“Let me tell you somethin’, boy. You never know what’s comin’ … and the sooner you learn that, the better off you be!”
A few years ago, when playwright Rich Rubin approached Damaris Webb about directing some of his work, she chose the play Cottonwood in the Flood because it told a piece of history unfamiliar to her, the fascinating story of the 1948 Vanport flood. Left Hook, another Rubin play that Webb is directing, in a production that opens Thursday night at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, gets closer to a history she knows. Extending the story of the repeated displacement faced by Portland’s black community, Left Hook is set in the 1970s, as urban renewal roils the Albina neighborhood that had absorbed the black Vanport diaspora a quarter century earlier.
Webb, who has chronicled her bi-racial background in a solo show called The Box Marked Black, grew up in the Irvington neighborhood and none of her family was forced to relocate for the major construction projects of the era – Memorial Coliseum, the I-5 freeway, and an abortive expansion plan for Emanuel Hospital. But she recalls that during the development of Left Hook she was shown a photo of the Black Panthers Portland headquarters when it was in the midst of being shut down by city officials. She recognized someone in the photo: her father, who worked for the Portland Development Commission.
“I don’t think anyone ever sat me down and told me about it,” Webb says of the upheavals of the time. “But I remember hearing my dad talk about eminent domain and things like that. And then, there were all those empty lots everywhere.”
Rubin’s play gets at the tenor of those times through the travails of Ty King, a middle-aged black man who owns a boxing gym but hopes to ride the wave of change by starting his own construction company and grabbing a share of the money to be made in rebuilding all the vacated lots. Meanwhile, he has an ex-wife who wants her child-support checks, a pretty teenage daughter who’s distracting his most promising young fighter, and some old cronies who lack his boot-strap ambition and Army-bred discipline.
“Much like our jazz scene, we used to have a pretty healthy boxing scene in Portland, too,” Webb notes. She knows a little about the sweet science, having done some Golden Gloves boxing herself during the years she spent as an actor in New York. (She got into it while working on a devised group show about superheroes, she says.) More recently, she both acted in and provided the boxing choreography for Oregon Children’s Theatre’s And in This Corner: Cassius Clay (speaking of superheroes). Boxing and its culture are among many facets of local history she’s following, along with Rubin, and also with another collaborator, Laura Lo Forti.
Webb and Lo Forti co-founded Vanport Mosaic, a nonprofit that’s taking various approaches to sharing the Vanport story and to celebrating the sort of resiliency it represents. The organization’s festival to mark the 70th anniversary of the flood takes place through Monday.
For boxers, businessmen or communities, resilience is a necessity, because setbacks are inevitable, and often unexpected. “It’s no coincidence that Rich used that title,” Webb says. “That left hook can get you if you’re not careful.”
Instrument of truth
Comments from last week’s DramaWatch column, about the notion of actors sometimes “playing themselves” on stage, generated a small buzz on Facebook – partly in a thread on the page of Sharonlee McLean, whose recent performance at CoHo in Luna Gale definitely was NOT an example of that kind of thing but occasioned the discussion all the same, and partly in a thread on my own page. Lots of it was theater folk rightly reassuring McLean that her artistry and her artistic integrity are beyond reproach, but some other comments turned over other aspects of the issue.
The most trenchant comments, to my mind, came from Cate Garrison, formerly a critic and a Drammy committee member (as well as a performer, once in a very blue moon).
“In a way, I would challenge the notion that ‘playing oneself’ is an insult,” she wrote. “For an actor to give the impression he or she or they is (are?) playing (pronoun)self is an amazing feat. For me, Judi Dench comes to mind…
“If one likens the human body and voice to a piano or other instrument, then looks and gestures and tones are notes and strings and pedals … there are givens. To use these givens in a way that makes the audience think this is ‘self’ is astonishing.
“Sharonlee is the most truthful actor I know, not only in the words she says but in the silences between talking. … She lends her gestures of comfort to moments when her character seems comfortable, and thus gives us the impression that the character is self. What always amazes me is that she is also able to dig for the (rare) moments of confidence she has experienced in her life and lends THEM to her characters, so we think THAT is self.”
So far as I know, the hammers haven’t yet started swinging at Artists Repertory Theatre’s ArtsHub, but the pieces are flying around town now. With the sale of half of Artists Rep’s building leading to major renovations, major disruptions are on the way for the other arts companies that have used the building in recent years, either for performance space or administrative offices. The ArtsHub’s most visible tenant, Profile Theatre, appears to be headed across town. Portland Playhouse has just announced that it will host Profile for two shows late in the 2018-19 season. Lisa Kron’s Well and Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy will run in rotating rep for several weeks next May and June.
We’ll try to find out soon whether this is a stopgap move or a trial run for a longer-term arrangement.
Building a mystery
“I and this mystery, here we stand.” So says Walt Whitman in his poem Leaves of Grass, and so says Anthony, a studious and good-natured high-schooler in Laura Gunderson’s play I & You, as he tries to nudge a home-bound classmate into collaborating on an English-class project. It’s certainly not a mystery by genre, but several aspects make the Artists Rep production opening this weekend intriguing. The redoubtable JoAnn Johnson directs. The play won the 2014 Steinberg American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. Gunderson’s dialogue is warm and natural-sounding, funny without making a big deal of that, and should help make for endearing characters onstage. And apparently the play features a late plot twist so significant that it really ought not be spoiled.
I’ve long felt that if a literary device really works, it shouldn’t matter whether or not it’s a surprise. But sometimes I’m wrong about that. So for now I’m trusting the instincts of the other (respectful) reviewers I’ve read about the play, and the admonitions from Artists Rep publicist Nicole Lane that I not read the script all the way to the end.
So. Something to look forward to.
Third Rail Rep has chosen to present Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, so I’m just going to assume for now that the play is better than the title; or that the play, which the company advertises as a “comedy, a manifesto, an out of control pep rally” about tradition and language and modern womanhood, reveals an inherent wit and incisiveness I’ve simply yet to hear in the title. Rebecca Lingafelter directs, and the cast includes company stalwarts Maureen Porter and Rolland Walsh, so that’s all to the good.
Olga Sanchez Saltveit, formerly the much-loved artistic director of Milagro and now doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon, presents Tricks to Inherit, her English translation of a late-18th-century Spanish Enlightenment comedy by Fermin de Reygadas.
Rutabaga Story Company debuts with An Interlude in Birdsong by Eve Johnstone, at Shaking the Tree.
Having toured it around the country, Jane VanBoskirk comes home to Oregon (to The Old Church Concert Hall, specifically) with Eleanor Roosevelt: Across a Barrier of Fear, a solo show written by Sharon Whitney, about the former First Lady.
And lastly, Kwik Jones, a sort of guerilla theatermaker who has written, directed and produced plays off and on for a decade or more, returns with a single (free!) performance – at Kelly’s Olympian, no less – of Jupiter Is Stormy, a story of high-school nonconformists rocking metal and goth in a hip-hop world.
Time runs out this weekend on Milagro’s Watsonville: Some Place Not Here; Oregon Children’s Theatre’s awards-gobbling A Year With Frog & Toad; the haunting Noel Coward comedy Blithe Spirit at Bag & Baggage; and Todd Van Voris’ dazzling and endearing solo turn in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey for Triangle Productions.