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Exploring race through theater at The Reser

Recent productions "North" and Red Door Project’s "The Evolve Experience" highlight the Beaverton arts center’s socially responsive programming.

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Patricia Reser Center for the Arts presented North: The Musical. Photo: Juliet Parker Photography.

Back in the 1980s, ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban remembers, she walked one of her fellow Beaverton Arts Commission members to her car after a meeting at City Hall. At some point in their conversation, the commissioner, a middle-aged Black woman, said that she had been stopped in that parking lot by a police officer, and questioned — and not for the first time. Choban was stunned. Like a lot of white people, especially pre-George Floyd murder, she initially couldn’t imagine that such things still happened.

Choban, who was born in Beaverton and lived in the area most of her life, soon learned that the city’s police force had a reputation for such racist behavior. Of course, much has changed in Beaverton (although not enough), in Oregon, and in the United States. But as the events of 2020 spotlighted the long, depressing, sometimes deadly record of even present-day police encounters with Black Americans, even oblivious white Americans could no longer wrongly assume that the bad old days of racist police practices were safely consigned to the past. Many Oregonians of different racial backgrounds are working to address those problems, and the fears and divisions that troubled past and present has sown.

One such group, Portland’s Red Door Project, brought to Beaverton its latest presentation, The Evolve Experience, which revolves around the often tense relationship between white police officers and the Black men they’re supposed to protect and serve. The performance, and the guided audience response after it, revealed how that relationship might start to improve — and how receptive Beaverton and other communities might be to making it happen.

The performance venue represented another change in Beaverton. Since opening two years ago, the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts has energized the arts scene west of the Tualatin Hills. Over its first couple of seasons, the Reser’s eclectic, multicultural programming has been bringing diverse shows that might not otherwise have made it to Washington County and the rest of the Portland Metro area — and not just during Black History Month. (The center is conveniently located at a stop on the Max Blue Line and served by a dozen bus lines.)

Earlier in February, the 550-seat Reser presented another new show, North, a family-friendly musical that explores an important historical chapter in the Black American experience, at a moment when too many American politicians are determined to erase those inconvenient historical truths from our schools. Both shows, and others, reveal that The Reser isn’t only providing a welcome new outlet for both touring and local performances, but also that it’s committed to programming that addresses some of our most urgent social concerns. And the audience response to both, including strong attendance at both shows I saw, suggests that this community is eager to embrace it.

Escape from Enslavement

Although not strictly a premiere, The Reser’s February 3-4 production of North represented some important first steps. A co-commission involving a quartet of regional theaters, the show was the venue’s first venture into musical theater, Executive Director Chris Ayzoukian said before the show. It was also involved in the show’s continuing development, giving the artists a residency to workshop this version of the production. 

North is also the debut musical theater creation of composer, musician, and vocalist Ashli St. Armant, who doesn’t appear in the show, but whose irrepressible charisma shone in the post-show talkback presented onstage with the cast. She fronts a band specializing in jazz for young audiences; and North, too, although not clearly marketed as such, is definitely a family-friendly show that could and should be performed in high schools, yet can also hold the stage for general audiences. 

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At the talkback, St. Armant recalled having a “traumatic experience” when watching the famous Roots TV series, and wanted to tell a story set in America’s shameful pre-Civil War South that didn’t focus on the horrors of slavery, and allowed “small moments of passing Black joy.”

The cast members nodded. Of course it’s important — essential even, despite today’s resurgent school history curriculum whitewashing — for art to document white supremacist brutality and oppression. And not just slavery — even in my lifetime, Black Americans didn’t enjoy full legal equality until the mid-1960s passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, to say nothing of the de facto segregation, discrimination, and oppression that have continued since, well, 1619.

Bag&Baggage Productions Artistic Director Nik Whitcomb (l) hosted the North post-show talkback.

But we need stories of Black joy, triumph and freedom, too, not least to inspire more action toward real equality. And those stories are harder to come by. (“Soldier, slave, soldier, soldier slave,” sighed one actor during the talkback, recounting his recent pre-North roles.) North definitely qualifies. Set in the 1850s, the story, based partly on St. Armant’s own ancestors’ experiences and other true stories, follows the winding path toward freedom from a Louisiana plantation to the Kansas plains to Canadian salvation. 

“In our time, the Underground Railroad has become a polite way, a kind of kinder, gentler way of talking about the horrors of slavery,” author Scott Shane told National Public Radio recently. “And in part, that’s because it’s a story of liberation; it’s basically a good news story and also, I think, because it provides a role for warm-hearted white people. [But] this was a small number of activists taking grave risks to help people to freedom and a very, very dangerous thing and something that was seen by most abolitionists at the time as too dangerous.” 

For all its lively, endearing character drama, I wish North had conveyed more of that sense of danger. Focusing exclusively on the good guys slights conflict-driven dramatic tension. Sure, after Roots, 13 Years a Slave and all the rest, any audience is always aware of the constant danger of recapture and its consequences.

But except for a fleeting, and chilling, glimpse of a couple of plantation owners haggling over an enslaved subject’s sale price, we never see the oppressors or pursuers. The characters do have their disagreements and misunderstandings along their journey, but the current version of the story suffers from insufficient suspense, and comes off almost picaresque. Joy tastes even sweeter when set off with some bitterness.

The lack of tension is compounded by the show’s length, more than two hours with intermission. Some of the second-act history comes off a bit muddled, and John Brown is portrayed more benevolently than his other exploits would suggest. Other historical highlights shone brightly: The Maroons segment, set in spooky Bayou country — was a particular highlight. 

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Though North succeeds in making important history positively engaging, this story could be told in a tight hour, which would undoubtedly appeal to the high school audience, like the teens next to us who started getting squirmy midway through a sometimes plodding first act. (The pace, and song quality, picked up after intermission.) They, like us, also had trouble hearing some of the dialogue up in the balcony. Sound balancing recorded music and dialogue is notoriously tricky, and The Reser will no doubt be tweaking settings and levels for awhile after this debut effort. 

Maybe to win over the wee kids, North includes a caricatured, over-the-top minor character whose forced antics seemed pasted in from a different show than the suitable-for-high-school performance the others were in. The acting was otherwise solid, especially triple-threat (potent voice, persuasive stage presence, dancer’s grace) Alyssa Holmes in the lead role of Minnie. Her complex, dexterously drawn mother-son relationship with Lawrence (Don Cameron) provided the dramatic fuel that ultimately pulled us through their geographical and historical journey.

Tyler, Marshall, Alyssa Holmes and Don Cameron in North: The Musical. Photo: Juliet Parker Photography.

St. Armant’s catchy original music drew on classic jazz, musical theater, and African influences, and L.A.-based designer Christopher Scott Murillo’s evocative, deceptively simple sets almost stole the show, finding delightful multiple uses for simple fabric props like umbrellas. Jo Jo Siu’s eye-catching costumes suited and enhanced the characters, while St. Armant’s snappy direction, and Monik C. Jones’s inventive, compelling choreography and movement helped compensate for occasional dramatic stasis. 

Since the script doesn’t require expensive or complex design elements, it’s easy to see a more compact North having a long, fruitful second life in school productions. And the excellent online supplemental materials both reduced the need for contrived exposition and provided a useful learning resource for classrooms and homes. 

I hope it does. With some tightening and tweaking, the affecting, sometimes humorous North could provide a winning dose of joyful truth about a dark, dangerous, and sadly still relevant era of our complicated national story.

Experiencing Evolution

On the last weekend in February, the Reser hosted another theater project revolving around anti-Black racism, this one very much set in the present. For years, Portland’s Red Door Project has been bringing an artistic perspective to the tense relationship between police and Oregon’s Black community. But rather than leave the exploration onstage, Red Door (which ArtsWatch has been covering since 2012) also invites audience members to participate in discussions about the issues dramatized, aiming not just to move and enlighten them, but also to foster self-exploration about their own reactions. (Check out Bobby Bermea’s fascinating 2018 ArtsWatch story about Red Door’s earlier show Cop Out.) Its productions have been staged for police departments, including several in Portland’s suburbs and, soon, in California. 

For more background on Red Door and Evolve, check out Dave Miller’s characteristically engrossing recent interview with Artistic Director and Co-Founder Kevin Jones and Interim Portland Police Chief Bob Day on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud.

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According to Jones’s pre-show comments from the stage with co-creator Leslie Mones, The Evolve Experience advances Red Door’s previous approach by putting characters in dramatic interaction with each other other, rather than delivering monologues directly to the audience, a la Anna Deavere Smith. “What would [the characters] say differently?” they and writer/dramaturg Adam Krugman asked themselves. “How would they change? How would the audience change?” That’s a superpower of drama: figuratively transporting audiences to another world, rather than speaking to us directly, reaches us emotionally in a completely different way. 

But The Evolve Experience isn’t intended to be conventional drama. The production involves a whole lot of moving parts, including eight writers, short films, sound effects and light underscoring, extensive pre- and post-show discussion, and more. It’s way more than simply a play, so audiences should know going in that it will be different, though not necessarily how. 

For one thing, we weren’t really supposed to fully immerse ourselves in this drama’s waking dream. Even before the action began, Mones and Jones specifically enjoined us not to fully immerse ourselves in the unfolding drama, but to simultaneously observe our own reactions to the story unfolding before us. They asked us to notice when we resonated with an action, when we agreed or disagreed with a character, when we grew uncomfortable. Not to judge ourselves, but, in what sounded a bit Buddhist, merely to observe ourselves with curiosity. It felt a bit like being a subject of a social psychology experiment – an important, deeply considered and engaging one. 

The story also intentionally omitted specifics, as in a Beckett play, so it felt less real than dramatizing an actual or imagined incident. All we knew is that a Citizen (affectingly played by Antonio Lyons) was in some kind of encounter/discussion session with an Officer (presumably intended to be white, although the actor, Joseph Perez Bertot, was later revealed in audience Q&A to be Latino). They were together not because the latter was, say, arresting the former, but specifically to debate an issue, with characters telling each other what they felt rather than showing it through action, which automatically created some emotional detachment. Nevertheless, it showed that, as we all see from our era’s antisocial media, exchanging monologues doesn’t add up to conversation — which is, in fact, part of Red Door’s point.

The main action was frequently interrupted by short interpolated video monologues involving other unrelated characters telling their own stories of racism and law enforcement in standard monologue format — two judges pondering potentially life-changing decisions; a police officer facing burnout from community hostility and his own fears (“half the world thinks you’re a monster, the other half thinks you’re a clown”); a harrowing autobiographical monologue about a Black driver’s encounter with a white Lake Oswego (“Lake No-Negro”) police officer. (I’d seen a version of that last one, written by one of Portland’s finest actor/playwrights, Josie Seid, in Media Rites’ estimable The -ism Project anthology, though Seid was curiously not credited in Evolve’s printed program, which listed other notable Portland playwrights including E.M. Lewis, Bonnie Ratner, Andrea Stolowitz and others.) As gripping as they were, the videos did have the effect of pulling attention out of the main stage story. 

To say more about the actual content of the stories might actually undermine the effect of encountering them live — which , when the next opportunity presents itself, I thoroughly recommend to anyone interested in one of the most pressing issues of our time and place. It’s important for audience members to respond in the moment, unprepared, so that we can then observe and later ponder our own reactions. Such self-examination seems to be a principal goal of the Red Door Project. 

What I can say is that I was moved by much of what I saw onstage, even though there’s a lot of exposition needed in a show like this, which transcends the individual characters’ experiences. If that contextual exposition, at times a bit like a dramatized TED Talk, sometimes undercuts a traditional dramatic experience, for me, the benefits outweighed the costs. In fact, it was actually kinda thrilling to be confronting drama, and fraught social issues, in new and different ways. The problems the show addresses seem frustratingly resistant to positive change, so it’s exciting to see this team of artists and activists experimenting with innovative approaches to overcoming our persistent predicaments.

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Beyond the Stage

Given Red Door’s ultimate objective of changing minds, the stage action might have been less important than the audience reaction. Given Beaverton’s racial history, I was especially interested in seeing how the overwhelmingly white audience responded.

Granted, one performance hardly constitutes a representative sample of anything. First, it’s hard to know how many audience members actually hailed from The Reser’s home city, since it’s easily accessible to public transit riders or car drivers coming from more diverse nearby communities in Portland, Hillsboro, and beyond. Also, anyone buying a ticket to this show is probably already predisposed to hearing non-white perspectives on policing. And it’s unfair and likely inaccurate to generalize about a whole community’s attitudes on race based on only a few anecdotes and statements.

Still, I was impressed by how seriously the audience members who stayed — at least 100, I’d guess, more than I’ve ever seen at a talkback— engaged with the show. Almost everyone seemed to be leaning forward, closely following the conversations. Staffers brought microphones to nine people who raised their hands to speak, some in trembling or choked voices. Time ran out before others could join the feedback frenzy. 

What upset them? Characters interrupting each other, several said. Characters cussing. Those understandable objections suggest that expressing Black anger, however justified, made white questioners uncomfortable. I admit it bothered me at first, too. Yet as the onstage dialogue revealed, simply exchanging information shorn of emotional affect denies the harsh reality underlying Black fear. The Evolve Experience suggests that if there’s any hope of overcoming such fraught divisions, those of us who prefer to politely debate issues are going to have to get comfortable revealing and confronting honest emotions, our own and others — without taking others’ hard honesty personally. 

One Black audience member voiced that apprehension, which he said was triggered by observing the fear he perceived the onstage characters were feeling. “What do I do with all that fear?” he asked. “It makes me want to strike back. And I don’t like being in that position.” 

Another Black audience member, a recent immigrant from Africa, echoed that sentiment — seeing the stage encounter made him touch his own fear and anger at racist repression. Still another said that the absence of solutions presented made her feel “defeated.”

Others expressed what they resonated with, such as the compassion they felt for the driver pulled over in the traffic stop, or the judge tasked with making consequential decisions based on uncertain outcomes and inherently inadequate knowledge about the people involved. 

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When audience members’ comments strayed from how the play made them feel, Jones and Mones were quick to push back on any knee-jerk venting or finger pointing at whatever villains might have led American police-community relations down such a rocky road. Instead, they insisted that commenters talk about their own fears, not those they perceived in the characters or in who they represent. Their easygoing manner, with occasional moments of humor and even playful disagreement between the two, avoided the risk of shutting down discussion. A couple of times, the audience commenters rethought and revised their statements. It felt like we were seeing minds changing in real time — a rarity these reflexively defensive days.

The moderators even resisted calls to provide solutions or policies that might mitigate the real tensions between Black Americans and law enforcement officers, or heal the damage already inflicted over generations. There are other venues for that kind of exploration. Instead, they masterfully and urged us to keep our gaze resolutely fixed inward to our own reactions and feelings, rather than toward global recommendations or analysis. 

What we did learn at The Evolve Experience, through the slant lens of drama, is how some of those involved in these perennial conflicts feel. And then how that makes us feel. It seemed as though, in trying to “educate audiences to listen in a non-didactic way,” as Jones put it, this event — “show” doesn’t really do it justice — constitutes a first step that might ultimately get those involved to a point where maybe we can discuss divisive issues more productively.  

After taking those first steps, of feeling others’ feelings, and then trying to discern our own (from the inside, not the distant distorting lens of media both social and otherwise), what comes next? For that, you’ll have to check out The Red Door Project, which offers abundant resources and avenues of involvement in race and policing issues. Using the tools of drama, Jones, Mones and their team are trying something unique and potentially immensely valuable. This event merely opened a door. It’s up to us to walk through it. 

Anyone looking for easy answers to police violence and racism wouldn’t find it here, or anywhere else, for that matter. I have no idea whether Red Door’s efforts will actually help change hearts and minds, but its combination of art and analysis is so different from anything I’ve seen before, and apparently connected so well with many audience members, that it gives me hope. It’s heartening to see projects like Red Door, and, last weekend, Portland Institute for Contemporary Arts’s multifaceted symposium Policing in Portland: A Community Conversation, a symposium in its exhibition Policing Justice, on view at PICA through May 19, bringing art to bear on this seemingly intractable continuing crisis. 

Art can only do so much to help change society, or even a community. But what it can do, nothing else can. Art can serve as a reflection of change that’s happened, a bellwether of change in progress, or a beacon for how it might happen, for better or for worse. Our communities need artistic venues that provide a place for that kind of art to emerge, a venue for art that stimulates feelings, thoughts and discussions that can lead to change. These two programs, in the context of The Reser’s so far admirably diverse and socially relevant first year of programming (including a presentation from The Immigrant Story and others chronicled here on ArtsWatch), suggest that, in The Reser, Beaverton now has a much-needed place for that kind of art to flourish. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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