You’d be hard-pressed in 2021 to find a more dynamic force in Portland theater than Damaris Webb. In the past few years she’s acted, directed, collaborated, written and produced at a dizzying pace, sometimes doing all five things at once on a given work of art. Webb and Laura Lo Forti are the twin engines that propel Vanport Mosaic, a multifaceted art nonprofit that specializes in “memory activism,” preserving and holding space for voices and stories from the greater Portland area that have been marginalized if not outright suppressed.
If that weren’t enough, a couple of years ago, Webb played the mother of a legend in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s …And In This Corner: Cassius Clay. She conceived and then created, with a host of other Black artists, Soul’d: the Economics of Our Black Bodies, Vanport Mosaic’s powerful exploration of how the exploitation of Black bodies has been integral to the American economy since its inception. Webb directed the Confrontation Theatre/Portland Playhouse co-production of Dominique Morriseau’s searing Pipeline, a heart-wrenching piece about the prison-industrial complex. When it’s noted how much of her work is built around social justice, Webb says frankly, “Well, I’m Black and I’m a woman. What else am I gonna talk about?”
ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021
That clarity of purpose is front and center in Vanport Mosaic’s new offering for this year’s Fertile Ground festival of new works, Martha Bakes, a brand-new piece (naturally) written by Webb’s long-time collaborator Don Wilson Glenn, directed by Webb, and starring Webb’s high school classmate, Portland stage veteran Adrienne Flagg, as none other than Martha Custis Washington. It premieres at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 2\31, on the festival’s Facebook and YouTube channels, where it will remain available to view for free through Feb. 15.
(Glenn has another piece in this year’s Fertile Ground Festival, Troy, USA, which he co-wrote with Dmae Roberts, and which is being produced by Bag&Baggage as part of that company’s Problem Play Project. It premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31, at Fertile Ground.)
Doing a story about the first First Lady of the nation is not a departure from Vanport Mosaic’s mission but an expansion of it. The project is 200-plus years in the making, built up and around African-American folklore passed down from generation to generation in Glenn’s family. “We would tell stories over and over on the front porch about my Grandpa Umps and my Grandma Caroline,” remembers Glenn, “who were both born into slavery and emancipated in 1865 and then later had a life, a new family, new beginnings. My grandpa was born in 1834 and he died in 1910 and saw his dream of having a family that couldn’t be sold, come true. Grandma Caroline died when she was 97 and that was in 1949. So she saw four generations of freedom. At the same time these stories that they told over and over and over and over were part of our folklore.”
“I was sitting down talking to Damaris,” Glenn continues, “and I was saying, ‘Well, part of my grandma’s folklore, a traditional tale that was circulated through the slave community over the years, was that of Martha Washington, that she lived her last days in fear that the slaves would uprise and take her life because George Washington, in his will, set them free on her death. And Damaris asked, ‘Is that a true story?’ And I said, I don’t know, but it was folklore from my grandfather.’
After doing some research, Glenn found that Black oral history was, once again, right on point, and the full story was “98 percent” as his family had related it to him.
As Glenn tells it, next came a question from Webb: “Can you imagine living like that? People offering you food and you’re like, ‘Oh, no — no thank you! I’ll fix something myself! I don’t really like apricots!” The jokes kept coming and so did the ideas and before long, they had the seed of something. “Or at night if you having to do a ritual of barricading yourself into a small little confined space — inside of your mansion? And as we talked and laughed more about it, I thought, wouldn’t that make a marvelous one-woman show about Martha Washington, who is pretty much relegated to a marginal place in history in that no one really knows about her life other than being a colonial woman married to George Washington.”
Part of the glue of Webb and Glenn’s creative collaboration over the years has been that they stoke each other’s creativity and push each other to think in fresh ways. It’s that kind of synergy that leads from that almost hidden part of American history to the theatrical alchemy that is Martha Bakes.
“This play starts with the imagined uprising at Mount Vernon,” Webb says, “and Martha has socially distanced herself into the colonial kitchen and she’s sent for help but while she’s waiting for help to come she calms herself by giving us a cooking show. As she prepares her colonial meal for us, she reflects on her participation in the birth of this country and we learn a little bit about her and some of the other founding mothers.”
For Webb, there was never consideration for any other actor than Flagg. “The story is so physical,” she says, “and Adrienne is such a wonderful physical performer that we just went for it. It is such a joy to watch her go through this.”
Martha Bakes is only the first phase of a long-term, multi-tiered project. The second act will also consist of essentially a one-woman show, that woman being Oney Judge, a slave who actually escaped from the Washington plantation permanently, despite repeated attempts by the Washingtons to capture her and bring her back.
The third act will have Martha Washington and Oney Judge confronting each other at last, but will still maintain the show’s specific brand of humor. “These two women understand that they are both owned,” says Glenn, “Ona asks, ‘Well, what now?’ And Martha says, ‘Well, I’ve always thought about life upon the stage.’ And they break out into this vaudevillian act and it becomes this broad piece of theater. What else is there to do but laugh?l”
Webb concurs: “Humor has to be a part of it, right? To get into the painful and complicated truth of these matters just gives itself the opportunity for such situational comedy. A lot of the time Martha and Oney have to be able to hold these diametrically opposed truths somehow in a way that they can not explode themselves. They might not know that it’s so fucking funny but it is to us so fucking funny because how else can you swim through that?”
The process of working on this new script was as organic as possible in the time of coronavirus. “We’d record Zoom rehearsal so [Glenn] could watch it,” Webb says. I’m sure every group has had that challenge of you can only have so many people in the room. It was really useful to Zoom-record a run or a couple of scenes and share that with Wanda (Walden, costume designer) in the Bay and Don in Texas and then have a Google chat and then in-person — well, ‘Zoom-person’ chat.”
Vanport Mosaic is also sponsoring an educational component to go along with Martha Bakes. “People for Mutual Education (P4ME) are on board to write the curriculum and study guides,” says Webb. “Then I have to figure out how to offer it to educational facilities. Go to our website. Vanport Mosaic has the technical capacity to hold it and then I have to figure out a way to deliver it to whoever needs it.”
For Fertile Ground, this “fully staged reading” is filmed by local filmmaker, Nora Colie, who then spent a month editing it to reach a final product. “What a treat,” says Webb of Colie, “to work with someone so awesome.”
That’s a lot, right? But that’s Damaris Webb: “When you’re developing a show, you learn a lot. This is co-developing a new story, a new style of story-telling and a container.”
One other factor made this collaboration so successful in Webb’s opinion. “No offense,” she says, laughing, “but it was a room full of women.” Aside from herself and the rest of the creative team, Webb brought on Lilo Alfaro and Sarah Estrella as mentees to her and Wanda Walden, respectively. “Don is a male playwright,” says Webb, “but every other artist that is bringing this forward is female.”
Glenn seems to recognize the irony of his presence, but it was a story that intrigued him. “I am privileged to think that I could write a play about colonial women,” he says. “What connects me to them is the disenfranchisement of my Native heritage, my African heritage and my American heritage.”
It is that story of disenfranchisement, which so many people share, that fascinates and motivates Webb. Martha Bakes is a step on the way to another Don Wilson Glenn piece for Vanport Mosaic that will be called Walking Through Portland with a Panther: The Life of Mr. Kent Ford, All Power, which will appear in 2022-23.
In this time when the future of theater is so in question, Webb seems to have carved out an answer that makes sense not only for her, but perhaps for everyone else as well: In the years to come, theater may be less and less about whatever is coming off the New York theater assembly line and more and more about what local artists create out of the blood and bones of their own cities. Or about raising up the voices of those who, up to this point, have not been heard. Or both.
“It’s about the unheard stories,” says Webb. “Not history, but her story. The same story, the same events that took place, but let’s look at them from a different perspective.”
- Martha Bakes debuts at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31. All festival projects will be available until Feb. 15 to stream on Fertile Ground’s Facebook and YouTube channels.
PREVIOUS STORIES ABOUT FERTILE GROUND 2021:
- Fertile Ground 2021: Digital seedlings sprout. Bennett Campbell Ferguson previews the festival and talks with director Nicole Lane about the switch from live to online viewing.
- Interactive cookies and scares. Bennett Campbell Ferguson writes about two plays with interactive aspects: Fold in Gently and RE: Lilith Lopez.