Oregon Cultural Trust

ArtsWatch Weekly: Confronting the great divides

A working-class 'Tightrope,' combative plays, Southern rites: America goes to battle with itself.


AS YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED DURING OUR RECENT IMPEACHMENT SPAT and other real or manufactured public outrages, we are living in deeply divided times. One of the roles of art is to look into such abysses and give them shape that either clarifies the issues or reveals them to be more confusing and complex than we believe. In times like these art is not simply decoration: It also can be, and likely should be, a relentless and unwaveringly human mirror. 

Jason Glick and Andrea White, caught in a Blind. Photo: Lindberg Media

Art often looks back to look forward. While watching Lynn Nottage’s brilliant play Sweat in its recently closed, knockout production by Profile Theatre, I felt the lurking presence of the late, great Arthur Miller in the hall. Nottage’s play, which deals with the economic crumbling of the American working class and the way such stresses also can reveal racial and other fault lines, suggests some of the underpinnings of populism’s hard turn to the right and left. It also feels like an updating and almost a reverse image of Miller’s 20th century social realism in the likes of All My Sons, a play that looks at the effects of economic skullduggery from the vantage of the owners, while Sweat considers its brutalizing effect on the workers.

Miller also seems to be ghosting about the edges of Blind, Bonnie Ratner’s bravely vulnerable new play, which is part of the Fertile Ground festival of new works and is entering its final weekend at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie. Like Nottage though on a smaller scale, Ratner looks to the past, with hints of Miller’s socially engaged American realism, to engage with the future. In the process she’s also looking into her own family history, as the daughter of a Jewish shoe-store owner in a mostly Black neighborhood of Brooklyn in the late 1960s, at the time of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and race riots that swept the country. In Blind (which speaks to all sorts of blindness, including, perhaps, the hunter’s blind of hidden intentions) Jason Glick plays the shop owner, who during the day keeps his shop door locked and in the evening returns to the safety of his Long Island home: He’s in the Brooklyn neighborhood but not of it, and resentments fly. 

The unleashed violence that becomes explicit in Sweat isn’t so evident in Blind, but it’s there, a bit like Miller, hovering just outside the frame. Under William Earl Ray’s  direction Blind moves surely and appealingly into a three-way tangle of emotions among Glick as the shopkeeper, Andrea White as a Black teacher who both calls him out on his sins and reaches out to him, and Blake Stone as White’s son, who’s deeply suspicious of the shopkeeper and his mother’s newfound interest in him. These three develop a resonant emotional core, creating an uncertain and possibly liberating human element inside the hard lines of cultural, racial, and political conflict: Might there be a way out of this thing? They receive solid support from Anthony Green Caloca as a hard-liner fellow Jewish shopowner, Jill Westerby as Glick’s trapped-in-the-suburbs wife, and Isabella Buckner as their sometimes judgmental daughter. But the hope and heart of the play is in that unlikely trio of shopkeeper, teacher, and son: a human answer, possibly, to a perplexing question of inhumanity.


MEANWHILE, NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife and writing partner, Sheryl WuDunn, have been hanging around his old stomping grounds lately, promoting their new book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. Kristof grew up outside the small Oregon town of Yamhill, which figures prominently in the book, and ArtsWatch’s David Bates asked him a few questions about the book, the state of the working class in the United States, the ties between shrinking blue-collar work and politics, and even Kristof’s reading habits as a kid growing up in rural Oregon (I’m happy to discover his fondness for Walter R. Brooks’s Freddy the Pig series of comic yet socially engaged adventure stories). Bates’s story Tightrope: A working class in tatters, is illuminating about the sort of underlying questions Miller addressed in his plays and Nottage pushes forward in Sweat, a play that Kristof admires, saying he and WuDunn “tried to convey a similar complexity in Tightrope.”


AND THE PERSISTENT RUSH OF CULTURAL DIVIDES comes crashing through the gates of art again in Southern Rites, the newest show at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. In it, photographer and documentarian Gillian Laub reveals in very human images from small-town Georgia the stubborn and corrosive survival of attitudes forged during slavery, surviving now amid a culture of segregated high school proms, glorification of the Confederate flag, a racially motivated killing, and prejudices handed down from generation to generation, like family mementos. It is, as reviewer Friderike Heuer writes, “a moving and thought-provoking tour de force about race relations and racism in contemporary America.” In a very real way the exhibit provides yet another contemporary link to the late 1960s divide of Ratner’s Blind, the moral universe of Miller’s plays, and the working-class woes of Tightrope and Sweat. Things change, and they don’t.


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Qu’an and Brooke, Mt. Vernon, Georgia, 2012. Photo: Gillian Laub


Fiber artist Amanda Triplett in her Portland studio. Photo: Friderike Heuer

“WHAT IS THE POINT OF AN ART EXHIBITION THAT CONTAINS NO ACTUAL ARTWORKS?” Martha Daghlian asks in Critical remakes but no art, her review of the Portland Art Museum’s Being Present exhibition looking back on the impact of the Portland Center for the Visual Arts, a major player on the city’s art scene from 1972 to 1988. She answers her own question: “(T)o provide an unsparing analysis of Portland’s art world of the not-too-distant past.” 

In Our place in the fabric of the world, meanwhile, Friderike Heuer considers the warp and weft not only of Being Present but also of the textile art of Diane Jacobs and Amanda Triplett.

And in Art worth braving the rain to see, Daghlian takes a look at what’s new and promising in Portland’s galleries in February, including fabric art by Aruni Dharmakirthi (at Nationale) and Brittany Vega (at Fuller Rosen).

Brittany Vega, from her show with Christine Miller American Hex at Fuller Rosen.  


Grupo Corpo hangs around Portland for one night only, February 12 at the Schnitz. Photo courtesy White Bird Dance 

“IT’S FEBRUARY AND LOVE IS IN THE AIR,” Jamuna Chiarini declares in her newest DanceWatch Monthly. She continues: “’To dance is to be out of yourself,’ American choreographer Agnes de Mille famously proclaimed. ‘Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.’ So, let’s dance, and do it with love.” For starters, you might try the last few days of the Groovin’ Greenhouse dance showcase at the Fertile Ground festival of new work, or The Third Dance, from White Bird Uncaged.

A TREE GROWS IN EUGENE. Eugene Ballet, meanwhile, is getting ready to premiere a major new piece with Oregon roots, The Large Rock and The Little Yew, on a program that also includes the company’s popular version of Alice in Wonderland. Gary Ferrington dives deep into the making of the new ballet.


Monica Huggett, artistic leader of Portland Baroque Orchestra, will retire after the 2020-21 season. File photo/2013 

PORTLAND’S MUSIC WORLD IS ON THE CUSP of a significant shift: The celebrated violinist Monica Huggett, who’s been the artistic leader of Portland Baroque Orchestra for more than a quarter-century, is getting ready to retire. It’s not immediate. Huggett’s staying on board through the 2020-21 season, but this will be a major turnover. She and PBO have made an indelible mark, achieving a high standard and underscoring the continuing relevance of the music of the past to the sound and understanding of the present.

Over the years that historical contemporaneity has made itself felt in welcome and sometimes surprising ways. I’ll always be grateful to PBO and the choir Cappella Romana for their profound performance, on the evening of the day of the Sandy Hook massacre of December 14, 2012, of Handel’s complete “Messiah” in the soaring curve of downtown Portland’s First Baptist Church. For me, on that night, the music of another age spoke profoundly to yet another great and terrible American divide. The soft whoosh-whoosh of Baroque bows over strings. The quiet clatter of the harpsichord. The warm bounce of reverberating wood. The power of great art to provide a balm was almost overwhelming, and although no concert can solve the deep cultural problems that such an unspeakable event represents, great art can recenter us and keep us going after we’ve been knocked for a loop. The first words sung: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” Where will PBO go from here? It’s hard to imagine this won’t be a plum position for candidates internationally. And the music will continue to matter, deeply. Huggett’s set the stage for that.

MUSICWATCH MONTHLY: FABULOUS FEBRUARY. In which our music editor and chief music columnist, Matthew Neil Andrews, spills the magical beans about “composers, composers, composers! … and a jazz festival.”



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Grammy winner Lady Rizo brings it on home to Newport this weekend.

WHAT’S COOKING ON THE COAST? Our columnist Lori Tobias finds an abundance of likely events, from storytelling at the Pacific Story Slam (in three locations!) to a search for Elvis and a bickering comedy onstage to dance in Newport and the return of Grammy-winning singer Lady Rizo to her old stomping grounds. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


One Response

  1. Sweat was the finest play I have seen in ages. Guess. Am just old fashioned as I love the classics. It’s nice to have Lynn Nottage writing plays in the classic style.

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