Bobby Bermea

 

Spotlight on: a theatrical ‘Jump’

In a leap of faith, Confrontation and Milagro collaborate on a "rolling premiere" of Charly Evon Simpson's new play

Expect the unexpected from Confrontation Theatre.

Its second full production, a co-production with Milagro, is Charly Evon Simpson’s Jump, which opens at the Milagro space on Friday. Two full shows in (its first full production was James Webb’s comedy Sibling Rivalry in 2017) and the nascent theater hasn’t come across as a company that, on the surface, might seem particularly “confrontational.” That’s just how artistic director La’Tevin Alexander Ellis wants it.

“Confrontation means to confront all topics,” Ellis says, “all things within the Black community first, and then those outside of our community. It’s not necessarily about picking a fight and arguing, and it’s definitely not just about racism, because that shit gets tiring. There’s not anything stereotypical. There are no caricatures. That’s the goal, that’s the plan – confronting all of that. Not just in the negative of trying to pick a fight with white people.”

Not that Confrontation is averse to more volatile subject matter. In smaller productions, it’s taken on Amiri Baraka’s searing The Dutchman (2015) and took part in 2016’s Every 28 Hours national series of extremely short plays in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. And its next show, another co-production (with Portland Playhouse), will be Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, a piece “about the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Ellis. “We’ll come back with the little bit about race there but it’s more about motherhood and how do we respond to this unjust, inadequate educational system.”

In other words, Confrontation Theatre is about presenting and exploring issues that confront the Black community in all its nuance and complexity. Which is what drew Ellis and the rest of Confrontation (actor Andrea Vernae, actor/director Tamera Lyn, sound designer Philip Johnson, education director Jasmine Cottrell and community outreach director Alagia Felix) to Simpson’s multi-faceted jewel of a play, Jump.

Andrea Vernae in “Jump.” Photo: Russell J Young

“These are just people going through human shit,” says Ellis, “and we’re watching it unfold before our eyes. It’s a story about something that really impacts our community but is not explicitly about our community.” Jump is a story that could happen to anybody. The family in this case just happens to be Black. Which is important because the play deals a lot with depression, which is as much of an issue in the Black community as elsewhere, but no one ever talks about it. “Historically, there is a lack of both diagnostic and treatment studies on depression. This lack of studies on depression in African Americans has existed for decades. African Americans are underserved, understudied, and misdiagnosed as a group.” A key study published in 2014 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, Misconceptions of Depression in African Americans, underscores that.

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The horror: LĒR is all around you

Also, the beauty: The Reformers' contemporary take on "King Lear" comes at you in everything from tumblr to a cooking video. Even onstage.

The beauty – or horror, depending on your perspective – of Portland theater company The Reformers’ LĒR is that it is going on all around you, right now, even as you read this. Whatever device you’re reading this on, you’re that close to LĒR. It’s on Facebook. If you look on tumblr someone is apparently leaking information about their process (apparently, without the Reformers’ authorization). Elsewhere on the internet, a mother is searching for her son who she fears has run off with some kind of cult. There’s a podcast. There is even a cooking video. And this week, opening Friday, it’s going to be live in front of your face at the Shoebox Theater.

“We’re motivated,” says Charmian Creagle, one-half of the husband-and-wife team that runs The Reformers, “by doing something different and taking chances and trying to create a new style.” For the last six years The Reformers, Creagle and her husband, Sean Doran, have been committed to dismantling the assumptions of theater audiences and replacing those assumptions with a more visceral experience than what theater audiences generally expect to have.

Trouble on the 21st century heath: a LĒR for today. From left: Sara Fay Goldman, Sean Doran, Adam Thompson, with Mishelle Apalategui on the ground. Photo courtesy The Reformers.

Of course, Creagle and Doran have been challenging audience’s perceptions for decades now. They started The Other Side Theatre back in the ’90s and were integral to the creation of defunkt theatre, still going strong twenty years later. After spending a decade in New York they came back and started The Reformers. Much of The Reformers’ work is heavily influenced and inspired by Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s The Living Theatre. That influence is still seen in their work today.

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Inside Fertile Ground: Six Tales

Bobby Bermea talks with the creators of "The Undertaking," "Sirens of Coos Bay," "The Tarot Show," "The Bad Hour," "Friends with Guns" and "Hazardous Beauty"

For the past ten years, Fertile Ground has been the most dynamic event of the Portland theater season. For eleven days the city is engulfed in theater that is by turns thrilling, preposterous, fantastic, raw, hilarious, scary, brutal, inconsistent, challenging, and courageous – sometimes all at once. For these eleven days, good or bad, professional or not, polished almost never, audiences encounter theater at its most honest, vital and perhaps even important — or dangerous.

There is the opportunity, at Fertile Ground, to see something magical. There is also a chance to see something that is totally raw and unfinished, or even just bad. And then there are the myriad stages in between. It’s new work. Anything can happen. What Fertile Ground provides is the opportunity to be present at the exact moment that the spell is being cast.


FERTILE GROUND FESTIVAL 2019


Few moments in life bridge the gap between the magical and the mundane like the act of creation. Inspiration, where it comes from and why, is a mystery that borders on the supernatural. But getting from inspiration to actualization demands discipline and hard work. Sometimes hard work is encapsulated in the nuts and bolts, the rolling-your-sleeves-up and getting-your-hands-dirty. Other times, hard work can mean recognizing what’s holding you back – and then overcoming it.

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David Mamet, plowing through

Why, in the #me too age, revive tough-guy Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow"? For Asylum Theatre's Jason Manicchia it's the thrill of the language.

David Mamet.

The name evokes images of hard-swearing, fast-talking, testosterone-dripping, cigarette-smoking, poker-playing, scam-running, angry white men spiritually crippled by existential angst and taking it out on everybody they come into contact with, even – or especially – each other. There was an extended moment, lasting some thirty years, when Mamet was the popping, crackling heartbeat of the American theater. His plays were known for tight plots, scintillating dialogue with trademark staccato musicality, and scathing satirical wit.

But the world changed and Mamet didn’t. Or rather, he became even more Mamet than he was before. Something happened, something that had been hovering around the edges of the Mamet legend at least since the incendiary theatrical stacked deck called Oleanna burned its way across the American stage. In the 2000s, Mamet had a very public split with, as he called them, “Brain-Dead Liberals.” That tough-guy, cigar-chomping persona had curdled and hardened into a neo-con. Or, as Christopher Hitchens put it in his scathing review of Mamet’s 2011 book The Secret Knowledge, Mamet became “one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason.”

And when, in that book, Mamet apparently states that “Part of the left’s savage animus against Sarah Palin is attributable to her status not as a woman, neither as a Conservative, but as a Worker,” (italics mine), you begin to see just how unerring Hitchens’ assessment might be.

Brianna Ratterman and Jason Maniccia, sealing the deal. Photo: Gary Norman

So what, if anything, does this prodigiously gifted and deliciously controversial playwright still have to say to 2018 America? Well, the new (old) theatre company Asylum Theatre sought to answer that very question with it’s production of Mamet’s popular and wickedly black comedy, Speed-the-Plow, which is continuing through Dec. 23 at the Shoebox Theatre.

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Black Nativity: The joy is now

PassinArt's Portland production of Langston Hughes's gospel musical moves up to a bigger church, and keeps the music fresh

Fifty-seven years ago, Langston Hughes, Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade decided the world needed a celebration of Christmas apart from re-runs of It’s A Wonderful Life and myriad adaptations of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker in various mediums. What was needed, they surmised, was something with a little color to it, a little extra flavor. What they came up with was an original piece called Wasn’t It a Mighty Day? – traditional Christmas songs done in a gospel style along with other gospel music, all strung together by narration that tells the story of the Nativity. By the time it opened Off-Broadway in 1961 – one of the first Black productions ever to do so – Ailey and Lavallade had left the production over a dispute about the new name, Black Nativity.

Decades later, Black Nativity is still serving its original function of providing something other than the standard, all-white Christmas fare. There is a Black Nativity production going on somewhere in just about every corner of the nation. In Portland, Black Nativity is produced by the longest-running Black theater company in the city, PassinArt.

Almost forty years ago, following much the same impetus as Hughes, Ailey and Lavallade in New York, Connie Carley, Michael Brandt and Clarice Bailey decided to fill a need they saw in the cultural scene of Portland. Together, they created  PassinArt, whose goal is literally to pass the art and culture (and history, knowledge, etc.) of the Black community down from one generation to the next. After a brief period of flux, Carley became the managing director and Jerry Foster became the artistic director. The two have kept PassinArt going ever since. (Last season, their production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running garnered eight finalist nods in the Drammy Awards, including one for Oustanding Production, and took home the prizes for Ensemble and Set Design.)

The 2018 “Black Nativity” cast. Photo courtesy PassinArt

Like Two Trains, many PassinArt productions deal with issues around social justice that face the Black community. For both Carley and Foster, the purpose behind Black Nativity is the same – but different.

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From ‘Hands Up’ to ‘Cop Out’

Red Door follows its show about racial profiling and police violence against African Americans with a deep delve into the cops' own lives

Two years ago the August Wilson Red Door Project started its run of Hands Up, and it made the rest of Portland theater seem damn near frivolous. It was bare-bones theater, as fundamental as it gets. Set, pictures of victims of police shootings strung along the back wall – and maybe a chair. Lights up, lights down. Costumes, everyday clothes. Sound, at a minimum. An actor walks to the middle of the stage and tells the truth. That was it. No flash, no dazzle, no spectacle. Not even illusion. Hands Up was as direct and resonant an experience as an audience was likely to encounter. In a starkly secular society, Hands Up’s frank illumination of a national conversation felt like church for people who don’t go to church and the news for people who don’t watch the news. Real life was put on stage and there wasn’t a metaphor or a symbol in sight. These were burning headlines given living, breathing life.

A collection of seven monologues by seven different playwrights performed by seven different actors, Hands Up explored the fears and anxieties of the Black community around racial profiling and police violence against African-Americans. In the two years since, Hands Up has been seen by more than six thousand Oregonians and had some 60 performances in various sites around the state. But the numbers don’t tell the entire Hands Up story. More than a play, it was an event, a town hall meeting, a public testimonial, and an opportunity to bear witness.

Kevin Jones. Photo: Owen Carey

This weekend the Red Door Project follows up the eminently powerful Hands Up with an original piece of its own devising, Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & BlueCop Out follows the formula of Hands Up. It’s a collection of monologues built around the stories of real people – in this case, cops. Kevin Jones, artistic director of the Red Door Project and director of Cop Out (Damaris Webb and Phil Johnson are co-directors), insists that the piece is not a rebuttal to Hands Up or a “defense” of cops. What Cop Out is, he says, is an “opportunity for healing”: “We felt that we had polarized on one side, that being the experience of the African-American. We felt that there was an important part of the story that needed to be told. The idea being that many in the public saw the police as a monolithic entity comprised of equal parts power. I thought it was time to recognize that these were human beings. And by telling their stories we could help humanize them.”

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‘Taming’ and the Wonder Women

A farce, a satire, a women's play about politics: Mariel Sierra and company talk about producing Lauren Gunderson's "The Taming" at CoHo

Two years ago Donald Trump became president, and whatever else happened, everybody knew the world would never again be the same. Lines were drawn in the sand. The world convulsed in massive protests. People who avoided politics like the plague found themselves looking for any way to get involved, to make a change, to act.

For someone like Mariel Sierra, a theater artist who considers herself an activist within her field, the 2016 election was a moment of self-reckoning. “How do I fix it?” she asked herself. “How do I problem-solve, what is the active thing I can do?” The action turned out to be theater. Nationally renowned playwright Lauren Gunderson waived the fees for the rights to her plays on Jan. 20, 2016 for anyone who wanted to do a staged reading.

“The Taming”: politics, farce, and satire at CoHo.

Sierra had met Gunderson in Portland in 2015, when Profile Theatre had staged a reading of Gunderson’s play The Revolutionists (which is being produced at Artists Rep this season), had been in contact with her via social media, and found she “really liked her work and her voice as an artist.” So when the announcement about waiving the royalties came down, Sierra was ready. “I immediately texted, called, corralled Lauren Bloom Hanover, McKenna Twedt, Katie Watkins and Lindsay Huff and asked them if they wanted to do this with me. I was still working with (Portland director) Asae Dean at the time, so we got the rights through Salt and Sage,” Dean’s production company.

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