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DramaWatch: On national anthems and land acknowledgements

Looking at sports and theater and the meanings of rituals, new and old. Plus "The Great Leap," Portland Panthers and more.

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Across the giant stadium, the buzz of the crowd settles down to an expectant murmur as a man’s voice – strong, clear, perched precisely between ceremonious and genial – calls out over the public address system. “Welcome to SoFi Stadium for the National Football League championship game, Super Bowl 56!” The crowd roars in excitement for a long moment, then the voice continues.

“At this time, we would like to acknowledge that our great city and our facility rest on the lands of the Chumash, the Kizh and especially the Tongva tribes, peoples still living in our community, and that the NFL is committed to redressing the wrongs of colonization and promoting economic and social justice for all citizens.”

Meanwhile, in a small theater, several dozen patrons look up from their playbills and cell phones  as a young, stylishly dressed black woman steps onstage and greets them with sweet enthusiasm. “Hello! And welcome to this afternoon’s performance of ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ by Bertolt Brecht. Before we get started, we ask you to please first silence your electronic devices…

“And now stand and join in singing our national anthem!”

***

Or perhaps I’ve imagined that backwards.

America is a freewheeling democracy, more so culturally these days than politically, yet it still makes room for the ritualistic. And one of the longstanding rituals of major American sports – performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before each contest – increasingly has its contrasting counterpart in the performing arts: the land acknowledgement. On the surface, to experience one and then the other feels very different. They seem to speak to – or for, or about – different worlds, almost. One is proud, triumphal, an assertion of unity and strength. The other – still evolving as it becomes a more common practice – can feel similarly ceremonial, but implicitly or explicitly calls attention to injustices, both historical and ongoing. Strength and unity aren’t so much the celebrated status quo as the promised vision still to be earned.

At the risk of generalizing, one resonates with conservative norms and values, the other with progressive concerns and aspirations. They can feel, almost, like the welcome mats to two different Americas.

Shorn of context, neither seems particularly relevant to its setting. What has a song of national pride to do with ball games between rival schools or between professionals from different cities? Why a reminder of colonial history before we settle in for some Shakespeare or Neil Simon? How’d we get here, anyway?

Cover of sheet music for “The Star-Spangled Banner” [words by Francis Scott Key], transcribed for piano by Ch. Voss, Philadelphia: G. Andre & Co., 1862. Project Gutenberg/Wikimedia Commons.

Most historical accounts suggest that playing The Star-Spangled Banner in conjunction with sporting events was an occasional occurrence as far back as the latter half of the 19th century, but that it started to become a ritualized part of sports during the 1918 baseball World Series. At a game in Chicago, the band began playing the song during the seventh-inning stretch. Whether because of the rising toll of American World War I casualties at the time, the pall of a recent domestic terror attack in the city, or the presence of active-duty military members among the ballplayers, the song turned around a notably glum mood in the stadium and was widely remarked upon in the press. Not to be outdone, when the series switched to Boston, the Red Sox played the song as part of pre-game festivities and paraded wounded soldiers across the field. Over time, the song grew from a holiday or playoff specialty into a standard feature.

Native land acknowledgements may sound to some like newfangled expressions of liberal guilt, but they have their origin in the centuries-old welcoming practices of many Native American cultures, as an offering of thanks and an honoring of relationships. The practice has lately been adapted by and to a growing movement among colleges, civic groups and cultural organizations toward racial equity and inclusion, and in particular received a nudge with the publication in 2020 of a list of “demands” from a collective of “Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) theatremakers” called We See You, White American Theater.

Portland Center Stage managing director Cynthia Fuhrman recalls first noticing the practice several years ago at meetings of the national industry organization Theatre Communications Group, where she’s had two stints as a board member. PCS made its first land acknowledgement in 2018 in conjunction with And So We Walked, a play by Cherokee actor/writer DeLanna Studi about her family connection to the legacy of the infamous Trail of Tears. “We put it in the program and on a sign in the lobby, we didn’t do it as a spoken thing,” Fuhrman recalls. “Then we thought, ‘Why are we only doing it with a Native-themed play?’” With the arrival of Marissa Wolf as artistic director, the acknowledgement became a standard part of the pre-show “curtain speech.”

Cherokee actor/writer DeLanna Studi in her play “And So We Walked” at The Armory. Photo: Bert VanderVeen for Triad Stage

One byproduct of Studi’s work at PCS is that she and Fuhrman found out that they are cousins, and Fuhrman is in the process of getting her Cherokee citizenship (her maternal grandfather and great-grandmother were listed on a late-18th-century Cherokee census). But the acknowledgements are much more than a personal matter for Fuhrman. “We have a mission centered around elevating all voices,” she says. “And I think they fit that, in a way that I think the national anthem doesn’t. It’s not a perfect comparison – the anthem to the land acknowledgement. But I’ve always thought “The Star-Spangled Banner” was manipulative, a way to just generate emotion.”

By contrast, she sees land acknowledgements as “a way of putting a marker around awareness of power dynamics, that our privilege of being in this space doesn’t come with no cost. It’s a way of recognizing the history but acknowledging the present as well – that this is still a present population and one that we need to do better by. What’s happened in the U.S. is that history is not all that long ago but we haven’t been taught that; the history has often been wiped clean: ‘Oh, there were Indians, but they kept moving west and then they all got beat up by John Wayne and now they’re gone.’

“I think the pendulum has swung to, ‘We’ve got to get the truth out.’”

Brian Weaver, artistic director and co-founder of Portland Playhouse, credits actor La’Tevin Alexander with recommending and writing the first land acknowledgement at his theater, about three years ago. Since then the statement has gone through “about seven different drafts, so there’s a lot of shared ownership” and it is invoked not just before performances but at the first rehearsal of each production and at quarterly board meetings. At present, the Portland Playhouse pre-show speech includes references to Native lands yet also the fact that more recently the company’s building was a Baptist church for a surrounding Black community.

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“For us, it’s meaningful. It’s a vocalization of our values. We do all our house speeches live, which feels like a welcome and invites people to the kind of environment we want to create.” 

Weaver’s background offers him familiarity with the cultural homes of both anthem and acknowledgement. “I grew up in Virginia; I went to Washington Redskins games and NASCAR races,” he says. “But I grew up a Mennonite, so I’ve always been against displays of national pride. Not standing for the anthem or showing some opposition is the norm.”

Perhaps that upbringing, as much as working in theater, explains how caught short Weaver is when asked if he’d ever consider playing the national anthem before a play.

“That idea has never crossed my mind,” he says after a stunned silence. “I’m just trying to imagine – the Playhouse staff is fairly activist. I can’t imagine what the mood would be if I suggested that. I think it would be divisive.”

Both Weaver and Fuhrman speak of the need to make sure that land acknowledgements aren’t merely rote statements but that they be followed up with the real work of restorative justice. Whether through initiatives such as opening their spaces to community groups, offering tickets to Native individuals, or putting more Native stories and artists onstage, they see authentic relationship-building as the key – the piece that in turn makes the spoken acknowledgement both active and meaningful, as rituals should be.

“If anything, we’re losing more and more rituals as time goes on,” says Weaver. “So it’s nice that we’re gaining one.” 

At Southeast Portland’s Shaking the Tree, you won’t hear a pre-show acknowledgement. But that’s much more an aesthetic choice than a political one.

“We’ve never done a pre-show speech,’ says artistic director Samantha Van Der Merwe. “I want to have the audience walk into an environment that’s altered, and having a speech beforehand works against that, I feel.”

But during the 2018-19 season, someone who rented the theater for a show put up a land-acknowledgement sign, “and I thought that was really beautiful, Van Der Merwe recalls. Since then, she’s included a statement on the theater’s website and in show programs.

“I’m a little bit scared that it’s something that companies do because it makes us look like we’re doing the right thing,” she says. “But when I hear one, it brings me to a place of remembrance, back to a place that we need to return to.”

Remembrance is something on which Van Der Merwe has a good perspective. She grew up in South Africa, during the era of white minority rule and Apartheid. “South Africa had to go through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It had to spend a long time trying to face what it had done. The only way through is through.”

For reasons somewhat similar to Weaver’s she’s not an anthem fan, whatever nation she’s in. “Growing up in a country that didn’t separate church and state, I felt it was really thrust upon me,” she says. 

But she points to an interesting part of more recent South African experience that perhaps suggests an intriguing new American dream.

For decades “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” or “God Bless Africa,” a 19th-century hymn in the Xhosa language, served as a protest song for the country’s Black majority. After the fall of the white supremacist regime, the country for a time had two official national anthems – the earlier anthem, a song in Afrikaans called “Die Stem van Suid-Afri​​ka,” as well as “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” – in a sense, one for Blacks and one for Whites. But by 1997, portions of both songs were merged into a new National Anthem of South Africa, with verses alternating in Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English.

“To meld those two songs, and have that be the nation’s song was really unifying,” Van Der Merwe says.

Perhaps, she suggests, the spirit of awareness and inquiry – of, yes, truth and reconciliation – that land acknowledgements, at their best, seek to promote, might someday help us reach a point where the ideals of American unity and strength and justice will feel real and present for us all, where a land acknowledgement will be accepted as a celebration and the national anthem (maybe even one as intrinsically jingoistic and retrograde as “The Star-Spangled Banner”?) will be a reminder of the work we’re all engaged in together. 

I’ll put my hand on my heart while imagining that.

The flattened stage

Opening

The fascinating work of Vanport Mosaic in both art and social history continues this weekend with a three-day event at Cerimon House called All Power to the People: Remembering the Legacy of the Black Panther Party in Portland, recalling the 1960s activist group and linking its plans to the challenges of our time. Among its components are a slide show narrated by former Panther Kent Ford, the screening of a short documentary, panel discussions, and a screening of Vanport Mosaic’s recent Fertile Ground festival performance SOUL’D; the Economics of Our Black Body. Of greatest interest for theater fans may be a staged reading of a newly commissioned play about Ford, Walking Through Portland With a Panther. Written by Don Wilson Glenn, who wrote last fall’s rich historical satire Martha Bakes, and directed by Mosaic cofounder Damaris Webb, the reading will feature the talented Portland Playhouse regular La’Tevin Alexander. 

Closing

For basketball fans in Portland, these are rough days. The city’s NBA team, the Trail Blazers, is in the midst of what the patiently optimistic might call a roster reconstruction but that to the skeptical looks like tanking. And then there’s the Lauren Yee play on the boards through Sunday at Portland Center Stage, The Great Leap.

Though its title plays on the so-called Great Leap Forward, a late-1950s program of social and economic reconstruction in Maoist China (which factors into the psychological backstory for one of the main characters), Yee’s story is set in 1989, with a few flashbacks to 1971. In the earlier period, an American basketball coach has come to Beijing to teach the game, after which his translator himself becomes a basketball coach. In the main storyline, the two coaches are to meet again 18 years later, when the American brings his college team for an exhibition game. Meanwhile, a cocky high school point guard is determined to join the college squad for the trip, hiding his motives behind bluster more dazzling than his crossover.  

Darius Pierce and Kenneth Lee in the Portland Center Stage/Artists Rep co-production of “The Great Leap.” Photo: Owen Carey

Yee has some strong material here – in the caustic humor of the crass American coach in career crisis (played here by the reliably precise and engaging Darius Pierce); in the intertwined themes of divisions and connections across borders as well as across generations; in the tension between conformism and courage; in an examination of not just the price of freedom, but of its relative value. And the PCS production, directed by Zi Alikhan, features winning performances all around, at least enough so to mitigate some of the weaknesses of Yee’s standard-issue sports-drama plot construction.

And yet, in order to make all of its mingled – and quite resonant, I’ll admit – familial and geopolitical points come together, Yee’s plot stacks headscratchers atop wild implausibilities, wedging in spurious assumptions like shims in sloppy carpentry. A high school kid whose custodial parent has just died forges a “permission slip” and this somehow passes muster with the State Department? A foreign visitor bequeathes a coaching job to a translator with no experience or interest in basketball? An international sporting event, significant enough to be broadcast, is announced only a month before it occurs; and the local newspaper in San Francisco runs a prominent story about it that happens to be on the same page with…the obituaries? And so on.

Additionally, I still can’t decide whether Yee’s closing scene – which ties the story up and ties it to one of the most memorable and mysterious images of political protest of the past half-century – is an inspired moment of insight into the human spirit or an incredibly cheap gambit.

All that said, The Great Leap gives you plenty to feel and plenty to think about. Maybe, these days, that’s the kind of leap we need plays to make – whether or not they land gracefully.

Also ending this weekend will be the touring Broadway production of the is-or-isn’t-she-a-princess quasi-historical fantasy Anastasia, and Triangle Productions’ art-world culture clash Bakersfield Mist.

Following the leaders

For some reason it always seems that changes to the top posts at Portland arts organizations come in clusters. These days, we’re in the middle of one of those clusters, with a handful of artistic director jobs open. Portland Actors Conservatory needs to replace its founder, Beth Harper. Corrib Theatre founder Gemma Whelan chose her own successor a few months ago, only to later announce that Justine Nakase wouldn’t be able to take over after all.

While those searches are ongoing, there’s a little bit of development in the transition at Artists Repertory Theatre, which has announced the hiring of a search firm, the Boston-based Arts Consulting Group, to find what will be just the third artistic director in the theater’s 40-year history. 

Though the Artists Rep press release doesn’t specify, it’s a reasonable guess that the work to replace former ART leader Damaso Rodriguez will be led ACG’s new Portland-based vice-president, Damaso Rodriguez.

Second-hand news

“Dominique Morisseau’s new play, set in a Detroit automotive plant, is, among other things, about the subtle and ever-shifting class distinctions among Black people,” reads the sub-headline on a recent review in The New Yorker.

Yes. Very interesting. But…new play? Well, sure –  if from your vantage point New York isn’t just the center of culture but also the center of time. Out here on the Northwestern edge of things, though, we’ve already known Morisseau’s play Skeleton Crew from a high-test 2018 production at Artists Rep

All the same, the, um, new Skeleton Crew review by Vinson Cunningham is a piece of criticism worth reading. “Morisseau, in her work, is in conversation with several other contemporary Black women artists interested in kinship and class, and in the thrilling music of talk, even in troubled times…This congress among probing, precise artists is one of the most exciting things happening in the theatre today.” 

Best line I read this week

“When love beckons to you, follow him,

Though his ways are hard and steep.

And when his wings enfold you yield to him,

Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And when he speaks to you believe in him,

Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.” 

From “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran

(DramaWatch wishes you all a happy – or at least a meaningful – Valentine’s Day.)

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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