All Classical Radio James Depreist

Bobby Bermea: A ‘Spear’ in the heart of racial reckoning

An Irish playwright and a Dublin director bring a contemporary play to Corrib Theatre about racial attitudes and the steps that white people "must take to clean up the mess they have made."

|

Actors Rocco Weyer and Ryan Edlinger in Corrib Theatre's "Spear." Photo: Owen Carey
Actors Rocco Weyer and Ryan Edlinger in Corrib Theatre’s “Spear.” Photo: Owen Carey

Hailing from Clogerhead, a small fishing village in Ireland, playwright CN Smith received his undergraduate degree from Trinity College in Dublin.

Born and raised in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, director Joy Nesbitt earned her undergrad degree from Harvard University.

Both received their MFAs at the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Dublin’s Trinity College and now reside in Dublin. Now, they are combining forces with Corrib Theatre to bring Smith’s play Spear to Portland, Oregon, beginning Feb. 16. Collectively they aim to tilt the axis of the racial reckoning conversation back to where they feel it belongs – centered on the problem of white supremacy and what steps white people must take to clean up the mess they have made.

Despite this far-reaching super-objective, Spear is a very personal play about three young men — Irish, white, and feeling unmoored in a world of rapidly shifting perspectives and ideas. None of them would self-define as white supremacist or alt-right. But when a Black friend from high school achieves international acclaim as an Olympic javelin thrower (hence, Spear), all of them find themselves locked in a spiritual struggle with their inner demons and insecurities. 

The issue of racism is as fluid as it is volatile, and with Spear, Smith hopes to “further the conversation and … push back a ceiling that has been reached in the work that is being made in the UK and in the States – that kind of confessional work, those one-person shows that are really centering the trauma of Black people and people of color. Spear was led by the question of, ‘Is there another phase to the conversation?’” 

For Smith (and here, many Black American artists would concur), there is a certain kind of comfort that typical theater audiences – white, older, middle to upper class – have with these kinds of stories that needs to be shaken up. “There’s a very particular audience response to this work that is ubiquitous,” he says. “I wanted to take that response, which, really, if we want to speak plainly, is white people feeling very good about themselves for going to see a play of this kind and patting themselves on the back. What I wanted to do was take that audience response and put it on stage in a way that felt natural and true to life.”

Nesbitt puts it likewise plainly: “We must have the conversation about whiteness. We just must. We know what Black trauma looks like, unfortunately, and we’ve seen it many times. It doesn’t feed people to watch themselves in pain over and over again.” In the view of both Nesbitt and Smith, racism is not just a Black problem, nor does it solely require a Black solution. “Black people and white people are suffering from the disease of white supremacy,” says Nesbitt.

Sponsor

WESTAF Shoebox Arts

Though racism is not new to Ireland, it has become a more urgent issue of late. Anti-immigrant sentiment, especially toward immigrants of color, has surged in recent years, as the number of immigrants has grown. In November of last year Ireland was rocked by an anti-immigrant riot driven by alt-right protesters in the streets of Dublin.

Left: “Spear” playwright CN Smith. Right: “Spear” director Joy Nesbitt.

There is a grim irony in that Nesbitt was directing a staged reading of Marlow Wyatt’s Listen a Black Woman Is Speaking at the Project Arts Center in Dublin while outside the violence raged. Today, Nesbitt recounts, “At the end of our show, we were informed that there was an anti-immigrant riot outside. We were told to rush home for our safety as buses and trains were on fire, shops were broken into, and these rioters were targeting people who ‘did not look like Irish citizens’ (whatever that means). It was one of the few times in Dublin that there has been a full cast of Black women, with an audience diverse enough to reflect modern Ireland.“

“In Ireland,” says Nesbitt, “conversations about diversity and inclusion are relatively new. Ireland has such an extreme history of oppression and colonialism, many people are afraid of having conversations about racism [here] because they feel like, ‘We were hurt, too, by the same people that hurt you. How could we perpetrate violence upon people of color?’ People are at the crossroads not sure which path to go toward in terms of how to have this conversation. Ireland takes a lot of cues from the U.S. in how to talk about race when in actuality, it’s a very different landscape.”       

Smith concurs, and has no intention of letting his countrymen off the hook. “There’s a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment that is bubbling up,” he says, “but as someone who grew up in rural Ireland — in very, very white Ireland — I could’ve told you this was coming a decade ago. It’s strange to see and hear Irish people speak of their shock and their horror and their surprise at these events. The fact of the matter is, any Black teenager who has met a white teenager in Ireland could tell you that a lot of them are just champing at the bit to go out and smash some windows and beat up on a few Black people. It’s not a pretty set of circumstances, but they are the circumstances in which we live.”

Smith should know. He was that Black teenager, growing up in rural Ireland. In Spear, he declares, “I was inspired very much by my friends from back home (laughs). A lot of the characters are based – some more closely than others – some very one for one (laughs), on some of my friends from back home who I love dearly.”

This intimacy with the subject matter is the real heart of the play. Smith doesn’t write so much about racism as policy or a giant system of genocide or even a sudden, shocking explosion of violence. His question, his interest, is in real people and what makes them tick — living their everyday lives, paying bills, raising families — and what happens to their values – to our values – when they are put under even a small amount of pressure from jealousy, shame, or other insecurities. Where do racism, xenophobia, intolerance come from?

Sponsor

WESTAF Shoebox Arts

Though in the script we never actually meet our Black Olympian, Amir, his presence is always felt. His diary, inner life, hopes, dreams, failures, and global success are the catalyst for the emotional journey that Sean, Joe, and Nate go through over the course of this relatively short play.  

Dramaturgically speaking, Spear morphs as it goes on. At first, it is simply three men who meet for a drink on an athletics field where they trained in high school. That’s the setting. Subsequently, the play exists on several levels of reality, time and memory. “It’s a play that feels naturalistic at the top,” says Nesbitt, ”and then the rug is pulled right out from under you, and we dive into surrealism in a really effective way.”        

Spear puts three white men under a microscope in order to get a better understanding of the choices that Ireland is facing at the social and political crossroads where it finds itself. “I certainly see change on the horizon,” says Smith. “Whether that’s bringing us back a half century or moving us forward into the next one remains to be seen.”

He is, however, very clear on what the path forward must entail if a positive outcome is going to be reached. “If we’re going to change how we interact with each other,” Smith says, “we’re going to have to engage with each other in our full interiority, to take each other and meet each other on a non-judgmental basis and to recognize the humanity that’s present in all of us, no matter how horrifying we may find each other.”

Both Smith and Nesbitt have hope for Ireland’s future with race relations – but it’s measured. “I just met my first young, Black, woman director who wants to [assistant direct] with me,” says Nesbitt, “and I’m like, ‘Yeah! That is really exciting.’ We’re moving towards a more diverse and open space for work.” 

On the other hand, one clear, (should be) readily attainable goal she sees for Irish theater in the next three years is “to have at least one production of an all-Black show on the Abbey stage,” Ireland’s national theater. “It would be a huge thing for there to be an investment in placing people of color in a context that is not in proximity or as a surprise to whiteness — which is what they’re doing at the moment.”

Smith also sees change happening in the Irish arts community. “If I’m looking at my own artistic life, my own artistic career, in certain ways, the fact that I’m here speaking to you and that this play is being put on, and I’m working full time in the arts is evidence of that change. A lot of the opportunities I’ve had is because of that desire within the theater community here in Ireland – to platform ‘new voices’, which is often what we’re called. It’s a welcome change, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it progresses.”

Sponsor

WESTAF Shoebox Arts

About Nesbitt’s most concrete hope for the near future, Smith says, “In terms of the all-Black Abbey production – working on it. Always working on it.” Smith’s own measure of hope is more constrained than Nesbitt’s. “My feelings are that it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” says Smith. “Generally, these things need to reach a breaking point. They need to reach a point where they horrify enough people, and enough people are put through enough pain that would make them make a change and do so deliberately.”

They make an interesting team, CN Smith and Joy Nesbitt, their contrasting energies feeling very European and American respectively, while their shared purpose and intention feels clear and well-defined.

In the foreseeable future, Nesbitt wants to venture more into nonrealistic theater: “I want to keep developing my directorial and my writing voice to embrace the absurd and the surreal. Those things are what make my brain and my neurons fire, when we get to make things that are really funky.” She’d also love to stay in Ireland, a country she’s grown to love, a while longer. “As my mother would say,” she laughs, “I’m gonna stay a ‘WWW’ — a world-wide woman.”

For his own future, Smith says, “I hope to work with a couple more of the big companies in Ireland, flesh out my individual vision and my individual voice, begin to embed in the community and the industry and hopefully, get closer to the mainstream, and become part of the establishment (laughs).”

In Spear, Corrib presents an opportunity to Portland to catch these two young artists near the beginning of what look to be promising careers. And further, to see a work of art that raises some questions for which our own city is still looking for answers.

***

Spear

  • Company: Corrib Theatre
  • At: 21Ten Theatre, 2110 S.E. 10th Ave., Portland
  • Dates: Feb. 16-March 10
  • Ticket information: Here

Be part of our
growing success

Join our Stronger Together Campaign and help ensure a thriving creative community. Your support powers our mission to enhance accessibility, expand content, and unify arts groups across the region.

Together we can make a difference. Give today, knowing a donation that supports our work also benefits countless other organizations. When we are stronger, our entire cultural community is stronger.

Donate Today

Photo Joe Cantrell

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.

SHARE:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

PCS Clyde’s
MYS Oregon to Iberia
Profile Theatre Orange Sky
Mt Tabor Art Walk
OCCA Monthly
PNCA MFA Exhibition
NW Dance Project
Maryhill Museum of Art
PAM 12 Month
Pacific Maritime HC Prosperity
PSU College of the Arts
Oregon Cultural Trust
We do this work for you.

Give to our GROW FUND.