Connie Carley may not have performed on the stage at PassinArt: A Theatre Company, but without her, no one else would have, either. As a co-founder of the 40-year-old Portland Black theater company and, in recent years, its managing director, she helped give it its purpose and kept the wheels running.
“My career as a creator was shaped by her leadership as well as many others at PassinArt – with now 40 years of creating opportunities to tell Black stories in one of the whitest cities in America,” actor James R. Dixon said, recalling her behind-the-scenes role in PassinArt’s 2018 production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.
Carley has died at 72, leaving a huge legacy and an immeasurable gap in Portland’s cultural scene. She was born on Valentine’s Day 1950. Her family has not disclosed her cause of death or determined its exact date.
“With broken hearts and sadness, PassinArt: A Theatre Company announces the passing of our long-time colleague and co-founder Constance G. ‘Connie’ Carley,” the company announced in a prepared statement. “Connie’s unwavering commitment to the mission, vision, and story of PassinArt was an essential part of the 40-year existence of our theatre company. Please keep Connie’s family and friends in your thoughts at this difficult time. Services are pending.”
Artistic Director Jerry Foster spoke briefly about his producing partner at PassinArt: “Connie was an activist whose work spoke for her. She was not competitive but always supportive. She worked tirelessly to make sure every young person had a voice through the arts and everyone had access to the stage if that was their desire. She was a patron of the arts and never missed an opportunity to support art makers, and will be missed by all who she touched with her presence.”
Carley didn’t care much for the limelight, and kept herself largely out of the public eye. But for people at PassinArt and beyond, especially in the city’s Black and nonprofit communities, she was a guiding light, a bright spirit, and a voice of practicality, vision, and affirmation. Dixon remembered a day at rehearsal for Two Trains Running when “I was just so tired. I couldn’t remember my damned lines and there was Ms. Connie Carley, her lips pursed and hands folded … asking me how I was doing.
“I told her, ‘I’m just trying to get these lines in my head so I don’t screw this up!’ I mean, I’d never been in an August Wilson show before. And in this environment” – performing with a cast of veteran Wilson actors – “‘showing up for the work’ takes a whole new meaning. It was the show that taught me ‘the love for the urgency of our stories,’ and that day Ms. Connie told me … ‘You belong here and you are doing great! We’re here to pass on the stories and knowledge we carry.’”
Passing along the stories and the knowledge was crucial to Carley’s view of theater and of life. “I’ve always had a passion for advocating and promoting services for families and children and adults. I come out of a social justice family,” she told Dmae Lo Roberts in a March 2020 interview for Stage and Studio. Carley, who grew up in Shoreline, just north of Seattle, moved to Portland in the late 1970s, after college.
“We were the first ones to integrate that neighborhood in Shoreline and in Seattle,” she told Roberts. “We were one of three families. I saw my parents take some stance. And so … I knew I had to contribute and advocate for other people for equal rights. It’s just a part of who I am.
“I don’t see art as a separate entity. I think it should be integrated in everything we do. And so I never really separated my work life from PassinArt. I always felt that arts was a way to give people a voice that normally would not have the opportunity to speak on behalf of issues that impact them every day.”
Carley did a little theater in high school and college in the Seattle area, “but I really was more of a dancer,” she told Roberts. “I liked all types of dance.” After moving to Portland, she added, “I was in a program that was trying to increase the diversity of teachers in the Portland public schools.” It was about that time that she met the two people who would become her co-founders of PassinArt, Clarice Bailey and actor Michael Grant. They organized the company in 1982 and produced their first show the following year at the Matt Dishman Community Center. Jerry Foster joined the company as artistic director in 1995, and remains in that role.
From the outset PassinArt was meant to be not just another theater company but a focal point for Black stories and culture. In its early years two other companies in Portland – Portland Black Repertory Theatre and Sojourner Truth – were doing much the same thing in their own ways, and the three companies would work together to make sure that year ’round, Black people could find themselves on stage if they needed to.
“We were able to create a whole season of Black plays pretty much,” Foster told Bobby Bermea in a January 2020 dual interview with Carley for Oregon ArtsWatch. “When one was down, the other one was up and there was never competition amongst the companies. It was more of a collaboration.” Carley agreed: “Back then we coordinated our schedules. We were always supportive of each other, which we still are. We want to be supportive of all theater companies, especially companies of color.”
Through much of her time with PassinArt, Carley also worked full-time for the State of Oregon, retiring after 23 years of work that, according to PassinArt’s website, “focused on implementing statewide initiatives that support children, youth, families, and local communities.” She was also active in community volunteer service, including Sisters Network Oregon and SW WA chapter, a survivorship group for African American women, and the Black Women for Peace (BWFP) executive committee.
One of Carley’s greatest gifts was paying attention to other people, and knowing what to say at the right time – a prod here, an encouragement and a look to the future there. Dixon recalled more about his conversation with her after the Two Trains Running rehearsal: “I was in several arts boards at the time and I told her I wanted to quit them all as I was tired of all of the ‘code switching’ in white-filled rooms. She said, ‘I’m sure you are tired of being the only Black person on these boards. … We’ve been in and out of those rooms for years. And now it’s your turn. We need you there, James!’”
For Carley, theater, art, history, race, economics, and contemporary culture were all part of a great and complex and very important stew.
“When we did The No Play [in 2017] some young people were shocked. They didn’t even know what Jim Crow was,” she told Bermea. “They didn’t understand the impact it had on our community. Every time I think maybe we shouldn’t do something about history, we run into someone who really doesn’t have a clue, and they were shocked. And these were young white students out of PSU. I’m like, ‘What are they teaching people in the schools these days?’ Folks don’t know.”
Her passing has left an indelible mark.
Costume designer and performer Wanda Walden, Carley’s longtime friend and colleague since the beginnings of PassinArt, remembered her in a free-verse appreciation:
Dress for Success, Blazing the trail wearing one of her Signature Blazers.
Direct, Down to Earth
Free Spoken. Sisterly concern
“Wanda it’s getting dark you should be heading home, call me when you get in” or “Should you be eating that?”
“You know People
Think you’re homeless rolling your
Suitcase around wearing those
Connie was Just Connie and you
Knew what to Expect.
She will surely be missed!!!!!
“The Portland Theatre community has lost a guiding star,” the organization Advance Gender Equity in the Arts wrote in a Facebook post. “Connie was a theatre leader who led with love, determination, and integrity. She believed in the power of art as integral to education and social justice. Connie was passionate about making art accessible to children. ‘We want to pass on our stories, our art, our history, and our culture to the next generation,’ Connie told us in an interview for AGE. … Our conversations with Connie left a permanent mark in our hearts and our minds. She spoke gently, but her resolve and impact on the arts were unmistakably bold, courageous, and transformative. Thank you, Connie, for holding us close and showing us the way. Thank you for teaching us, for guiding us, and for loving us. You will be missed.”
And the actor and PassinArt board member Kenneth Dembo, another longtime friend, paid her eloquent tribute:
“Connie was a very dear friend and colleague and one of the smartest, most regal women that I have had the pleasure of knowing,” he said. “She loved theater as a whole and was the face of PassinArt. We are going to miss her sorely. I’m so thankful we had the opportunity to honor her on PassinArt’s 40th anniversary this past May. Good night, my dear friend. It’s your time to dance amongst the stars.”