Charles Grant’s Matter at Hand

The Portland actor-writer brings a vivid sense of movement to his play about the ever-present danger of violence that Black Americans face

Matter, conceived, written, and performed by Charles Grant and directed by James Dixon, is a deeply personal portrayal of a young Black man’s quest to find a way to save Black lives by examining police brutality and gun violence. Co-produced by Portland Playhouse and Many Hats Collaboration, the one man, 20-minute, filmed theater piece methodically examines the facts amidst opposing viewpoints, social division, and the constant barrage of news. Grant, frustrated and grieving over the many Black lives that have been lost, becomes aware of his vulnerability as a Black man and the possibility of his death at the hands of the police. While not strictly a dance work, Matter includes a lot of movement, as life should, and includes sections that could be called dances, with movement direction by Many Hats Collaboration’s artistic director, Jessica Wallenfels. Through a combination of camera angles, lighting, sound, text, movement, and the cast’s lived experiences, real emotions and trauma are expressed in the work, framing the complex Black experience. 

Charles Grant in the 2017 version of “Matter.” Photo: Tamera Lyn

“From early conversations with Jessica [Wallenfels], I knew that I wanted to incorporate more dance and movement into this piece,” Grant told me in an email. Grant originally conceived of Matter in 2017 as part of his apprenticeship at Portland Playhouse and is unofficially calling it Matter 2.0 this time around. Sadly, it is still part of our larger cultural conversation because of the disproportionate amount of violence toward Black bodies. He hopes he doesn’t have to keep bringing it back over and over again. 

“There is something so frustrating and incomprehensible about how Black people are being gunned down in our country,” he said. “The way my stomach absolutely drops every time I read a news article, see a social media post or click on another hashtag as if I can never wake up from this nightmare. As if I’m stuck in some sort of purgatory where I can’t escape my worst fears.” 

Grant, surrounder by a litter of newsprint, in this year’s Matter 2.0. Photo: Tamera Lyn

When it came to the text of Matter, Grant said, “I knew every word had to matter.” There could be no excess. And still, words never felt enough. They couldn’t fully give justice to all the Black lives for whom we are still fighting for justice.” But words need to lead to action, he said, and this can be expressed through dance. 

“Movement and dance have always been a great way to express my innermost thoughts and feelings and a way for me to fight back against anything that might oppress me,” he said. “It’s a way for me to say, ‘You know what, you will see me, you will hear me.’” 

The movement that he and Wallenfels created ranges from stylized, open-arched modern dance arms to postmodern crawling on the floor while frantically shifting around newspapers. The dancing throughout the play expresses anger, exasperation, loss, and fear, to name a few emotions, and is expertly performed by someone who is talented and committed to the expression of both dance and acting. 

“The collaboration with Jessica on the movement was so great because she provided a playground full of words, emotions, and ideas for me to run with and really encouraged me to let it all out,” Grant said. “To be free in a way that is often not granted, on so many levels. In my mind, movement and dance can be so integral to the theatrical experience. The body moving in space catches all of the nuances. It speaks all the truths in such a distinct way and loudly says whatever’s on your mind and in your heart, and when you see it, you feel it, and you finally get it. That was important for Matter: for people to get it.”

Grant, moving about the video version of his play. Photo: Tamera Lyn

“He’s a phenomenal mover,” Wallenfels said admiringly when we spoke via email. Blending dance and theater is central to Wallenfels’ identity as an artist. For her, the kinesthetic experience of a play is essential in how it communicates to the audience: “(A)part from dialogue, I felt movement could be the spine carrying us through the piece … it’s not always the dialogue that gets us from one moment to the next … I’d build in movement and action that could bridge the beats, or that heightened the stakes to create the build we needed throughout the piece.” 

Filmed by Tamera Lyn, Matter takes place in one small room flanked tightly by two white cinder block walls covered in newspapers. The set and costume colors seem a purposefully drab mix of grays, black, and white, like a newspaper. The back wall is a scrim that changes color depending on the scene, and the floor is covered in a large square of newspapers. The sound score, by Sharath Patel, creates a sense of growing anxiety with a cacophonic mix of notification sounds from texts, tweets, and emails. This is layered over voices reading off Black Lives Matter talking points, and the names of the Black lives lost, and a beat sample from the Hip-Hop Karen Songs by Stone Thug: “Karen go home … leave me alone … won’t you get the hell off your telephone.” It’s in this dark, desperate, chaotic, claustrophobic setting that Grant tries to make sense of it all and survive.

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