A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO MY FRIEND (AND OCCASIONAL ARTSWATCH CONTRIBUTOR) STEPHEN RUTLEDGE, who writes the Born This Day column and other stories for The WOW Report, sent along a YouTube link to an old clip of Sam Cooke singing Good News on American Bandstand. Along with the link he sent high praise for the recent movie One Night in Miami, a fictional imagining of an actual meeting in a Miami hotel in 1964 of Cooke, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and football star Jim Brown to celebrate Ali’s heavyweight-championship victory over Sonny Liston. Rutledge’s note reminded me that, yes, even in traumatic times there is good news, it’s worth singing about, and its triumphs so often are the result of hard creative work and leaps of the imagination.
In Building Resiliency with the Arts, the latest chapter in our occasional series The Art of Learning, Brett Campbell relates another story of Good News, one with deep Portland roots. The poet, activist, and former Oregonian newspaper columnist S. Renee Mitchell, he writes, “had been recruited to Roosevelt High School to teach journalism. But she also helped mentor students with their personal issues; brought in fruit, day-old bagels and cream cheese; revived the Black Student Union; created a Black Girl Magic Club, and invited in community members to perform, speak, encourage and share their wisdom with the school’s low-income students.”
Campbell continues: “So when three of Mitchell’s Black Girl Magic mentees – Justice English, Johana Amani and Jeanette Mmunga – each received a Beat The Odds scholarship [from the Portland-based advocacy organization Stand for Children], they decided to help other youth tap into their resiliency. Together, Mitchell and the students, now all attending college, founded I Am MORE (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday), a nationally award-winning, creative- and arts-based youth development program. I Am MORE has trained hundreds of students, schools, parents, and educators – statewide and nationally – on culturally relevant trauma-informed and social-emotional practices that ‘increase hope, healing and a sense of belonging,’ according to its mission statement.”
It’s a fascinating and revealing story about the ways that art and culture interweave, and the outsized impact that a small group of people with a few good ideas and a generous sense of commmitment can have. Good news, indeed.
VISUAL ART: SISTER SLEDGE AND OTHER STRONG WOMEN
VISIONS OF WORK. Blake Andrews takes us on a tour of two compelling photo exhibits in the next-door-neighbor cities of Springield and Eugene. In Springfield, Dan Nelken’s HeadStrong: The Women Of Rural Uganda at the Emerald Art Center “hits the viewer like a ton of bricks” with its first image (above) of a young woman, baby strapped to her back, wielding a sledgehammer to crush slabs of stone into gravel. “In this one photo, Nelken takes on portraiture, family dynamics, economic inequity, and global labor issues,” Andrews continues. “And that’s just the start.” Across the river at PhotoZone Gallery in Eugene, Edward Pabor’s exhibit stresses a different sort of labor: the hard work of getting to just the right place at just the right time, often through wilderness, to get just the right images. ““They don’t just come to you,” Pabor says. “You have to plan on walking in the dark to be some place at dawn. You have to wait for snow and walk by yourself through the cold; your footprints being the only footprints out there.”
THEATER: BARD TO THE BONE; WHOSE LIFE STORY IS IT, ANYWAY?
PEOPLE HAVE BEEN DARKLY PREDICTING THE DEATH OF THE THEATER since Sophocles was a boy wonder, but somehow it always seems to stumble ahead. The movies didn’t kill it. Television didn’t kill it. Now the pandemic’s taking its best shot, and the patient’s weakened, but it’s stubbornly carrying on. For the most part it’s shifted into a sort of Neverland (Peter Pan reference; the theater loves to celebrate itself) of virtually delivered aural and video performances. Bennett Campbell Ferguson talked about the drawbacks and advantages of that in his ArtsWatch overview of the recently completed Fertile Ground festival of new performance. Look around and you’ll find a lot of theater:
- Artists Repertory Theatre continues to offer streaming versions of a couple of noteworthy greatest hits – E.M. Lewis’s epic Magellanica and Andrea Stolowitz’s The Berlin Diaries – plus Josie Seid’s short and sharp Forget me Not, America, among others.
- The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is preparing a combined live and streaming 2021 season, and in the meantime is offering the six-part web series Talking Back, taking on issues of race and equity in the theater world; and the film Ash Land, directed by Shariffa Ali, the story of a Black woman in Oregon afflicted with malaise during the pandemic and finding restoration.
- Portland Center Stage at The Armory continues to offer a video performance by Dael Orlandersmith of her remarkable solo show After the Flood, based on extensive interviews after the 2014 police slaying of Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
- Profile Theatre continues to stream its audio version of Paula Vogel’s Hot ‘N’ Throbbing and will release its new version of Vogel’s The Mineola Twins next week. (When I first saw the title I misread it as “The Minnesota Twins,” but Vogel’s politically pointed comedy is a far throw from Damn Yankees or Eight Men Out.)
And in Tigard, the musical-theater specialists of Broadway Rose Theatre have followed up their successful Daddy Long Legs and Sinatra holiday bash – both produced carefully on set and videotaped for streaming – with the full-length musical The Story of My Life, streaming through Feb. 28. Like Daddy Long Legs, it’s a two-hander, which in the time of Covid makes great practical sense, and packs a lot of big-picture intimation into its compact form – at times, maybe, a little more philosophical weight than its slender structure can bear. Alec Cameron Lugo and Andrew Wade star as best buddies since grade-school days, Lugo as the guy who goes on to college and a prominent writing career, Wade as the one who stays in their home town, like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, and takes over his father’s book store.
The Story of My Life is a tale about friendship, but it’s also about the nature of creativity and where it comes from: Who “owns” the stories we tell? The play’s rub is that the writer, the creative and successful one, is in many ways the plodder; and the apparent stay-at-home plodder is actually the creative and daring one, whose escapades become the stuff of the writer’s celebrated stories. The friendship frays and stretches, but it endures – and yet, the play remains a deliberate puzzle: Whose life story is this, anyway?
The play, with book by Brian Hill and music & lyrics by Neil Bartram, opened in Toronto in 2006 and had a very brief Broadway run in 2009. Reviews, for the most part, were subdued. It’s a chamber musical, with none of the spectacle that drives Broadway legend and sales, and maybe its fate there was preordained. I found the music respectable but rarely inspired, and the story a little too singularly driven, with a few too many metaphorical road signs.
But there are many compensations. Lugo and Wade mesh together well – they’re opposites who attract – and both sing the score, which sometimes feels almost like recitative, impeccably and even beautifully. The simple set – basically, three stacks of bookshelves – works well, as does the editing, and the camera moves in and out of the action smartly, creating a smooth sense of action without ever turning herky-jerk or hectic. What I felt while watching it, I realized, was something I’d been missing all these months: the simple yet very real pleasure of theatrical craftsmanship, presented by people who are skilled at what they’re doing. May we all see such things again, on stage, very soon.
BARD TO THE BONE: A STAR (WARS) IS BORN. Portland writer Ian Doescher has built a mini-empire of modern pop-culture stories retold to a Shakespearean cadence. Carmen Burbridge talks with him about how all of it came to be, from Shakespearean Star Wars to Mean Girls, Back to the Future, Clueless, A Christmas Carol, Deadpool, Frankenstein, and even a Bardic satire called MacTrump. Teachers use his books to cure their students’ fear of Shakespeare. An Avengers series is due in July. And if you want, you can even read through Shakespeare’s history plays with him online.
MUSIC: JAZZ FEST TO YEAR OF THE OX, A FESTIVE FEBRUARY
Trumpeter Noah Simpson will be part of the world premiere performance of “The American Refrain: Jazz and Modern Music,” in the 2021 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival. The premiere will stream live at 8 p.m. Feb. 24 from the Jack London Revue in downtown Portland.
MUSICWATCH MONTHLY: FROSTY FESTIVE FEBRUARY. “In a ‘normal’ year, February would be a month of Portland festivals,” Charles Rose writes in his monthly look at what’s new on Oregon’s music scene. It still is, in a virtual way. The biggest festive circle on the calendar is the Biamp PDX Jazz Festival, a celebration of sound and culture with a raft of all-star talent. Lan Su Chinese Garden and other spots continue to celebrate Chinese New Year, and you can re-live Portland Taiko’s rhythmic performance from Motchitsuki, the Japanese New Year fete. Rose spotlights much, much more. Take a spin and see what catches your ear.
DANCE: THE POETRY OF MOVEMENT; THE DEEP BLUE SEA
POETS HELPING DANCERS: IT’S ONE OF THE BENEFITS. For all that we tend to categorize the various disciplines of art, they flow freely. Poetry moves to a musical rhythm, a restlessly shaped and channeled pattern that is very like a dance. So it’s hardly a surprise that a cross-disciplinary simpatico exists among practitioners. Amy Leona Havin writes here about some poetic helping hands – and voices, of course – in the form of an online celebration of poets to benefit Performance Works Northwest, the veteran contemporary dancer Linda Austin’s intimate home for all sorts of performance experimentation, which was celebrating its 20th anniversary. Organized by David Abel, host of the Spare Room Reading Series, the event proved to be a dance of delight. Its defiantly unprosaic title hinted at the pleasures that were to come: A Poet’s Benefit for PWNW: The dance moves on and prose limps hopelessly behind.
‘ONE DROP OF WATER IN THE DEEP BLUE SEA.’ Jennifer Rabin was moved to tears by Sophia Wright Emigh and Jaleesa Johnston’s Covid-inspired dance video project Bodies Apart, Moving Together. So she struck up a conversation with them about the pandemic, art, and finding connection.
- BODYVOX FIGMENTS, BACK IN THE GAME. Like a lot of things, the Portland dance company’s drive-in dance-and-movie date at Zidell Yards got whacked by the weather. The giant-screen celebration of the company’s work, delayed a week ago, is scheduled to happen this weekend, Thursday though Saturday: Grab your mittens, hop into your ’66 Chevy, and head on down. You can also stream it from home.
AROUND OREGON: COVID TALES, COAST VIEWS, ART OF A LEGEND
PANDEMIC PROSE AND POETRY. “Lisa Mayfield’s relationship with her partner was not an easy one,” Lori Tobias writes. “He was a Vietnam vet, a hoarder, an artist. And she loved him. She was reminded of that six months after his death, as the world was adapting to the new normal dictated by COVID-19. Mayfield is one of 37 writers who responded to a call from the Cannon Beach Library to write about what the pandemic means to them.” A virtual reading by 10 of the writers will happen online at 7 p.m. this Saturday, Feb. 20.
STILL ACTIVE AT 92, THE PAINTER AND PRINTMAKER GEORGE JOHANSON is not just an elder statesman among Portland artists, he’s also something of an icon of the Oregon art scene. For decades, in images ranging from exploding volcanos to cluttered studios, and often with a stretched-out cat leaping through the action, he’s helped define part of the essence of what art means in this particular corner of the world. Next week, on Sunday, Feb. 28, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon in Eugene will conduct a webinar slide lecture and studio visit with Johanson, who’ll talk about his 80-plus years of making art. There’ll be a Q&A session afterwards, and if you’re interested – Johanson has a lot of fascinating stories – you can register here. The good news is, because it’s online, you can visit from anywhere.
THE GRANTS PASS MUSEUM OF ART has reopened, with restrictions, after a long Covid-19 layoff, and it’s greeting its reentry into the public world with a new exhibition of paintings, Oregon Coast, by Kristen O’Neill. The paintings, on view through March, come from vistas along the trail that follows the entire Oregon coastline, and are made from photographs taken by Peter Miller and sent to O’Neill when he hiked the trail in the summer of 2016. “Each day I woke up early and painted an entire painting in one sitting,” O’Neill writes in her artist’s statement. “Diving into all the possibilities from the photos that I received, I would select the one that sang to me. At the end of the painting session, I would photograph my painting, and send it back to Miller. It was as if I was just one day behind him on the trail every day, cheering him on as he pushed through 20+ mile days.”
SHORT AND SHARP: A FILM FEST OF BRILLIANT BREVITY
McMINNVILLE SHORT FILM FESTIVAL: GOOD THINGS IN SMALL PACKAGES. The 10th annual festival of primo short films from Oregon and around the world kicks off today – Thursday, Feb. 18 – and streams to your home screen through Feb. 28. “The 127 films include 37 from around Oregon, more than 20 from the Los Angeles area, and 18 from a dozen countries outside the U.S., including Taiwan, France, Chile, India, Hungary, Austria, Spain, Brazil, and Italy,” David Bates writes in his pre-festival piece, one of his three insighful entrees to the festival’s ambitions, meanings, and potential higlights. See also Bates’s McMinnville short film festival gets real and Derek Sitter: Exploring the ties between privilege and trauma, an interview with the Bend filmmaker.
ENDNOTE: ARTISTS ON THE ASTOUNDING EVENTS
ARTISTS ON THE SNOOZE OF REASON. The storming of the Bastille. (Or rather, of the Capitol Building, and the congresspersons huddling inside it.) The impeachment trial, delayed, and then defanged by the people who had delayed it, on the grounds that it had been delayed. The cries of outrage, celebration, and revenge. Artists are excellent observers of their cultures, and so we asked several known for their keen insights to share their thoughts about the meanings of the Recent National Occurrences. You might be surprised by what Honoré Daumier, Feodor Dostoevsky, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Francisco Goya had to tell us.
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