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DramaWatch: Black theater and Black joy, in ripples and waves

In a season of shows about Black life in America, the captivating "the ripple, the wave" carries the conversation home.

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From left: Andrea White, Chavez Ravine, Don Kenneth Mason, and Lauren Steele in “the ripple, the wave that carried me home,” a co-production of Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre. Photo: Shawnte Sims/courtesy of Portland Center Stage

A few weeks ago, after staged readings of short plays in The Frederick Douglass Project by Corrib Theatre, actor/director Bobby Bermea interviewed another Black actor, Curtis Maxey, onstage. The main thrust of Maxey’s comments went to a feeling he said was prevalent among most of the Black folks he knows, performers or otherwise: (As I recall the gist of it) We’ve had enough, at least for the moment, of depictions of Black trauma. We need a break. How about some shows that just show us being regular folks? 

I found that perspective understandable, but not, for me, convincing. (Perhaps, though, that’s part of the rationale behind, for instance, the simple Black-family comedy Chicken & Biscuits currently at Portland Playhouse.) I’m much more in tune with a view that the Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks put forth in a recent interview with The New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham: “The marketplace is telling us that Black joy is what sells,” she says. “I’m very suspicious about what the marketplace wants me to create, because I know in my experience where real Black joy resides—and sometimes that’s in the place where there might be some traumatic thing that also happened.”

Parks might have had in mind something like the ripple, the wave that carried me home, a remarkable play by Christina Anderson presented in a captivating co-production by Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre. As charmingly warm, personable and down-to-earth as it is politically incisive, poetically eloquent and emotionally grand, the ripple… serves up Black joy that’s been earned through generations of effort in the world and reflection in private places. It shows Black life in marvelous specificity and fullness, neither as tragic historical trap nor as clowning cliche. We see everyday people – just with an extra rock or two to push up the hill. 

Directed by Daniel J. Bryant, the production has a feel of practicality and also a look of luminosity, both afforded by Brittany Vasta’s striking scenic design and Xavier Pierce’s lighting, which make the tall tile walls of a swimming pool serve as multiple spaces, from family home to municipal battleground to eventual sea of tranquility. Anderson’s story, about a family legacy involving the fight to desegregate public pools in a Kansas town in the 1970s, is full of heart, humor, and underplayed struggle.

 Lauren Steele (left) and Andrea White in “the ripple, the wave that carried me home.” Photo: Shawnte Sims/courtesy of Portland Center Stage

As wonderfully written as it is, what may stick with you most here, though, is the acting. Lauren Steele – as Janice, the daughter at the center of what’s essentially a memory play –  continues to look like a rocket ship of a young talent taking Portland on a thrilling ride. Andrea White is beautifully warm and centered as Janice’s unsung mother, Helen. Chavez Ravine does fantastic double duty, as the voice of an unseen character called Young Ambitious Black Woman (mostly referred to as ‘Young Chipper”) and as Janice’s sweet-but-brassy Aunt Gayle.

Most impressive – at least considering that he was a replacement who joined the show just before technical rehearsals – is Don Kenneth Mason, as the father, Edwin. He’s exuberant, funny, playful, but also serious and passionate. Above all, he comes across as a relatable and highly specific character, not a generic Black dad. His struggles and triumphs are a cultural legacy, sure, but they’re first and foremost his.

Black joy, after all – like all joy – is personal.  

A frightening proposition

It’s that time of year when the nights are growing long and cold and humans seem reflexively to lean into the darkness, conjuring images and stories of evil, assuming the awful in the opaque. Which makes this the obvious time for The Stage Fright Festival, a “festival of theatrical horror” this weekend at Curious Comedy Theatre, featuring a variety of physical comedians – meaning, in this case, scary clowns – and others.

Opening

Speaking of leaning into darkness, Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Young Professionals company takes a trip to Southern France – which sounds lovely except that it’s the middle of the 14th century and the bubonic plague is all the rage. Pestilence: Wow! presents the existential dread and practical bumblings of humans in crisis as, in the description of New Play Exchange, “part reality television, part psychedelic fever dream.” Sounds timely.

Closing

Though hardly what you’d call a scary story, Lucas Hnath’s compact chamber drama The Thin Place sidles up to the supernatural, then poses questions about what’s more unsettling: fraud or faith? The story concerns a young woman’s yearnings to connect with her beloved but once-estranged and now-deceased grandmother. She meets and befriends a woman who works as a medium, who seems to divine much about her and her relationship to her long-gone Gran. But her desire to learn how to make contact with the other side for herself doesn’t go as she expects.

Jen Rowe, artistic director of The Theatre Company, plays the young woman, Hilda, with an earnest, watchful intensity, but the show’s energy center is in the charismatic Linda, who’s part empathetic spiritualist, part working-class lass. The terrific Diane Kondrat makes the character by turns sweet, sly and steely, keeping the lines of both emotional affinity and narrative direction slippery, heightening the intrigue. Adding some looseness and dimension to the proceedings are Kerie Darner as another friend of Linda’s, and Mario Calcagno as a political operative of some sort who has enlisted Linda to give pointers in persuasion to one of his clients. Calcagno – who I often thought looked self-conscious during his time as a Theatre Vertigo regular a decade ago – is an especially pleasant surprise here; both he and Darner play an extended wine-and-conversation scene with ease and assurance.

Both the title and the ending of The Thin Place suggest that perhaps there really is something “beyond the veil” and a way to get in touch with it. Whether or not that’s true (it isn’t, said the rationalist), this production is thick with the stuff of fine theater.

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Janelle Rae as Xandri, James Luster (center) as Rafe and Khail Duggan as Charlie in “The Last White Man.” Casey Campbell Photography

Bill Cain’s The Last White Man – lovingly, scrupulously directed by Scott Palmer for Bag & Baggage – is a play about Hamlet and Hamlet. That is, it’s a multi-layered musing on Shakespeare’s play and its place within cultural tradition and theatrical lore, as well as on the title character, his famously mysterious, mercurial psyche, and what he demands of – or visits upon – those who portray him. 

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It’s also a play about acting and actors. And that’s where this production creates uncanny, if unintentional, echoes of its own text. (You can read DeAnn Welker’s ArtsWatch review here.) Presenting a backstage chronicle, in a cleverly scrambled chronology, of a high-profile Hamlet production, it shows us three different actors wrestling with the role, their own egos, and at times each other. There’s Charlie, the young Oscar-winner trying to legitimize himself via the stage; Rafe, the thoroughly prepared but unspectacular stage journeyman; and Tigg, the faded former star with the hidden powers of hard-won wisdom.

In the Bag & Baggage production, James Luster as Rafe does much of the heavy lifting, and his performance is strong – winning our affection, then squandering, but remaining at ease and in command. The script infers that Charlie isn’t quite the actor the others are, but here that’s sadly too true of Khail Duggan, who pushes his lines out in a rush, with no sense of the progress of thought or feeling. The character’s clashing qualities – intelligence, cockiness, self-doubt, anger, etc. – are smushed into mere petulance.

But then comes the Seattle actor Tim Gouran (who’d worked previously with Palmer at Company of Fools in Idaho) as Tigg. In a theater season full of admirable acting performances, this is one of the finest I’ve seen: Measured, thoroughly considered while feeling off-the-cuff, infused with an understated charisma, framed in weariness (Tigg, we learn, is seriously ill) yet charged with an energy that’s at once desperate and deeply grounded. I’ll dip fully into (warranted) cliche: riveting, at moments, spine-tingling. Well worth a trip to Hillsboro.

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“I’m so sick of Mother Teresa! She’s just like Sally Jessy Raphael, only different. Oh my god, I’m rambling!”

Hoo-boy, is she ever! Delivering a firehose of a monologue about her adventures and altercations during a normal (?!) day amid the stress of the big city, the woman in Christopher Durang’s Laughing Wild is both a hoot and a worry. That is, amid the hilarity of her acidic opinions and unhinged antics are references to stints in mental hospitals and, despite a certain charm she has, a sense of barely contained menace. Brooke Totman gives all this a wonderful edgy energy, in a performance that’s full of fine, precise choices even as it feels like a brick glued to the accelerator. In a matching monologue and in an odd second-act duet, the ever-skillful Darius Pierce is just as impressive, presenting a character with greater self-control and self-awareness, but under no less pressure from a mad and maddening world.

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“Chicken & Biscuits” has one final weekend at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Shawnte Sims

This weekend also is your last chance to sop up some Chicken & Biscuits at Portland Playhouse, or to peruse the houseplants in Stumptown Stages’ Little Shop of Horrors.

One show only

The maddening part of Macbeth, to my mind, is that, the prophesies of the witches having come true so far, our rampaging protagonist seems to take their fantastical prediction about the manner of his death as assurance of his invincibility rather than as fair warning. Sometimes a little paranoia can be useful. But blunders (perhaps including that one?) apparently are the focus of Upon This Blasted Heath: a one-hour Macbeth, the latest site-specific presentation from Speculative Drama, a “live, immersive, outdoor performance exploring Shakespeare’s spookiest play from the perspective of Macbeth reliving his mistakes.” Dress for a tragic chill.

Reading is fundamental

The theatrical and the spooky are twinned and twined yet again in Venomous House, by Oregon Book Award-winner Steve Patterson, an “eerie play-within-a-play about a theater company rehearsing a new script about an infamous, reportedly true English ghost story.” Director Matt Zrebski, Patterson’s compatriot in Playwrights West – which is presenting this reading – brings his own skills in evoking the psychological and the macabre. 

The flattened stage

What better time for a Monster Chiller Double Feature?

The best line I read this week

“Lincoln’s day job is to dress up as his eponym at an arcade, smearing on whiteface and donning an old-timey coat and a stovepipe hat, all so that fun-seekers can ‘assassinate’ him with blanks. Lincoln is a professional ‘faux-father’ — a joke that appears in ‘The America Play,’ another drama that Parks wrote about a Black Abraham Lincoln impersonator. Long after the character’s first, creepy entrance in his arcade costume, Honest Abe stays in our thoughts —he’s the face on every penny that anybody ever earned, the reminder of a freedom that came with conditions.”

– Helen Shaw, reviewing Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog in The New Yorker.

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

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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