FG reviews: Staging history

Cottonwood in the Flood, Deception, and One Weekend in October dramatize racially charged moments.

This year’s Fertile Ground Festival offered several plays relating to race and history. I caught readings of three of them, each in a different stage of development. All three show promise, as well as flaws that are easier to spot once they’re actually read before an audience — a prime reason Fertile Ground is so valuable.

The terrific cast of Rubin's Cottonwood in the Flood.

The terrific cast of Cottonwood in the Flood.

Cottonwood in the Flood

The story of a mid 20th century African American family that moves from south to north and deals with the challenges of social, economic, racial and even geographical change — it sounds like an ideal set up for an August Wilson play, if the longtime Seattle based playwright had written about the Northwest he migrated to instead of the Pittsburgh he grew up in.

Wilson liked to write about how place changes over generations, and Vanport, Oregon — the site of Portland playwright Rich Rubin’s Cottonwood in the Flood and the aforementioned fictional family’s struggles — existed for only six years, before succumbing to the great flood of 1948, and becoming, along with Celilo Falls, Oregon’s Atlantis. It proved an eventful stretch, both militarily (with workers churning out important components of America’s World War II arsenal), and socially, as a de facto experimental precursor to racial integration.

To tell this big story in a dramatic way, Rubin imagined a black family whose life experienced mirrored that of many Vanporters. At the outset of Cottonwood in the Flood (not counting an unnecessary little frame narrative set decades after the play’s events, in which the grown-up son looks back on his childhood there), the family wrestles with the decision to move north from institutionally racist and oppressive Selma, Alabama to the promise of good paying jobs at Vanport. The play then recounts their encounters with various challenges faced by so many like them: on the job racism; chilly, thin-walled, hurriedly constructed housing, social and cultural differences with Oregon’s white residents; one son’s return from fighting fascism abroad to coping with discrimination at home and starting his own business; and finally the flood and its aftermath — economic and geographic dislocation.

Rubin’s assiduous research imbues the dialogue and events with an aura of authenticity and gift for engaging, sometimes poignant, often chuckle-worthy funny, dialogue. And it receives both smart direction (especially given the constraints of this staged reading at Performance Works Northwest, which director Damaris Webb escapes when possible through the use of projected historical images, a dance scene, expository “fact checks” signaled by a bell, and other ingenious moves) and maybe the finest acting I’ve ever seen at a staged reading, led by S. Renee Mitchell’s wise, wry matriarch Alma, Anthony P. Armstrong’s strong, sympathetic yet not too perfect Lonnie, the boys’ father and Alma’s husband. Joseph Gibson’s convincingly naive Young Henry (whose life education becomes the vehicle for informing the audience about the social context), Wrick Jones’s sly Granddaddy Kenyon, Seth Rue’s seething Will (Henry’s war veteran older brother), and the uniformly excellent supporting cast (Josie Seid, Jeb Berrier, Kristen Lang) all shine, too.

Unfortunately, the play’s strong production and other virtues can’t overcome the absence of a real, human story. Unlike Wilson’s best work, which usually features a single, believable human-scale conflict that reflects the larger social forces buffeting its characters, that focus and depth are missing here. Cottonwood’s action proceeds chronologically and thematically, not dramatically. And with no dramatic motor to power it, my interest flagged in the second act, and so did at least one dozing audience member a row in front of me, and never recovered. You can feel the issues being ticked off — here’s the scene that shows casual workplace racism, here’s the one that shows the postwar economic recession, and now here comes the flood, and so on. Likable — probably too likable, in a Cosbyish (or maybe given recent events, that should “Huxtablish”) way — as they are, the family members never rise above their roles as historical exemplars, because, thanks to the saga structure and extensive historical exposition, they’re never given the opportunity to reveal deeper dimensions, flaws as well as virtues, as Wilson’s characters so often do.

Not that every play involving race and/or history needs to channel August Wilson, though he’s hard to better, or revolve around a single conflict. But any conventionally constructed story that wants to be more than a historical parade must provide characters whose struggles we can feel, not just appreciate and admire. Cottonwood in the Flood gives us a portrait of a lost place and time, and it did convince me that a strong story can be found in Vanport’s debris, probably having something to do with how it represents our society’s willingness to offer the illusion of equality — as long as we need something from those who are unequal, and when we’ve got it, we turn our backs on them, sweep them away. As in Hurricane Katrina, the Vanport flood can provide a powerful social metaphor. But that’s not enough by itself to make compelling drama, and in this incarnation at least, Cottonwood’s characters float on the surface, still lost in the flood. I hope Rubin will re-conceive and refocus the story of his imagined family, and that he’ll give these superb actors and director another opportunity to plumb their depths.

Deception

Nancy Moss’s Deception also depicts the life of an African American family in a racist historical Portland, this one in the 1880s, when the most urgent question (for the economic elites of the day, at least) revolved not around the place of African Americans in society but on the placement of the major economic generator of the time: the railroad line that would connect (via the new Northern Pacific Railway) a relatively isolated town in the nation’s Northwest corner to its population centers. “Portland needs railroads the way Christians need heaven,” one of the characters explains, and as Deception tells it, ultimately the choices boiled down to east or west, and land speculators who had advance knowledge of which side of the Willamette would host that first line stood to make a fortune. Who needs the Portland Development Commission, anyway?

Damaris Webb directed Cottonwood in the Flood and starred in Deception.

Damaris Webb directed Cottonwood in the Flood and starred in Deception.

Gerhard Schull sure doesn’t. The German investor arrives in Portland bearing piles of cash from European venture capitalists who want him to decide the best place to run the rail line, and a little pocket notebook in which he records the relevant facts, figures and ideas. American capitalist Conrad Ryan would love to know Schull’s decision before everyone else so he can snap up the adjacent land before its value soars. And Ryan, somewhat implausibly, thinks he knows who can help him find out: Ann Winter, who recently arrived in Portland and runs a hat shop. Although they’ve never been introduced, Ryan (who like so many who headed west at that time seeking new opportunities in what seemed like a wide-open new frontier) admires Winter’s quick success, both commercial and social, in her new home. “Most people here reinvent themselves,” Winter says of her new town. “I am no exception….There’s a feeling that anything is possible, anything at all.” Even dramatic license fails to explain why Ryan would feel impelled to try to enlist a stranger in his plans (which of course he has to explain in detail to her, providing the expository vehicle for the audience), but no doubt Moss can eventually find a more convincing way to bring the pair together.

By the time the audience at Portland’s Old Church met Ryan in the play’s second scene, we were already intrigued by Winter (played persuasively here by none other than Damaris Webb, who like her character and those of Cottonwood, has recently moved to Portland, although in her case it’s a return after a quarter century in New York City). Winter has just received another unexpected visitor, Caleb Waltham, whom we soon discover is her brother, who’s followed her to Portland some time after she abandoned their Louisville family for the opportunity to reinvent herself out west. Caleb (well-played by another Cottonwood actor, Joseph Gibson) has a mind for making up stories that’s as quick as his hands are with other people’s property. He’s harboring a family secret about both of them that his presence threatens to reveal to Winter’s new city; her past is catching up with her. It doesn’t give away too much of the story to note that that secret has to do with race. Making up stories, even about your own identity, in order to survive, turns out to be a family trait, a Darwinian adaptive response to racist 19th century America when the Civil War was still a living memory and Oregon law of the time would put both Anne and Caleb at risk.

So deception abounds: Schull wants to deceive everyone (especially Ryan, who represents to him the 19th century equivalent of today’s hedge fund managers who want to make a quick buck off others’ labor) about the railroad’s ultimate location, Ryan wants to deceive him into revealing it, and Winter and her brother are both deceiving everyone around them about who they really are. They may even be deceiving themselves. In Jane Austen style, Moss’s clever, frequently funny script (which drew chuckles from the locals with its references to the old Albina neighborhood, the Oregonian, and other historical artifacts, as well as constants like overt rain and covert racism) dramatizes all these agendas, some concealed behind 19th-century politesse.

Webb and Gibson make a compelling sibling act, while Gary Brickner-Schulz, who’s returned to Portland theater after a few decades on camera instead of onstage, brings needed pathos to Schulz. The other characters remain too underdeveloped at this stage for the actors to do much with them, and in this snappy early version presented by Portland Civic Theatre Guild, too much important action happens offstage (a situation that would probably be remedied in a full production instead of an hour-long reading), threads are tied up a little too neatly and hastily, the story threatens to veer into historical romance novel territory, and the connections between the story of race and the story of power could use strengthening. But its engaging lead characters and intriguing evocation of historical turning points give Deception a good start on a story that, like Cottonwood, might ultimately bear as much relevance to 21st century Portland as the time it’s set in.

One Weekend in October

Audiences are likely to be a lot more familiar with the events chronicled in Rubin’s One Weekend in October, which puts on stage what was already a highly theatrical historical event: the US Senate’s 1991 confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, whom President George H.W. Bush had nominated to succeed the venerated civil rights hero Thurgood Marshall as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, in his post-show audience talkback (one of Fertile Ground’s most valuable features, for audience and playwrights alike) at the new Post5 Theater, Rubin said he felt obliged to at least touch on the circus like aspects of those hearings, the better to demonstrate how the two antagonists were used as puppets by politicians who were addressing bigger issues, like serving conservative ideology and constituent politics (e.g. the Democrats’ dependence on the black vote).

One Weekend cuts back and forth among the hearings (using transcripts of actual testimony) and largely imagined scenes featuring, respectively, Thomas and his wife, Thomas and Bush’s Machiavellian political adviser Ken Duberstein, Bush and Duberstein, Hill and US Sen. Joseph Biden (who chaired the Judiciary committee that sponsored the hearings and who also opposed Thomas’s right-wing ideology), Hill and her adviser, federal judge and civil rights leader Charles Ogletree, and outwardly affable but actually tense confrontations between frenemies Biden and his Republican counterpart on the committee, Arlen Specter. The imagined scenes explain to the audience the actual conflicts and forces roiling under the relatively formal committee testimony.

Here again, Rubin’s research — he read books by Thomas, Hill, political journalists (including the definitive Strange Justice) and other participants — provides authenticity, accurately and mostly painlessly explaining the political interests and character motivations arrayed onstage. Sometimes it was hard to know just how much these fictionalized reconstructions represented reality — did Thomas’s vengeful wife really say they needed to “destroy” his accuser, Hill? Did President Bush really laugh that Duberstein had made Willie Horton the “running mate” of his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis? Such contentious details are pretty historically important and the sources might merit some citation in the ultimate program.

Younger audiences might also want to know more about the ultimate stakes in this battle, which was about more than a couple of lawyers, after all. The two parties were hardly morally equal in either their goals or tactics, with Republicans bullying through activist ideologues like Thomas and later Samuel Alito and John Roberts who would overturn established precedents in order to advance the right wing ideology and monied interests. But explaining all that would have further slowed an already exposition-laden story. If anything, the political story probably would be better served  by a form more satirical, less realistic — maybe even actual puppet theater, with puppeteer / actors playing Biden, Specter et al literally pulling the strings.

As currently constituted, the play’s recounting of historical public events, however theatrical in reality, doesn’t turn out to be very dramatic or (for those who lived through it, at least) enlightening. But political theater is only half of One Weekend. The other is a quite different character drama that explores the antagonists at the heart of the story. If Rubin is deciding which direction to take One Weekend, the latter territory is where the dramatic treasure is buried. (In the talkback, that aspect seemed to be what gripped the audience members most.) But at this stage, we wind up with superficial portraits likely to please Portland’s liberal audiences (oh, how I’d loved to have heard what a rabid right winger and African Americans of various political persuasions thought), but inadequate understanding of the two contenders’ respective motivations.

That said, some portrayal of the Senate circus should remain, especially a scene in which Hill is barraged with a fusillade of rapid-fire questions from committee members, piled on top of each other so she has no chance to respond, might have been the play’s most effective moment. In a finished production, I could imagine a sound designer working some musique concrete magic, superimposing simultaneous questions at increasing tempo and number until they combine in an overwhelming tidal wave of noise, or maybe the text of actual questions projected on a scrim until it’s black with overlaid text.

In the face of such relentless pressure, Anita Hill displayed remarkable courage in overcoming so many obstacles to testifying — her loyalty to a fellow self-made African American lawyer and leader, her background in the Baptist church, and of course the public attacks that she must have sensed would be coming her way, if not as unfair, vicious and vitriolic as they turned out to be. She’s at ground zero of several conflicts revolving around race, gender, and power, but the play, already stuffed with political maneuvering and Senate testimony, doesn’t have enough time to delve into why she made her choices, or to show her dealing with those conflicts. Nevertheless, the glimpses we do catch make us want to know more, thanks especially to the riveting performance by Lauren Modica, whose stiff upper lip portrayal somehow simultaneously conveys Hill’s pain and vulnerability and her extreme efforts to cover them up on the public stage.

Thomas is even more fascinating. How could a beneficiary of America’s attempts to redress racial injustice turn so angrily against those efforts and work so hard to undo them? And he’s given several opportunities to explain that anger and its source. But the problem is that he’s telling us (through his testimony or in a conversation with someone in 1991) why he’s mad, just as Hill tells us about her background and encounters with Thomas. Despite actor and BaseRoots Theatre company (which produced this performance) director Bobby Bermea’s ardent efforts to bring Thomas to life, that second hand news vitiates drama’s greatest strength: the ability to show, via action, why these two strong willed characters act as they did.

While One Weekend is pretty much confined to one weekend (two cheers for dramatic unity!), Thomas’s wrath and Hill’s strength were shaped by events in their past. An incident at Yale seems still stuck in Thomas’s craw, for example, and Hill’s account of sexual harassment via his discussion of pubic hair and porn at work would be far more compelling if enacted rather than recounted. Flashing back to dramatize those earlier scenes might have helped us understand — and most important — feel what motivated them to act as they did on that weekend in Washington. No matter how much righteous indignation Thomas displays before the Judiciary Committee and his wife, or how much stoic determination Hill exerts to tell her story despite the slings and arrows unleashed at her, we never really understand, emotionally, where they come from or why they feel the way they do. That’s the story One Weekend in October makes me want to see, and that I hope the next version of this potentially powerful show will deliver.

All three plays happened to be written by (and here reviewed by) white people. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but when and if they return to the stage, I hope Fertile Ground or whatever company stages them will produce them in neighborhoods (maybe even churches and community centers) where actual African American Portlanders might see them and offer their own responses. That kind of feedback could only benefit the playwrights’ attempts to bring Portland’s— and America’s — racially fraught history to life.

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