Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

DramaWatch: American hoop dreams

Artists Rep's premiere of Kareem Fahmy's "American Fast" does a fast break on sport, faith, and culture. Plus: Sondheim for a new generation.

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An old adage in regard to literature – for page or stage – is that if you get the little things right your audience will trust you on the big things. That is, verisimilitude is in the details. Set your story in the milieu of, say, long-haul trucking or needlepoint classes or what have you, and it’s important to be accurate about the norms and materials and mechanics of said subculture lest its devotees turn a blind eye to your larger themes and plot devices.

Victoria Alvarez-Chacon and Jessica Damouni in “American Fast.” Photo: Shawnte Sims

A subculture that I’m particularly tuned into is that of basketball. And it was the playwright Lauren Yee’s fast and loose way with the protocols of that world (along with a squad of other implausible narrative coincidences) that put me off of her otherwise engaging play The Great Leap when Portland Center Stage produced it a year ago.

In American Fast, which Artists Rep opens Saturday in The Armory’s Ellyn Bye Studio, the Canadian playwright Kareem Fahmy shows off a much smoother crossover, flexing some strong b-ball historical context right from the prologue and keeping his narrative details believable (for the most part) through to the final buzzer.

Commissioned by Artists Rep (under the prior administration of Dámaso Rodríguez) and developed in part at the Colorado New Play Summit (run by former PCS artistic director Chris Coleman), American Fast uses the story of a college basketball star to address ideas about generational tensions within a family, the immigrant experience in America, the perceived exoticism of Muslim identity, the complicated demands of personal and cultural authenticity, and so on.

The play’s protagonist, a scoring phenom named Khadija “Khady” Salama, is trying to carry her team through the NCAA tournament but finds that her stiffest competition isn’t on the court. The tournament happens to be scheduled during the Muslim holy period of Ramadan, which requires Khady to fast during daylight hours. Can she perform at her best if she complies? Her ambitions soon come into conflict with not just her religion but her equally ambitious coach, devout mother, and caring but neglected boyfriend.

This production – part of a “National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere” along with productions in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – is directed by PCS associate artistic director Chip Miller.

Sold on Sondheim

Reading the theater commentary of Daniel Pollack-Pelzner always is a pleasure, whether his work is in the august pages of The New Yorker or on our own humble website. The latest piece by the noted professor and Shakespeare scholar, published by The Atlantic, is especially engaging, illuminating the work of the musical-theater titan Stephen Sondheim through the passions and perspectives of Pollack-Pelzner’s students in a recent class at Portland State University

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Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Stephen Sondheim in a publicity photo, about 1970; photographer unknown. Wikimedia Commons

“What I found when we began discussing these shows was an attention to a facet of Sondheim’s work I hadn’t seen in the many tributes that came after his death last year at 91,” Pollack-Pelzner writes. “My students could appreciate his skill as a musical dramatist, his innovations as a craftsman, his inventive wit and longing harmonic lines. But what really drew them in—or, perhaps, what they drew out—was his preoccupation with people excluded from the dominant society, his critical eye toward those in positions of power, and his exploration of musical forms that give voice to outsider perspectives.”

The flattened stage

Best line I read this week

“I would like to start by formally stating, under oath, I fucked up.”

– from remarks prepared by fallen crypto-currency wunderkind Sam Bankman-Fried which were to be delivered at a House hearing which was canceled after Bankman-Fried’s arrest.   

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

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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