the gallery’s website.) Before the show started, Hartman addressed the audience. He explained that the players would be moving around the gallery throughout the evening, and that he would lead us to the next location after each scene. This roving action resulted in a rather fluid barrier between performer and viewer that was fun and kept everyone alert as we tried to avoid inadvertently stumbling into the spotlight.

The Dope Elf publicity image
The Dope Elf publicity image. Courtesy of PICA.

The show began when Michael Bonnabel jumped onto a platform surrounded by faux arcade game consoles made from cardboard boxes (including “Street Frighter” and “Donkey Dong”) and tore into an acidic monologue about a pretentious fellow referred to as “the actor.” Slowly it became apparent that the actor in question was Bonnabel himself – or the character he was playing – which was our first indication of the multiple layers of meaning and identity contained within this rowdy performance. 

The next scene found Bonnabel sitting in one half of a two-bedroom shanty, engaged in a petty domestic squabble with John (played by Philip Littell). From there, the energetic cast transformed themselves into trolls, wolves, aunties, actors, depressed trailer-park residents, concerned family members, and death itself. Zut Lors gave a brief but standout performance as Gingy, a trailer-park troll. Lors is a gifted physical comedian whose facial expressions and excellent timing were genuinely funny, which can be hard to come by in contemporary performance art. She reappeared later as one half of a couple (or siblings? roommates?) opposite Joe Seely and was compelling even in that more subdued role, relaxed in her lines and her movements. 

Although there was a superficial gloss of wacky humor throughout (particularly in the instance of Gingy’s deranged stand-up routine), the underlying tone was one of deep metaphysical disturbances. The wretchedness reached a nadir in a scene in which Bonnabel (perhaps playing Michael, the actor) holds another man (played by Paul Outlaw) hostage in his bedroom, commanding him to remove and replace articles of clothing, psychotically singing love songs to him while mimicking sexual acts, and threatening to tape his mouth shut before the scene fades out. From my vantage point, I was able to see Bonnabel discreetly remove a length of rope and a set of kitchen knives from a duffle bag at the start of the scene (not everyone would have seen this, I just happened to be standing directly behind the actor), and as a result I spent the entire scene worried that we were about to witness a gruesome fictional murder. To my relief, the action never devolved into that sort of spectacle, but that doesn’t mean the audience was spared any discomfort. 

And then there was the titular Dope Elf, played with aggressive whimsy by Jacqueline Wright. The Elf described itself as “a system” whose DNA test results read zero and who seemed to veer from victim to monster to average-joe within the space of a few wild run-on sentences. Within Hartman’s creation, the Dope Elf’s particular brand of “magic” represents the systems and disguises of white supremacy that delude and torture the rest of the characters in the play. The Elf’s confounding lack of identity evokes the supposedly neutral status of whiteness both in racial terms and in the rarefied space of contemporary art, where the white cube of the gallery bestows institutional legitimacy upon its contents. 

Jacqueline Wright as the Dope Elf. Courtesy of PICA.

The Elf made several bizarre appearances throughout the performance, but her final monologue was truly memorable. In a tirade of convoluted and vulgar poetic logic, the Dope Elf managed to communicate the theoretical gist of the work – that living within systems of violence and power leaves people with what Yale Union curator Dena Beard describes as “strangled desire, residual fear, and rage.” The split personalities of the show’s actors were suddenly revealed as reflections of unstable identities locked in a struggle for power, whether magical or political. With that, the spell was lifted and the members of the Gawdafful National Theater Company stepped onto the stage and took a bow. 

Martha Daghlian is a Portland-based visual artist and arts writer. She is the creator of the Grapefruit Juice Artist Resource Guide, a Portland arts directory. More information and work can be found at marthadaghlian.com

Falling for wine country arts

Yamhill County kicks into fall with a bevy of gallery shows, a four-night festival of ancient Greek drama, an unsolved mystery, and more

It’s time to roll out the phrase we’ve all been waiting for: Fall Arts Season. In Yamhill County, it’s clearly arrived, it’s busy, and there’s a lot to get through. New visual art exhibitions, live theater, a lecture, live music and an author reading. And that’s all before we even get to the Art Harvest Studio Tour the first week of October. For a preview of that 2-weekend art celebration, be sure to drop by the free show at the Chehalem Cultural Center, where the work of all this year’s artists is on display.

Here’s the balance of September for you, taking it in chronological order, starting with exhibits that opened earlier this month.


One of 50 woven fabric drawings by Deb Perry-Guetti in a new exhibit at
the Marilyn Affolter Fine Art Gallery in McMinnville.

MARILYN AFFOLTER GALLERY: For the last two years, Deb Perry-Guetti has worked on a series of 50 woven fabric drawings that explore “our interconnectedness and the beauty in our flaws.” The pen and ink drawings are rendered on Kitakata rice paper and suspended in custom frames by clothespins, allowing the light to embrace the organic fragility of the paper.


Temporary balms for darker times

Brian Wilson and The Zombies make America '68 again

In 1968, the world seemed to be coming apart. A bloody, increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, political assassinations, urban riots, generation gap, conservative backlash against civil rights and other progressive movements…. Even pop music grew darker than the sunny Summer of Love psychedelia of a year earlier, from the Beatles’ so-called White Album to grittier turns by stars like the Rolling Stones and various Motowners, to the rise of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and other heavier sounds supplanting the gentler flower-powered folk and classical music influenced pop of the preceding two years.

In that fraught year, several pop bands released new music overlooked at the time. Then regarded as flops, they later came to be recognized as masterpieces. Two are came to Portland Tuesday, Sept. 17, under the misleading banner “Something Great from ‘68.” For while the music that Brian Wilson and The Zombies released that year has outlasted much of its dated-sounding contemporaries, it was utterly out of step with the spirit of the new, dark age.

In 1968, the Zombies and the Beach Boys were also falling apart. Both had been hitmakers earlier, with the Zombies British Invasion pop and the BBs multiple hits mostly (at least superficially) about surf, cars, and ‘girls.’ Musically, Wilson’s family band was making music as radiant as anything after WWII, but by 1968, their tours featuring surfin’ sounds with striped shirts and white pants seemed increasingly tone deaf in a world coming apart. While psychedelia soared and violence raged, songs about surfing and cruising seemed passe, and the Beach Boys plummeted from pop hitmakers to culturally irrelevant.

Ironically, the band members’ non-musical lives actually represented what was going down in America as much as any other: Carl Wilson was a draft dodger (his status kept them from what would have been a culturally significant appearance at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival), Mike Love had accompanied the Beatles to study with TM guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and became a lifelong devotee of the mind-expanding practice, Dennis Wilson indulged in abundant free love and drugs. And songwriter Brian Wilson‘s own mind expansion with psychedelics had fueled transcendent visions in their long gestating album Smile — as well as his own pre-existing emotional instability.

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DramaWatch: Orwell’s doubleplusgood oldthink

The week in Portland theater features Artists Rep talking totalitarianism in "1984," Fake Radio turning back the clock, Shakespeare in the house, and more.

Here in mid-September, school is back in session, so that means that somewhere some teen is reading Nineteen Eighty-Four. Lots of teens in lots of places, more than likely. As did so many of us, I read George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel in high school and found it both fascinating and (even though the titular time-frame was yet a few years away then) prescient. 

But, having not revisited the book in more than 40 years, I do not remember the appendix.

“The Principles of Newspeak,” a linguistic essay following the familiar story, serves a central role in 1984, the 2013 stage adaptation that opens Artists Repertory Theatre’s season. Playwrights  Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan use the appendix, which uses the past tense in discussing the totalitarian government and its use of ideologically coercive language, as the basis of a framing device for the stage, presenting a group of people discussing the story from an historical remove. 

“Far from being a shallow postmodern device,” Variety wrote about a 2014 production at London’s Almeida Theater, “this adds a further layer of creepiness to the tale, allowing us to see the nightmare as something not in the future but in the near past.”

Fight the power. Winston Smith (Chris Harder) goes against government in Artists Rep’s stage version of George Orwell’s 1984.

The year 1984 is by now roughly equidistant from the time the novel was published and our present moment. Time and dates aren’t all that essential to Orwell’s social critique, which, like all literary dystopias, is as much descriptive as speculative. Which is another way of underlining the depressingly enduring relevance of the tale. 

“Orwell envisaged that not only would we all have a TV, but we’d have cameras in our rooms and the TVs would be able to see us back,” Macmillan said in an interview a few years ago with Michael Billington of The Guardian. “He also thought that we would be reporting on ourselves, which is now obviously very true with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and the fact that our phones now know exactly where we are and some are even being used to record our heart rate.

“We are all completely self-reporting, which prompted us to switch round the words ‘Big Brother is watching you’ into ‘Big Brother is you watching’, which we’ve incorporated into our script.”

Last week’s DramaWatch erroneously listed Artists Rep’s production among opening shows; the company’s longer slate of previews continues to confuse. Mea culpa. In any case, Friday’s actual opening night — at Imago Theatre because of the wholesale renovations underway at Artists Rep’s downtown home — remains promising, with an exciting cast (led by Chris Harder, Claire Rigsby, Allen Nause and Michael Mendelson) directed by Damaso Rodriguez.


Among the many subgenres of theatrical production, one of the most peculiar, in some senses, is the staged radio-show facsimile. Why bother creating a visual, spatial, physicalized rendition of something originally conceived as aural and disembodied? Well, perhaps because of the central place in American entertainment and culture that radio held for many years. What’s being staged isn’t radio, it’s the tropes and trappings and nostalgic mythos of radio from a certain age (the 1930s and ‘40s, before television stole radio’s lunch).

The Los Angeles company Fake Radio has been making a specialty of presenting old radio scripts (with little bits of improvisation sprinkled here and there) for more than a decade, with a regular cast of actors, voice-over artists and comedians, plus occasional high-profile guest stars (Fred Willard, Dave Foley, Laraine Newman, John Larroquette…). And, according to a press release, these folks have been performing in Portland semi-regularly since 2016. Well, blow me over with a transistor — I never knew! 

Lynne Stewart guest stars with Fake Radio for a recreation of The Maltese Falcon.

In any case,  Lux Radio Theater’s hit 1943 broadcast of The Maltese Falcon gets the Fake Radio treatment, Saturday night at the Old Church downtown and Sunday at the Vault in Hillsboro. Lynne Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” joins as special guest for what offers, in the words of the LA Weekly, “an uncanny sense of a time warp gone horribly right.” 

Generally speaking, a house full of drama is not what you want. But in a city where not just housing space but performing space keeps becoming harder to find, sofas and soliloquies seem to match well. Two small, young Portland companies are opening Shakespeare plays staged — if that’s the right term here — in private homes. Speculative Drama (love that name, by the way) which has been building a reputation for its “immersive” presentations, offers what it calls the “Lake House” Hamlet. A “contemporary lens” on how tragedy can flow from “one person’s inability to make adult choices” sounds like something I should see.
Meanwhile, Enso Theatre Ensemble serves up Much Ado, a “feminist supercut/adaptation” of Much Ado About Nothing, promising “all the drama of a house party…in an actual house.” 

Presented by Yale Union as part of PICA’s Time Based Art festival, The Dope Elf is described as “a series of three unique performances staged within a nomadic installation/film set and simultaneously livestreamed.” OK, cool. The PICA website says that the piece was “(c)ommissioned by LA-based playwright Asher Hartman,” but since Hartman wrote the play, what’s rather more likely is that it was commissioned from him by Yale Union. But anyway… Further description on the site includes such terms as “meta-play,” “slippery points-of-view,” “evading fixed identity,” “unboundedness” and so on, all of which makes me a little leery. But don’t let my aesthetic conservatism keep you from a good time. 

Readers Theatre Repertory continues its long run at the Blackfish Gallery, opening a new season this weekend with a program dubbed Love’s Funny That Way: Five best from “The Best American Short Plays.” If that already sounds like a lot of “best,” the selections — Losing Sight, by Kevin D. Ferguson, Man, Kind, by Don X. Nguyen, There’s No Here Here, by Craig Pospisil, Vertical Constellation with Bomb, by Gwyndion Suilebhan, and Petra by John Yarbrough — will be directed by DramaWatch favorite Mary McDonald-Lewis.

The flattened stage

I can’t speak for you, but I’d much rather that when I was a kid, the Saturday morning fare, instead of the likes of that craptastic Scooby-Doo, had been this:

The best line I read this week

“To be or not to be? There is no other subject about which so much has been written and about which so little has been said.”

— from “The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression” by Andrew Solomon

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

MusicWatch Weekly: Everything is popular to someone

"Popular" and "classical" music, from Third Angle to School of Rock

This weekend’s concerts are pretty evenly split between “classical” music and “popular” music, so I think it’s time we talk about how you can tell the difference between them.

Humorist and Florida man Dave Barry discovered a pretty good definition in his son’s encyclopedia:

But we also need to define “classical music.” A little farther on in the World Book, we come to the section on music, which states: “There are two chief kinds of Western music, classical and popular.” Thus we see that “classical music” is defined, technically, as “music that is not popular.” This could be one reason why the “average Joe” does not care for it.

He has a point, sort of, but let’s break this down for real. First let’s dispose of some common half-assed theories. To start, “classical” music isn’t necessarily any more “intelligent” or “sophisticated” or “difficult” than “popular” music, and vice versa for ostensibly poppy characteristics like “accessible” and “simplistic” and “folk-based” and “relevant.” Consider Duke Ellington, Carla Bley, Björk, tUnE-yArDs, Brian Wilson, Imogen Heap, and the damn Beatles for “pop” (this is just off the top of my head–I’m sure you have your own favorites). Consider this bit of inspired Mazzolia and this bit of insipid Mozartiana for the rest.

Consider Caroline Shaw.

The one common charge that comes pretty close to sticking is the one about “elitism.” Musical education, access to “classical” performances, spare time for lessons, money for instruments, etc.–these are all earmarks of privilege. Many of the best classicists of the modern era (from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos to Frank’s Academy of Creative Music to Oregon’s BRAVO Youth Orchestras) have tried to break down those walls, and it’s one of the few things the internet has ameliorated. Yet “classical” at large remains a fairily conservative and meritocratic world.


The Week: Art is where you look

From Eastern Oregon to a paint-out on the coast to queer opera and TBA Fest in Portland to the streets of New York, art is all around us

THE ARTS WORLD MIGHT BE FINANCIALLY FRAGILE, with a tenuous toehold on the economic stepstool, but art and culture are all around us, wherever we look – and certainly, wherever ArtsWatch’s writers look. Carnegie libraries-turned-community-art-centers in Eastern Oregon. Street art and “high” art having a deep-in-the-trenches conversation in New York. Dancers in the woods near Astoria and a landscape paint-off in Cannon Beach. Queer Opera in Portland, a virtuoso theatrical solo turn in Clackamas County, Pavarotti on the radio, contemporary performance art at PICA’s TBA Festival in Portland, a great photographer imprinted on the nation’s memory. And really, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of things.

Pendleton Center for the Arts, in a former Carnegie Library. In the
home of the Pendleton Round-Up, Randy Gundlach’s horse statue by
the entrance adds a Western touch. Photo: David Bates