DramaWatch: A family history in black and white

Romance, race and genealogy clash in "Redwood," a world premiere at Portland Center Stage; plus tips for the week in Portland theater.

For the past several years, something called the Kilroy’s List has attempted to shine a light on “un- and underproduced new plays by woman, trans, and non-binary authors” by polling hundreds of professionals in the play-development field. It has proven to be a rich resource. The 2017 list, for example, included Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play (which Artists Rep staged in 2018), Christina Anderson’s How to Catch Creation (part of the most recent Oregon Shakespeare Festival season) and Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band (also at OSF this year and coming to Portland Center Stage in the spring).

Chip Miller recalls looking at the 2017 list and noticing the play Redwood by Brittany K. Allen. “I thought, ‘I went to school with someone named Brittany Allen. I wonder if it’s the same person.’”

Brittany K. Allen and Nick Ferrucci in the world premiere of Redwood at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Miller grew up in Kansas City, then studied theater at NYU. Deciding against doing “the New York thing” after school, Miller began to look for regional-theater opportunities and quickly landed back home at Kansas City Rep, soon serving as casting director for the play-development department led by Marissa Wolf.
Allen, it turned out, was the same person that Miller had known in New York, and Wolf and Miller soon slotted Redwood into a reading series at KC Rep. Several months later, Wolf headed West to become artistic director at Portland Center Stage — eventually bringing both Miller and Redwood along as well. 

Miller, who joined PCS in April with the title associate producer, directs the world premiere of Redwood, opening Friday on the Armory mainstage. Among the actors: Brittany K. Allen.  

Redwood examines the fallout from modern genealogical testing in the life of an inter-racial couple. Meg Wilson and Drew Tatum have recently moved in together when they find out their relationship goes back further than they’d thought. Undertaking a deep dive into family history, Meg’s uncle Steve Durbin finds the descendants of the family that owned the Durbins during slavery. And yep — it’s the Tatums. Complications ensue. 

It’s a rich premise, providing entry to a host of relevant issues about the growth of DNA testing and online genealogical research, the ongoing legacy of slavery in American life, potential complications in mixed-race relationships, and so on. 

“I think it’s about how the history of oppression would affect a modern-day couple, and how ancient power dynamics…influence the present,” Allen said in a 2017 interview promoting a developmental reading at the Lark in New York. 

However pertinent the play’s social themes, Allen isn’t about to get bogged down in self-seriousness. “I get excited about plays that move and shake and have a lot of glitter and nonsense in them,” she said in that same interview. Sprinkled amid the fraught conversations and family dynamics are hip-hop dance classes, direct address from characters to audience, and even some ancestors appearing out of the ether. 

Chip Miller, associate producer at Portland Center Stage and director of Redwood. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

“She’s found this landscape where the most theatrical moments are when we go inside the minds of the characters,” Miller says, talking in a conference room at the Armory earlier this week.

Miller, 29, speaks of the production and the issues that inform it with an easy fluency. I mention my own cynicism about the value of genealogical DNA testing, about the muddling of biology, culture and personality that its marketing suggests, and the director’s response encapsulates the play’s core question in an intriguing way: “What does this information change? Does a deeper understanding of heritage affect the performance of identity on a daily basis?

“We’re always looking for narrative, always looking for meaning,” Miller adds. “This DNA stuff is just a device to tell a different, newer/older story.”

Opening

Halloween is behind us once again, but how’s this for horror: “…from the creators of Les Misérables…”?
OK, I’ll grant you that for many folks that counts as an invitation more than a warning, and in any case the musical Miss Saigon has quite enough of a track record on its own. An updating of the Madame Butterfly template to 1970s Vietnam, the show was a smash in the West End and on Broadway in the 1990s. Now it’s back in a touring version for Broadway Across America, coming to the Keller. 


Earlier this year, when he opened a small performance studio called the 2509 in the daylight basement of his Northeast Portland home, Lewis & Clark College theater professor Stepan Simek established boundaries. “Everything is allowed,” he said with a wry smile, “except amplified music and Bible study.”
And yet now here he is directing a play called The Christians that addresses doctrinal disputes within the community of a suburban megachurch, and reportedly is not satirical but, according to an article in The New York Times, “true to life” and “liturgically precise.” Sounds like a project that might call for a little…Bible study?
Simek describes the Lucas Hnath play, which won the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, as “sort of a ‘chamber play’ (albeit backed by a twenty-five-member church choir).” And while DramaWatch usually doesn’t track school productions, Simek’s track record and his enthusiasm merit an exception. “There are some remarkable student actors’ performances, the choir is rocking, and the play is excellent, really excellent,” he wrote in an email. “It MAKES YOU THINK.” 


Much about the life and genius of William Shakespeare remains mysterious, yet we do know that he didn’t base the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” on personal experience. But so what?  Lakewood Theatre presents Shakespeare in Love, adapted from the 1998 film, which imagines romance as creative  inspiration — and why the Bard isn’t remembered for writing “Romeo and Ethel.” David Sikking directs a cast led by the terrific Murri Lazaroff-Babin as Shakespeare.

The flattened stage

While we might not really know so much about Shakespeare’s love life, Shakespeare’s lovers — that is, the ones he created on the page — we know. And we know they sometimes took some rather odd advice from those around them. Would that more modern psychotherapy been available to them! Perhaps something like this:

Quick hits

Among the questions that face us when contemplating Follies: The Unofficially Best Ever Variety Show, Stephano Iaboni’s recurring physical-comedy showcase: Who or what could make it official? Sid Caesar?

In any case, Iaboni’s guests for the latest installment include Michael O’Neill, who recently toured Palestine as part of Clowns Without Borders.

Kevin meets TED

TEDx Mt. Hood, a localized baby brother of the famed TED talks, takes over the theater at Roosevelt High this Saturday. The hook for theater lovers? Kevin Jones, actor, director and co-founder of the August Wilson Red Door Project, will be among the speakers.  

Closing

Bakkhai at Shaking the Tree. Photo: Meg Nanna.

Bakkhai, a version of the Euripides tragedy adapted and directed here by Shaking the Tree’s Samantha Van Der Merwe, is, in the words of ArtsWatcher Bob Hicks, “a neatly contrived roller-coaster of a show, a smooth and sometimes scary fun ride that starts where it starts and carries on, with no breaks, to its bitter and propulsive end.” With just a few more chances to catch it this weekend, that end feels more bitter still.


Penning a tragi-comedy about something called Acquired Toilet Disease might seem an odd response to the AIDS-related death of a loved one, but for a writer as skilled as Paula Vogel, it worked, with The Baltimore Waltz. Of Profile Theatre’s soon-to-close production, Broadway World’s Krista Garver said “this bizarre, extravagant fantasy was the only fitting way to deal with a grief too deep to bear.”

Best line I read this week

“The poorer practitioners of any craft are often, like clumsy magicians or awkward liars, more revealing than their betters. Even more than the masterpiece, the worst art serves as a crucible in which a period’s superficial veneer is melted away to reveal the bald assumptions, the prevalent ideologies, the crassest commonplaces of the times. Shakespeare is universal; it is with a Thomas Kyd or a Cyril Tourneur that we encounter a true Elizabethan.”

— from The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, by Ted Gioia.


That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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