Lauren Steele can’t say what it was about her that seems to have so impressed Cyndy Smith-English, managing director of Clackamas Repertory Theatre. After all, Steele was a young actor who hadn’t done much with the company, just a bit part and understudying for one play there. Even so, in 2019 Smith-English and her husband David, the Rep’s artistic director, cast Steele in a play called Queens Girl in the World, for which she was the sole performer, portraying a veritable community through the experiences and perspective of a young girl growing up in early 1960s New York.
“I don’t know what it is that they saw,” Steele says now, as she prepares to reprise the role of Jacqueline Marie Butler in a sequel, called Queens Girl in Africa. “I hadn’t really done much here. But I’d gone and got my degree and at school I got leads, which no one here was giving me. So, I wasn’t totally thrown to the wolves, but I also kept thinking, ‘You’re sure you want me doing this?’”
To say that Steele proved a revelation in the role would be incontrovertible – unless, like Smith-English, you’d already had a glimpse of Steele’s talent and charisma. I first encountered Steele (whose mother is the prominent Portland singer LaRhonda Steele) not long after she’d won the Portland region of the August Wilson Monologue Competition and competed against other high schoolers in the national finals in New York. At the time, in 2014, she was performing in the musical Parade for Staged!
“Lauren’s going to be one of those people who performs on Broadway as her day job, then writes and DJs and does a half-dozen other things on the side,” said Chanda Hall, artistic director of Staged!, in an article I wrote for Artslandia. Steele’s own term for her varied ambitions was, “I’m gonna pull a Maya Angelou.”
She’s working on it. She earned a theater degree (with a focus on playwriting) from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and since returning home she’s recorded three singles and is finishing an album she hopes to release this summer.
And Clackamas Rep was so sold on Steele’s abilities, director Damaris Webb says, that they didn’t cast her in Queens Girl so much as find the play for her. “They were looking for a project specifically to feature Lauren.”
Steele’s return to the role, like nearly everything, was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Clackamas Rep originally scheduled Queens Girl in Africa, the second play of a trilogy by Caleen Sinnette Jennings, to open last fall, until the surge of the Omicron virus variant led the company to postpone public performances.
Webb recalls that the production already was in technical rehearsals when the company decided on postponement. “I felt like we were in a great place – all the T’s were crossed, the I’s were dotted. We videoed the last run-through and then said, ‘Goodbye. Maybe we’ll see each other next year.’”
The eventual schedule wound up keeping both Webb and Steele busy: Webb will be directing Steele, among others, in the Western-themed musical Bella: an American Tall Tale at Portland Playhouse. Rehearsals for that production begin just a few days after Thursday’s opening of Queens Girl.
However dotted and crossed, Steele appreciated the extra time to absorb audiobooks and Nollywood films to help her inhabit the time and place, which in the second play is Nigeria from 1965 to 1967. In Queens Girl in the World, young Jackie has navigated the high expectations of her polished and professional parents, the emotional minefields of early adolescence and an eye-opening transition from her predominantly black neighborhood in the burrough to the white, liberal realm of a private school in Greenwich Village. The play starts in the awkwardly charming innocence of childhood, but as the times would have it, circumstances grow more serious, and the first installment’s denouement is the murder of Malcolm X: Jackie’s father, a friend of the slain leader, is so shaken that he decides to move his family back to the African motherland.
Queens Girl in Africa works just fine as a stand-alone play, but also as a seamless continuation of the story. “I was Queens Jackie,” she muses early on. “And Greenwich Village Jackie. Who will Africa Jackie be?” Once again, Jennings’ direct, detail-rich writing (“Raindrops look like diamond earrings on the flowers”) laces a compelling coming-of-age story with other powerful strains – the search for both individual identity and social belonging, the challenges of abutting cultures, the trickiness of political alignments, the unpredictability of historical tides.
The story’s themes resonate particularly with actor and director alike.
“Any black person who has grown up here has had to wrestle with multiple identities,” Steele says. “I know I have – growing up in a traditionally African-American neighborhood, then in a gentrified neighborhood, then going to a conservative, religious, mostly white college in Texas and finding solace in the arts.”
Webb’s life carries stronger echoes of young Jackie’s. “The play ends in Nigeria in 1967; I was born in ‘67 in Tanzania, where my parents were working for USAID (United States Agency for International Development),” she says. A few years later, Webb’s family would return to Africa. “I have memories of leaving the U.S. and going to Botswana and being in such a different place.
“I remember my father getting frustrated trying to grow a lawn in sub-Saharan Africa,” she laughs. “He kept trying all these different kinds of grass seed, but none of them worked…So I was much younger than Jackie is in the play, but I have lots of memories of governmental housing and multinational playmates and those sorts of experiences.”
Queens Girl in the World starts out cute and sweet but deepens as it goes. In …Africa the lines of tension are clearer earlier on. So do the artists consider it a darker play?
“It’s darker in terms of world circumstances,” Steele acknowledges. “Jackie even has a line near the end: ‘I’m leaving my parents in tribal-war-torn Nigeria to return to race-war-torn America.’ But I think it’s lighter in terms of her personal development. She ages two years within the show but I think her innocence remains, in that she’s optimistic and wants to think the best of everyone.”
“I don’t know if it’s darker but I would say it’s more mature,” adds Webb. “Yes, there’s violence and tanks in the street; but there’s also the joy of life and friendship and discovering yourself.”
“Through music and song and dance and projection and movement and poetry these women conjure the past and challenge us to create a better future where the power of the feminine is restored.” That was director Gemma Whelan, quoted in a recent ArtsWatch feature by Danielle Vermette, describing one of the season’s most anticipated shows: CoHo Productions’ In the Name of Forgotten Women.
But sometimes, especially these days, anticipation is just waiting-plus.
“On Tuesday, a member of the Forgotten Women cast tested positive for Covid-19,” CoHo announced last week in a press release. “While the actor is asymptomatic, our team at CoHo places great emphasis on protecting the health and well-being of both our staff, cast/crew, and patron community. We are proud to be a Covid-cautious theater, and after careful consideration, we’ve made the difficult decision to postpone Opening Night for one more week….All shows between March 24 – 27th have been canceled. Preview will now take place on Thursday, March 31st at 7:30 PM, and Opening Night has been rescheduled to Friday, April 1st at 7:30 PM. We’ve also added two Wednesday night performances (4/6 and 4/13) and Closing Night will now take place on Sunday, April 17th at 2 PM.”
The Comedy of Errors isn’t Shakespeare’s most artful play, but with its simple plot and farcical spirit it can be great fun. The company Speculative Drama, back with its first in-person presentation since 2020, wants to put you in the middle of the fun with an immersive staging. Perhaps to help you feel at ease, instead of ancient Greece you’ll find yourself in “a world inspired by ’90s sitcoms, Kevin Smith movies, and small-town politics.” Director Myrrh Larsen sets the tale of twins and mistaken identities amid the queer community of a little coastal town.
Created by an interdisciplinary company of Peruvian artists called Fílmico, El Apellido Comienza Conmigo/The Name Begins With Me delves into corruption and patriarchy in both society and family, using film, still images and other design along with the writing and performance of director Chaska Mori. In Spanish, with projected English translation, Mori recounts her return to Peru, where she intends to build a house with an inheritance left by her father, and her struggles against the squatters on her land and a judicial system that favors strength over justice.
One night only
Spoiler alert!: Critics often are wrong.
A decade or so ago, whenever the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art brought the multi-faceted performance artist Taylor Mac to town for the Time-Based Art festival, the shows always won raves from the audiences, fellow artists, etc.
I never liked them. But, what do I know?
In retrospect, Mac’s slippery magic with the myriad tropes of gender, sexuality, and culture (high, low, mass, niche and so on) was smarter and more audacious than I was able to comprehend at the time. Fortunately, more perceptive perspectives won out, and Mac has moved from the fringes to something closer to cultural (if not exactly commercial) prominence; so much so that the ambitious show A 24-Decade History of Popular Music was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and an artist who claims to prefer the pronoun “Judy” is being presented by the Oregon Symphony. Built with songs spanning 1776 to 2016, it’s – as the Pulitzer committee put it – “an inspired bardic creation that involves the audience in a marathon musical journey that challenges the persistent societal demons of racism, sexism and homophobia.”
“What a triumph! What a show!!”
By the time the disembodied voice of a public address announcer rings out with those lines at the end of Shaking the Tree’s Chick Fight, we’re not much inclined to trust him. After all, we’ve heard him (voiced by the sharp comic actor Sam Dinkowitz) hyping and coercing and manipulating the two women at the center of this flippantly named but fascinatingly thoughtful show; or rather, he manipulates the social narratives and psychological games they feel they have to play – involving competion for sexual status, myths of romantic fulfilment, the pressure of maternal ideals or a veritable M.C. Escher staircase of double-standards in politics.
He’s celebrating a “winner” to the knock-down, drag-out brawl we’ve witnessed, and in that regard those lines are a creepy bit of crowing. But as a critical assessment of Chick Fight as a whole, they’re spot on.
The exact nature of the triumph is a bit hard to describe. Arrayed around the theater are several installations, allusive dioramas constructed of items from broken teacups to Barbie dolls, pyres to smartphones, evoking such archetypes of female character as the witch, the housewife, Medusa and so forth; these offer a lot to unpack and are worth arriving early to appreciate before the action begins. That action is, well, a chick fight of sorts, as that voice of presumed male authority goads a pair of women into a fight they’re often not sure they really want. Kayla Hanson and Rebby Yuer Foster both are fiercely engaging performers who helped devise the piece along with playwright Sara Jean Accuardi and director/set designer Samantha Van Der Merwe. Let’s just say they’re all champs.
The flattened stage
Best line I read this week
“I was not myself, but if I was not myself, how did I know that? It was as if the old me, the authentic me, were inside, struggling to break free of the forces that had inhabited its body. The ghost within. … Ghosts haunt themselves into being.”
– from The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness, by Meghan O’Rourke, quoted in a review in The New York Times.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.