“Every freelance director has a piece of paper with a long list: ‘Why is no one doing this play?’,” says Josh Hecht. “And on the other side is another list: ‘I can’t believe they’re doing this fucking play again!’”
Among those on the former list for him, he says, was a play by christopher oscar peña, awe/struck. Hecht knew the playwright from the New York theater world and says that this play, originally written in 2013, in particular was one he kept in his “hip pocket” as something he’d love to work on. In 2017, Hecht – by then artistic director at Portland’s Profile Theatre – presented a staged reading of the work, but a full production didn’t fit with the company’s mission at the time, which was dedicating each season to a single playwright.
Hecht has since broadened that company mandate, programming pairs of seasons that are partly thematic in approach. So now in season two dedicated to “the American generation’’ – a description of the writers peña, Kristofer Diaz and Lauren Yee, as well as of the predominant subject of their plays – Hecht has his chance, directing awe/struck in its long-awaited world premiere.
Sitting in the basement of Imago Theatre on a recent afternoon, peña speaks about the play’s origins a decade ago.
“I’d been living in New York for several years but I’d just moved to Chicago and it was very cold and I was very lonely. I got a commission from the Goodman Theatre to write a play but I didn’t know what to write about. Then I saw this little tiny article in the back of the paper about a woman who had been visiting from Ireland and was randomly beaten on the streets of Wicker Park, where I was living. And the last image in the article was of this woman, back in Ireland, sitting in a wheelchair, looking out the window while her father fed her. It just made me so sad. And I wondered how stuff like that happens so often, and what is our responsibility to each other as neighbors and as humans. That was what launched the play for me.”
To longtime Portlanders, the awful spasm of violence at the center of the play will bring up memories of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student murdered in 1988, only a mile or two from the theater where peña’s tale will be presented.
“Josh has brought that up,” peña says. “I don’t have the lived-in experience to know the details, but what’s interesting and unfortunate is that it feels so relevant here, but I think it feels relevant anywhere.”
Rather than from Ireland, the protagonist of peña’s play comes to Chicago from an unspecified Latin American country, forced to flee by her own father, who fears for her safety amid growing homophobic violence at home.
The story suggests that prejudice and tragedy can follow us anywhere, however; but also that hope and beauty also can be found or made.
“It is so brutal,” Hecht admits. ”The act of brutality at the heart of it is so heinous, and chris really asks us to sit in that. But another theme that runs through all the plays of chris’s that we’re doing is of fathers and children; fathers of queer children; and Latinate fathers for whom the queerness of their children isn’t the source of the conflict. I think the father/daughter relationship in this play is one of the most moving parts of the story. And the hopefulness of modern families is another thread that runs through these plays.”
Indeed, for those who caught peña’s How to Make an American Son earlier this year or the staged reading of his Our Orange Sky (slated for a full production later this season), there’s plenty of familiar thematic territory in awe/struck, which again works over issues around ethnic identity, cultural displacement, class divisions, the distorting/misleading effects of stereotypes, the value of family connection, and the ways that emotional wounds can make monsters of us all.
“Profile is doing three of my plays, so for me it was so exciting to sit down and think, ‘What are the things I’m obsessed with, that I can’t shake, and how do I keep revisiting those things?,’ peña says. “Over time I can see my feelings shift, from sadness to rage and now moving to hopefulness, and it’s interesting to have that conversation with an audience over a span of work.”
And even though he takes pleasure in inverting shallow expectations of Latino characters – foregrounding such images as the successful businessman that his own father modeled – he’s too invested in a usefully messy approach to both theatrical style and ethical investigation to play things simply.
“When Lynn Nottage wrote Sweat she didn’t make anybody the victim or anybody the bad person – everybody was kind of complicit,” he offers by way of comparison. “I don’t want to write the play about the Latino victim – that’s boring! If you can write a play that says ‘War is bad’ then you haven’t done your job, because you’re not dealing with complicated things.”
When I suggest that his plays express ambivalence about both American culture and Latino identity, his instinct is to push past the binary into more complicated territory.
“People tell me that I’m not really Latino, and what does that even mean?,” he protests. Part of his project seems to be the expansion of what the image of a Latino can be.
“I’m also gay, I’m also from California, I’m also a child of immigrants – I think of my plays not as Latino stories as much as they are immigrant stories. I grew up in San Jose, where so much of the population was Filipino and Vietnamese. The themes are shared.”
Profile’s continued engagement with peña’s work brings benefits as well. Actors Jimmy Garcia, Crystal Ann Muñoz and Skyler Verity all were in American Son and return for this show as well, along with Lea Zawada and Alexandria Hunter. A decade ago, Zawada was a preternaturally talented child actor in town, and her return to the stage here is intriguing; Hecht and peña speak about her performance with evident excitement.
“All I’ve ever wanted is to have the opportunity to build a repertoire of plays with a group of people,” peña says. “To have this kind of short-hand with these actors and designers is wonderful.”
Part of Hecht’s role, peña says, is to nudge the plays a little more toward beauty and hopefulness, making the broad emotional spectrum of the work a bit brighter.
“For me, among the things the play is about is the idea of hidden selves, and about passing and the exhaustion of navigating dominant cultures and the way all of us – however we identify – self-monitor and code-switch. In part it’s about the necessity of those places where we can really be our whole authentic selves.”
If awe/struck can successfully model such a place, show us what they might help us endure, perhaps it will earn an even more prominent place on the right side of the list.
Go see a play
Here at Oregon ArtsWatch, we like the idea of being your preferred source for information and perspective about cultural activities. But of course it’s good to have options. And for Portland theater fans – or prospective/potential/possible theater fans, even – the website pdxtheatre.org is both a great new option and an easy way to see what your options are.
The site, which provides handy links for a spectrum of upcoming productions, is part of a unified response from theater companies struggling to rebuild audiences after the habit-busting disruption of the Covid pandemic. Initiated by Artists Repertory Theatre, PortlandCenter Stage, Portland Playhouse and Profile Theatre, and funded by a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation, the Go See a Play campaign also includes billboard advertising (nearly two dozen around the city), cross-platform digital promotion, and advocacy for governmental support.
After Damaris Webb directed a play last year at Portland State University, design professor Solomon Weisbard suggested she consider teaching a class in devising, wherein she’d help students create work of their own, culminating in a performance. It sounded tricky; she was dubious.
“Then he said, ‘What if we called the class Devising Social Justice?,’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘OK, you got me.’”
Webb, who has worked as actor and director for companies as diverse as Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble and Clackamas Rep, also is a co-founder of Vanport Mosaic, which describes itself as a “memory-activism platform” and presents plays, exhibits, public discussions, historical tours and other events relating to the history of Portland and its Black community. Weisbard knew which hook to use.
The result of the subsequent class is y/ours: the work of mutual aid in a (lonely) democracy, a collection of short pieces generated by small groups of Webb’s 11 students, in part as responses to the book “Take care of yourself, the art and cultures of care and liberation,” by Sundus Abdul Hadi.
“The practices of mutual aid in a community are very interesting and beautiful to me,” Webb says. “And a lot of the skill sets (of devising theater) really mirror the skills of other sorts of organizing and negotiations.” She describes the show as “intimate, tender, generous, performative,” including material about “how to cultivate compassionate curiosity about ourselves and about the world. And there’s a lot about identity. You get to know each of these 11 people – which I think is lovely.”
Portland long has had a solid little scene for sketch comedy, but it skews toward a particular generation in terms of its performers. One of that generation’s most gifted actors, though, is passing the torch in a smart way. Jason Rouse’s Wonderland enlists several students from Pacific Crest Community School, where Rouse teaches, for an ensemble anchored by fellow sketch veterans Scott Engdahl and David Burnett. The show promises “tales of mediocre men, time-traveling nepo babies, discouraged magicians, punchable faces, amateur ASMR, and teenagers who are tired of your crap.”
Having grown up with the 1942 film Holiday Inn as a favorite family Christmas staple, I don’t think I’m being churlish to say that I can’t quite imagine anyone matching the charm, wit and flair of the great Fred Astaire. His co-star Bing Crosby? Yeah, that’s doable. In any case, they are fun roles, with the two as a team of song-and-dance men whose differing skills are complementary onstage but whose similar tastes in women lead to clashes offstage.
Reworked for the stage as Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn (Berlin provided the story and songs for the original, but not the screenplay), the entertaining tale serves this year as Lakewood Theatre’s seasonal showcase, letting William Shindler (“I’ll capture her heart singing”) and Xander Dean (“But just wait’ll she gets a load of my dancing!”) slide into those famous midcentury shoes. Perhaps the slight alteration in the title suggests an even stronger emphasis on the songs, which, after all – the plot’s light-hearted romantic roundelays aside – are the main attraction. As the residence for such classics as “White Christmas” and the irresistibly effervescent “Happy Holiday,” it should wear that emphasis well.
The flattened stage
According to an account by Astaire’s daughter, he actually did have a few nips before performing this remarkable scene, wherein his balance of fluidity and precision sells the wit of the routine brilliantly.
Song of the week
One night only
Julia Bray’s experimental variety show All Boats PDX Fall Showcase brings its multidisciplinary high spirits back to CoHo Theater for a night of unexpected adventures and connections.
Samantha Van Der Merwe’s production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding has garnered the kind of rapturous reviews that, well, her shows at Shaking the Tree get regularly these days. Highly theatrical, lushly poetic, intensely passionate, it melts romance and tragedy together into something like an Escher print.
For those who prefer their intense passions packaged as pseudo-historical schmaltz, a reminder that the touring production of Les Miserables, part of the Broadway in Portland season, ends its brief run this weekend.
The best line I read this week
“The billionaire, as a character, is having a moment in contemporary fiction. The ascendant trope seems to be that there is nothing of which a billionaire is not capable, which makes such figures sinister but also exquisitely useful in plot terms. Their combination of endless resources and psychological deformity means that you can use them to make anything happen. Even in the most naturalistic settings, they wander freely beyond the borders of realism. … the underlying assumption is that billionaires are billionaires in the first place because they possess superhuman capacities that the rest of us do not. I eagerly await the fictional billionaire who has no interest in art or philosophy, who is cunning and dull and single-minded, who becomes a billionaire not because he has some quality the rest of us don’t but because he lacks something the rest of us have, like empathy or self-regulation or an ability to feel satisfied—which seems to me to describe most of them.”
– Jonathan Dee, in The New Yorker
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.