Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Bobby Bermea: PETE, Portland, race, and ‘The Americans’

Since the upheavals of 2020 Portland and the nation have been in turmoil over race and more. A new play exploring the issues finds inspiration from a book of photographs from the 1950s.

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Damaris Webb rehearsing for Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s “The Americans,” which opens Thursday, Jan. 19, and continues through Feb. 3 at the Historic Alberta House. Photo: Bobby Bermea

What is the responsibility of the artist in 2023? What is her duty to the society in which she lives? What is the purpose, the purview, the intent? Has it changed in recent years? If so, how?

2020 was a stone thrown into the pond of the new century, and as a society we’ll be rocking on the ensuing waves for years to come. It was a moment that lasted more than a year, that is still going on, that we all felt not just on a societal level, but a personal one. In all walks of life, people looked inward. They allowed themselves to be affected by what was happening, by police brutality, by massive protests against that brutality, by a worldwide pandemic, by lockdown, by a contentious election, by a million different events happening in the world, and they allowed events to alter their perspective. It hasn’t been easy for anyone, but it has been necessary.

The scary part, of course, is that we might not have even got to the hard part yet. Figuring out how we use what we’ve learned to evolve both as individuals and as a nation is a path fraught with peril, if only because it feels like there’s no blueprint for it. No one can tell us what to do or how to do it. And circumstances, attitudes, and social mores change so fast that what might have been right in one moment may not be in the next.

For a lot of artists, the path forward feels fraught. We’re aware, perhaps in a way we’ve never been before, of the burden to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Not because of the danger of societal backlash, but because of the simple desire to do the right thing. An artist has their art with which to make the world a better place. The art is the sword and the shield, the hammer and the nail, the paint brush and the canvas.

When art is how you feel best qualified to make a difference, what do you do? For four hundred-plus years, the politics and ramifications of race and racism have been the most explosive and pertinent discussion we have as a nation, even before the problem was articulated as such. For the artist the question is, how do you make art that helps, not hurts, in a time and with a subject matter within which it is so easy to do damage?

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE) is a company known, as its name suggests, for using the entirety of the theatrical vocabulary within a strict framework of questioning, precision, and attention to detail. They experiment, alright, but not without intent. They don’t rely on shock value for relevance. They are storytellers still exploring the parameters of how we tell stories with integrity and awareness.   

PETE founding member Cristi Miles, who brought the idea for “The Americans” to the ensemble and is the show’s co-director.

Cristi Miles has for years been known for her charismatic performances, her work ethic, and her commitment to craft. She is a founding member of PETE, and its only artist of color. Like a lot of people, Miles had a personal reckoning during the protests of 2020. Her own experiences specifically as a woman of color in Portland had gone largely unnoticed, often even by those closest to her, and largely unaddressed in her art.

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Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

For brown folks, it’s not easy existing in one of the whitest cities in America, and Miles often felt like she was on her own, without a means or a medium to express the questions that, although they had risen for her much earlier, were brought into high relief three years ago. “For me,” she recalls, “ever since May 2020 and George Floyd and the protests, especially living in Portland, I felt like I found language to talk about the experience of living in a predominantly white city as a person of color and the insidiousness of white supremacy. I found a way to talk to my friends who are not people of color about my experience being alive, of how I leave my house and I can be affronted with a micro-aggression. This was news to them.”

For Miles, the way into making art about this internalized conflict around race came from an unexpected source. She was listening to the radio show The Daily when the program mentioned a famed collection of photos by Swiss photographer Robert Frank (with an introduction for its 1959 U.S. edition by the beat writer Jack Korouac) called The Americans. In the mid-1950s, Frank received a Guggenheim fellowship to travel in the United States coast-to-coast and take pictures of what he saw. The book became a seminal 20th century work of art, although, especially initially, it was not especially well-received. Frank’s was an honest, open, sometimes harsh outsider’s view of America, and America didn’t necessarily like this version of itself. “What he saw,” explains Miles, “was our race divide. That resonated deeply with how I see the world.”

Robert Frank, “Trolley — New Orleans,” 1955, from his book “The Americans,” inspiration for Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s new play of the same name. Image © Andrea Frank Foundation, from “The Americans.”

Her next step was to make a pitch to PETE about building a show around Frank’s collection in order to explore the racial reckoning that is still going on in America today. “Our values are decentralized power,” she says, “non-hierarchical, iterative, and nonlinear processes. We are attempting to make space for a conversation about race using the source material of Robert Frank’s photography [in] The Americans, the language of dance, and the language of theater.”

But the execution of The Americans in the real world, for real people, with flesh-and-blood artists who have their own skill sets, experiences and sensibilities, is another matter. Audiences will be able to see the results beginning Thursday, Jan. 19, when The Americans begins a run through Feb. 4 at the Historic Alberta House.

Even for a theater company historically known for taking chances, this is moving into uncharted territory, and dangerous. It would be imperative that Miles bring in artists with a different sensibility from PETE’s norm. To that end, she chose artists with experience and talent that made them especially suited to the subject matter — in Miles’ words, “well-versed with being in the unknown.” The cast includes Damaris Webb, artistic director of Vanport Mosaic; Gerrin Mitchell; Ezri Reyes; Andrew Welsh; Rose Proctor; and PETE company member Rebecca Lingafelter. The list of actors who have worked on the project is longer, and includes Portland Playhouse’s Charles Grant and PETE company members Amber Whitehall and Jacob Coleman. When devising theater, PETE likes to be in process with a writer. To that end, the ensemble brought in poet and playwright Chris Gonzalez, who readers may be familiar with from his work at ArtsWatch, as well as from Portland Playhouse and Coho.

Perhaps most significantly, Miles brought in a co-director, Olivia Matthews, a graduate of Lewis and Clark College and a former intern in PETE’s ICP (Institute for Contemporary Performance) program, and a person of uncommon sensitivity and acumen. Matthews, like Miles, has an astute awareness of both the necessity of the conversation and the possible pitfalls in the exploration. But it is those potential traps that make the conversation that much more essential.

“Race is not a special-interest topic that only people of color should be dealing with,” says Matthews. “I do think there is a tendency from well-intentioned white people — in a genuine effort to make space for people of color to say what they need to say – that they unconsciously opt out of the conversation; they think they can just extricate themselves from the conversation with their goodness and not really examine themselves or our systems in a meaningful way.”

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Gerrin Mitchell, Amber Whitehall, and others preparing for “The Americans.” Photo: Bobby Bermea

But The Americans is not just about white people and their involvement in or responsibility for the racist power structure in place. Rather, it is an opportunity “for everybody to enter the conversation and continue the conversation in a way that doesn’t assume the benevolence of anyone,” says Matthews. “What is inherently different about this process is that because we’re talking about race, there is a positionality that we can’t exclude from the conversation. Everybody is not going to have the same relationship to this source material. How I extract meaning from this source material might be entirely different from the person next to me. Because I inhabit one body and you inhabit a different kind of body. That is inherently a challenge in this show that we are finding as we go.”

It’s risky just because the subject matter is so volatile. Miles and Matthews both know that, and so does their cast. “It’s so charged that it’s emotional and feels personal to all involved,” says Miles. “This whole process has been an experiment. What we’re asking everyone to do is so monumental, so ambitious. We’re learning as a group.”

The Americans is going to happen at the Historic Alberta House (the former Cerimon House), now under the leadership of artistic director Vin Shambry and creative director Matthew Kerrigan. Their goal is to make space for art that is not just accessible to the community but that also is by, about and for the community, and the questions that arise that may face that community. As such, it seems a particularly apt choice for PETE to explore the questions they’re exploring with The Americans.

“After every show we will be inhabiting almost every part of the Alberta House,” says Miles. “In the gallery there will be an installation that the audience can contribute to. In the café area on the other side of the house will be a place to decompress if the performance brought up anything you need to work through. And there will be a curated conversation from an artist who has worked at Alberta House or worked to influence the show in some way or who can speak to their work and this piece and how they intersect.”

For Cristi Miles, PETE’s production of The Americans has been a three-year journey of self-discovery amidst a backdrop of tremendous social upheaval. For her, Olivia Matthews, and their team of artists, the goal is to maintain their ambition for the project while artfully staying in their lane. “We’ve been talking about the show as having two parts,” says Miles. “Part One, a performance. Part Two, a conversation. But not in a way where we’re ‘here to facilitate the race dialogue amongst the city.’ We’re not doing that, because we’re not qualified to do that. And I don’t know that I want to do that. We’re just trying to create a space for conversation.”

If history is anything to go by, that space will be in the shape of dynamic, challenging and beautiful work of art.

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  • Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s The Americans premieres Thursday, Jan. 19, and continues through Feb. 3 at the Historic Alberta House, 5131 N.E. 23rd Ave., Portland. Ticket and other information here.

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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.

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