PassinArt is doing it again. The longest continuous-running Black theater company (and one of the longest running theaters, period) in the state of Oregon has created the Pacific Northwest Multi-Cultural Festival. The festival, which focuses on work by artists of color, began Friday and continues virtually Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 21-22. The PNMC features short films of plays and television scripts, and panel discussions on issues in the industry that those same artists have to deal with to survive and thrive.
A list of the local artists represented reads like a who’s who of the Portland arts community: Samson Syharath, Ajai Tripathi, Josie Seid, Dmae Lo Roberts, Lisa Collins, Jennifer Lanier, Olga Sanchez, Tim Golden and Francisco Garcia, just to name a few. A cornucopia of national figures also make an appearance, either as artists or panelists – folks such as Glen Alan, executive producer of the DC Black Theatre and Arts Festival; Toni Simons Henson, executive producer of the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival; Garland Thompson Jr., executive director of the Frank Silvera Writers Workshop; and Jackie Alexander, artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NC Black Rep), responsible for the world-renowned National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Again, to name just a few. For the full lineup of artists, panelists and educators, see the festival schedule here.
The National Black Theatre Festival figures prominently in the creation of the PNMC. It attracts about 65,000 people from all over the country to Winston-Salem every two years. “In addition to more than 100 theatrical performances,” its Wikipedia page states, “highlights of the Festival are the Opening Night Gala, the Readers’ Theatre of New Works, the Youth/Celebrity Project, International Colloquia, the International Vendor’s Market, a poetry slam, and various workshops and seminars.” It is also where Jerry Foster, long-time artistic director of PassinArt, first met Leasharn Hopkins, actor, writer, director, producer and curator for the new PNMC. Hopkins, along with her many other hats, is a reader for the NBTF (which she calls “the convergence of Black theater”) and first met Foster there in 2001, when she was having her own script, Is the Honeymoon Over?, read. Two years later, in 2003, PassinArt produced that script. “They did a wonderful job with my show,” Hopkins recalls. A working relationship was born.
Hopkins officially became a reader with the NBTF in 2005, and would periodically see Foster there. One of those times, says Hopkins, “Jerry was saying he would love to have a readers series in Portland, Oregon, because the Pacific Northwest needs a platform that showcases artists of color.” Hopkins recognized that Foster is “really passionate about the arts and really wants to do something for the artists of color in the area.” She agreed to help out. A few years passed, and then COVID – as it tends to do – provided a unique opportunity. With its lack of overhead, a virtual festival seemed imminently doable in a way that doing a live festival of this magnitude would not have been. The timing, it seemed, was perfect.
Foster and Hopkins brought in help from all around the nation. “It’s not just Jerry and myself. It’s a broad team,” Hopkins says. “This team is national. We have people from Ohio, from Virginia, from Alabama, people from North Carolina all working with Jerry and PassinArt.” They came up with a unifying theme, “Our Voice, Our Story, Our Way.” They also decided that script readings wouldn’t be enough.
“We wanted to do a little bit more than just read plays,” Hopkins says. “We didn’t want it to seem like it was hodge-podge.” Aside from the scripts of theater pieces, they decided to present films made by independent filmmakers as well. Then, Hopkins remembers, she came up with the idea to add workshops and webinars “that will appeal to the artists.”
This came out of her time reading plays at the national festival in Winston-Salem. “We needed something to appeal to the playwrights,” Hopkins recalls, because often writers “have an idea but then don’t know how to structure it. I’ve seen that so many times. A play could have great bones but it’s not structured correctly. That’s why it didn’t make the cut.” So Hopkins proposed workshops where writers might get instruction on how to apply their craft. There are even acting workshops. Cycerli Ash, for instance, hailing from Atlanta but a Portland favorite (she appeared in PassinArt’s award-winning production of Two Trains Running and most recently in Profile Theatre’s Sweat, both to considerable acclaim) is presenting a webinar on how to do cold readings at auditions.
The panel discussions came about because “these were conversations we were already having,” says Hopkins. “People are already talking about, ‘Why were Afro-Latinos left out of In the Heights? How does the artist confront colorism in the industry? These are relevant discussions about topics that artists of color have to deal with every day. The beautiful thing about this festival is being able to talk about these topics with industry professionals.”
To that end, the PNMC has already accomplished a great deal of its goal. Nearly forty different events are going on in the course of a weekend. It is a remarkable undertaking. For many of the artists, this inaugural festival has already proven to be a much-needed victory. “Having people not only listen to but celebrate your work as an artist,” says Portland artist Josie Seid, “is like coming up for air.” Seid is the writer of the short film Being Me In the Current America, directed by another Portland mover and shaker, Dmae Lo Roberts. Being Me is a film adaptation of a monologue that Seid wrote for The –Ism Project, which was produced by MediaRites, of which Roberts is the executive producer (she also produces the Stage & Studio podcast that runs on ArtsWatch), and explores a Black woman’s reliving of her experience of racial profiling in Lake Oswego.
Ajai Tripathi, who wrote and stars in Great White Gets Off, concurs with Seid about the impact of the festival is having on him as an artist. “We all need connection,” he says. “It makes me hopeful for a future that makes more room for the Black filmmaker, the Asian poet, or the Brown actor. We’ll be better off for it.”
Tripathi, never one to mince words, goes further. The Northwest was considered a white supremacist utopia,” he says, “and there are still forces that would like to keep it that way. I’ve heard the area described as ‘aggressively white,’ and I think that’s a fair assessment. I mean, there’s school districts that want to ban Pride and Black Lives Matter insignias. Despite all this, folks are still going to speak their truth, and tell their stories. Their voices matter. That’s the power of storytelling. When you tell a story you cast a spell. A person can hear a story about an experience that is not their own, and a window can open up in their brain. For a time, they can see what it’s like to be someone else. That’s a powerful thing. And for us people of color, it is a validation that our experiences mean something. We can share our stories with each other to empower ourselves.”
Rose Cano had been suggested to the PNMC by Olga Sanchez, former artistic director of Milagro Theatre, to moderate the discussion on why multiculturalism is necessary. Cano agreed to do it, and also found an opportunity to present her own project, which she’d already been working on for some time: a play called Pariah, which “explores the intertwining relationships between freedom and art, workers’ rights and women’s rights, slavery and class.” It was “inspired by the lives of Flora Tristan, Peru’s first feminist and pioneer in labor relations, and her grandson, post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin.”
The apparently indefatigable executive director of MediaRites, Dmae Lo Roberts – besides directing and producing Being Me in the Current America – also produced Ofelio: A Borderline Story. Written by Andrew Siañez-De La O and directed by Francisco Garcia, it’s a film that explores the crisis at the USA’s southern border. MediaRites movies have appeared and won awards in several festivals around the nation and even across the pond, at the Women Over Fifty film festival in London. With all that experience in mind, Roberts speaks highly of the PNMC. “I think PassinArt has done an amazing job jumping into the film festival world,” she says, “and has been well-organized and thoughtful in their selection process. It’s quite an achievement, and we’re happy to be included!”
Leasharn Hopkins says the plan for the Pacific Northwest Multicultural Festival is that this is only the inaugural one. “The goal is that this is not a one-time event,” she says. “Jerry [Foster] built the foundation. What we’re trying to do is put a frame on it.”
Writer Lisa Collins, like Dmae Lo Roberts, has two projects in the festival: a short play, Hwy 8, which she writes and directs, and a short film she wrote, Be Careful What You Ask For, directed by Jennifer Lanier. Collins perhaps sums up best what the Pacific Northwest festival is all about. “Multiculturalism through storytelling, connection, and exposure to those we do not know is necessary,” she says. “We need the ability to care for one another. We do not have to agree about anything or everything, yet we must care for one another, our community, our nation, and the world needs oneness.”
It’s a breathtakingly ambitious aspiration for an arts festival, but surely that is what art is for.