Bobby Bermea

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

 

Matt Blairstone: Oh, the horror!

A Portland comics artist takes on a monster project: "Green Inferno," a 200-page comic and short-story anthology with 18 artists in 6 countries

Matt Blairstone makes horror comics happen. He writes grim scary tales. He puts artists to work. He builds communities. He learns. In recent years he’s created and published his own intensely personal, delightfully deranged tale of crazed, freakish scientists battling for dominance over a world gone mad. Mad Doctors featured, among other things, what appeared to be a gourd with the face of Doctor Doom and a horned cyclops in a lab coat (plus a character who was an avatar of Kate, his wife of seven years).

These days, Blairstone is in the midst of building his craziest endeavor yet – a 200-page comic book anthology called Green Inferno: The World Celebrates Your Demise. Inferno, to be published by his Tenebrous Press, is a collection of comics and short stories from eighteen artists creating in six countries, thematically united by what Blairstone has coined “terrestrial horror.” It’s ambitious, and to make it happen, Blairstone has set up a Kickstarter campaign that, as of this writing, is about midway through its allotted time and has raised more than $5,000 of its $9,000 goal.

Matt Blairstone: storyteller in pictures and words.

What does Blairstone mean by “terrestrial horror”? Like a lot of artists’ work these days, the germ of Blairstone’s vision is rooted in the context of COVID. “[The Green Inferno] is kind of a summation of the pandemic,” he says. “We made a trip to Lincoln City in September. It was our first excursion out of the house, our first attempt at some kind of normal trip. We were going to meet Kate’s mom and grandmother at the coast in Lincoln City and stay at a big cabin for a couple of days. The day we arrive there were these huge, violent windstorms that knocked the power out. The next day those windstorms had blown in all the forest fires. We had to get evacuated. We got back and suddenly I’m watching the AQI on my phone every fifteen minutes. The windows are shut. The sky is this crazy yellow and orange color. That was the low point of quarantine for me and Kate because we had taken for granted being able to have fresh air, and then to be trapped inside after so many months without the option of going outside –” he stops. “You were here, you know.”

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A room with a redemptive view

Fertile Ground 2021: "The November Project," which takes place in a bathroom, has its roots in a life-turning crisis in Jessica Wallenfels' life

Twenty-six years ago Jessica Wallenfels was standing on the precipice of her life and looking over the edge into the abyss. Today, Wallenfels is one of the most popular and respected theater artists in her adopted city of Portland. The November Project, created by Wallenfels’ company, Many Hats Collaboration, and making its debut on Sunday, Feb. 7, in the 2021 Fertile Ground online festival of new performance, is the latest evolution of a journey that began more than a quarter-century ago. 

In 1995, as an undergrad at California Institute for the Arts, Wallenfels was spiraling out of control. Drugs had taken over, and things got so bad that the school stepped in. “After a series of embarrassing events,” Wallenfels remembers on her blog, “my theater faculty had devised a plan for my probation.” The plan included Wallenfels attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, a move which, at the time, made her feel “stupid and embarrassed and angry.” At first she was, in her words, “an oddity,” the only woman among several men and twenty years younger than any of them. But she was drawn in by the storytelling and the ritual. One day, another woman did come in and uttered a statement that still resonates with Wallenfels: “No man comes in between me and my drugs.” This simple statement, which could be seen as a desperate observation of a woman in crisis, struck Wallenfels differently. She saw in it a statement of empowerment, a woman who was putting her own needs before those of the men in her life. A seed was planted.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


By 2002 the seed had flowered and become an original piece called Rest Room, performed at various spots around New York City. Those NA sessions in California had helped Wallenfels understand that in her life she was surrounded by addiction. Some of the people closest to her had been trapped in the cycle of substance abuse. With their permission, she interviewed them about their relationships with drugs and used those interviews as a soundtrack for the piece. (If you go to the blog you’ll find a short video from that production; about halfway through the less-than-a-minute segment is a heart-stopping moment when you can hear Wallenfels’ mother, saying through tears, “I think I’ve had enough … of this conversation.”) 

Drama in the bathroom: Many Hats Collaboration’s “The November Project” at Fertile Ground.

In 2006, Many Hats Collaboration was made up of Wallenfels, director and photographer Lava Alapai, and sound designer Annalise Albright Woods. They were granted a place in Portland Center Stage’s JAW Festival, in the site-specific component known as You Are Here that was taking place at the World Trade Center that year, and decided to revisit Rest Room. The Trade Center gave Wallenfels something she never had in New York: a set. She cast Yolanda Suarez and Paige Jones, and the characters evolved into archetypes of women on the drug addiction spectrum. Alapai got the idea to add a video component, because a piece that takes place inside of a bathroom just can’t get too voyeuristic. 

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Martha Bakes in Black & White

Fertile Ground 2021: Playwright Don Wilson Glenn and director Damaris Webb take a historical spin through the first First Lady's kitchen

You’d be hard-pressed in 2021 to find a more dynamic force in Portland theater than Damaris Webb. In the past few years she’s acted, directed, collaborated, written and produced at a dizzying pace, sometimes doing all five things at once on a given work of art. Webb and Laura Lo Forti are the twin engines that propel Vanport Mosaic, a multifaceted art nonprofit that specializes in “memory activism,” preserving and holding space for voices and stories from the greater Portland area that have been marginalized if not outright suppressed. 

If that weren’t enough, a couple of years ago, Webb played the mother of a legend in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s …And In This Corner: Cassius Clay. She conceived and then created, with a host of other Black artists, Soul’d: the Economics of Our Black Bodies, Vanport Mosaic’s powerful exploration of how the exploitation of Black bodies has been integral to the American economy since its inception. Webb directed the Confrontation Theatre/Portland Playhouse co-production of Dominique Morriseau’s searing Pipeline, a heart-wrenching piece about the prison-industrial complex. When it’s noted how much of her work is built around social justice, Webb says frankly, “Well, I’m Black and I’m a woman. What else am I gonna talk about?” 


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


That clarity of purpose is front and center in Vanport Mosaic’s new offering for this year’s Fertile Ground festival of new works, Martha Bakes, a brand-new piece (naturally) written by Webb’s long-time collaborator Don Wilson Glenn, directed by Webb, and starring Webb’s high school classmate, Portland stage veteran Adrienne Flagg, as none other than Martha Custis Washington. It premieres at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 2\31, on the festival’s Facebook and YouTube channels, where it will remain available to view for free through Feb. 15. 

(Glenn has another piece in this year’s Fertile Ground Festival, Troy, USA, which he co-wrote with Dmae Roberts, and which is being produced by Bag&Baggage as part of that company’s Problem Play Project. It premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31, at Fertile Ground.)

Playwright Don Wilson Glenn, author of “Martha Bakes” and co-author with Dmae Roberts of “Troy, USA,” both premiering online Sunday, Jan. 31, at Fertile Ground.

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The Little Engine That Does

Starting small but thinking big, the musical-theater company Stumptown Stages has made itself a leader in equity and diversity

What do you know about Stumptown Stages? 

A regular Portland theatergoer might reasonably be assumed to know that Stumptown Stages has now been around for a decade and a half or so, that its forté is musicals, both new and old, and that it’s led by two of the more accomplished names in Portland theater, Kirk Mouser (producing artistic director) and Julianne Johnson (associate artistic director and board chair), both of whom are seasoned veterans of stages from New York City to the Rose City. 

What might not be so well known is that Stumptown Stages is one of the Portland theater scene’s leaders in doing equity and diversity work, and that this was a company focus long before the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing civil unrest. One might be forgiven for not knowing that years ago, when Johnson and Mouser were looking to mount their first production together, Dreamgirls, a prominent director/producer (who shall remain nameless – “a quick disclaimer,” says Mouser, “it is not Corey Brunish”) said to Mouser, “Good luck, you’ll never find the Black talent here in Portland.” 

Julianne Johnson (left, with Shahayla Onanaiye and Kristin Robinson) in Stumptown’s hit production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo courtesy Stumptown Stages

Johnson, naturally, took umbrage at this comment. “Okay, well, that would be me,” Johnson thought at the time, “and everybody I interact with.”  Neither Mouser nor Johnson has any idea what that director thought when Stumptown Stages did, in fact, produce a sold-out run of Dreamgirls at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, but that was the spark that ignited the proverbial forest fire. Mouser and Johnson formed an unbreakable bond, and together they now had a mission. Johnson joined Stumptown Stages as board chair and associate artistic director. Together they realized that they “had an important role to play,” says Mouser, a mission “to change the institutionalized racism that existed and exists in the Portland theater community.”

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‘Silent Voices’: A movie for Moose

Quanice Hayes was killed by Portland police in 2017. His grandmother's film gives voice to him and 8 other victims of police fatal force.

Quanice Hayes was his name, but no one ever called him that. His grandmother, Donna Hayes, says that to friends and family, the seventeen-year-old boy was known as “Moose.” Moose, among other things, was a basketball player and had NBA aspirations. “He was short but he thought he could do it,” Moose’s grandmother laughs. Moose was fun-loving and outgoing. “Moose loved music,” Hayes says, “and he loved to dance and he loved his little siblings and he would take anyone under his wing as a friend.”  On February 9, 2017, Moose was gunned down by Portland police officer Andrew Hearst. “He was seventeen,” recounts Donna Hayes. “My grandson. He was on his knees when the police decided to shoot him.” 

Venus Hayes (left), mother of Moose Quanice Hayes, holding the rose; Donna Hayes (center), grandmother and now playwright; right and behind, supporters from Don’t Shoot Portland. At the first press conference before the family addressed the mayor and City Council, weeks after the murder of Moose Hayes, March 1, 2017. Photo: Kathryn Kendall

That was more than three years ago. Now, Donna Hayes has written a film, Silent Voices, being screened through the community media center Open Signal, wrought out of her grief over her grandson’s death. “At first,” remembers Hayes, “it started out I was just writing because I couldn’t tell anyone everything that was going on in my head.” But there was more to it than that. 

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Writing it right in Hollywood

Screenwriter Ashwini Prasad's new book, "How To Write Inclusively," speaks for telling true tales onscreen of the erased and marginalized

Ashwini Prasad is on a mission. Smart, talented and driven, Prasad seems predestined to walk the path she’s walking and fight the struggle she’s fighting. Growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, she remembers a moment when, as a nine-year old child walking down the street with her mother and sister, a stranger yelled “Paki!” at them. The child Prasad looked up at her mother, who said nothing but simply kept her eyes straight ahead and kept on walking. What choice did her mother have, Prasad asks today: “Yell back and escalate?” Especially with children in tow? Or rather, do you do “what immigrants do” – “keep your eyes forward and power through.” 

“That was 35 years ago, in a different country,” said Prasad, a South Asian Indian immigrant who spent much of her early life in Canada but has made Oregon her home for the past 23 years. “But it’s a story that could be told by many people around the world. It’s an undue burden that [BIPOC] are placed under.”

For Prasad, ultimately it wasn’t so much an intimidating moment as a galvanizing one. Social justice work has been a passion of hers ever since. Three decades later, Prasad’s new book, How to Write Inclusively, isn’t going to save any innocent families from being verbally assaulted on the streets (5 percent of proceeds goes to food banks), but it just might help to change the context in which such harrowing events occur.

Ashwini Prasad: “We don’t need every Black male to be in a gang when we go to our screens. We don’t need every Indian person to be an immigrant, cuz that’s just not true. We don’t need every trans character to be laughed at.” 

Prasad is a screenwriter, and How To Write Inclusively is her guide to other screenwriters, a “how-to” for conscientious authors who care that their work create a more accurate representation of the world around them than what was previously acceptable. “This is a contribution to my craft,” says Prasad, “my craft being screen-writing.”

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Dangerous Days: Being Black in America

Wondering why "Black Lives Matter" matters? The answer's baked into the nation's racial attitudes and its acceptance of police violence

These are the most dangerous days to be Black in America. 

On May 25, via social media, the world watched George Floyd be brutally murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin. Since then, America has erupted in racial and social unrest – protests, riots, statues toppled, flags changed, cops out of control. Historically, there’s nothing America hates more than being called out for its racism, and it will do anything to not have to change its ways. The response to calls for social justice have been one hundred percent on-brand. Violence, thick and pungent and unpredictable, is in the air. These are the days when, in the past, churches were bombed and children were killed, civil rights leaders were assassinated, men were lynched, civil wars were fought. At the best of times, Black people live with the knowledge that at any moment, for any reason, everything they have fought for, built, achieved, can suddenly be snatched away because of the color of their skin. We learn to live with that awareness at an early age.* But in times like these, that awareness needs to be turned up to defcon five, because white America is on the defensive.

Tributes to George Floyd outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis, where Floyd died after a police officer held a knee to his neck for nearly 8 minutes. Floyd’s death sparked a national protest movement that is still going strong. Photo: Vasanthtcs / Wikimedia Commons

Today it’s the Fourth of July. I was asked to write this a month ago. But it’s been hard. I wake up every day angry. A long time ago I had to take an anger management class. In that class they taught us that anger is never the first emotion. There’s always something underlying that drives it: fear, frustration, guilt, pain. This has never been more apparent than in the past month. I wake up some days and my hands are shaking and it feels like I’ve had three cups of coffee before I’ve touched a drop. Turning on the news or social media is like stepping into the ring with a heavyweight. Every day, every hour, every minute, there’s a new video, a new outrage, a new spasm of violence. Responding, reacting, donating, writing. It feels like you’re at the beach trying to mop up the ocean. 

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