Shareen Jacobs, performing the opening monologue in Theatre Diaspora’s Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project, takes her audience for a walk on the wild side. The wild side is the sidewalks and streets of Lake Oswego, the small and pretty Portland suburb often cited as Oregon’s safest city to live in, but which, in Josie Seid’s short solo piece Being Me in the Current America, can be very much something else again.
Minutes later, in his own piece See Her Strength, writer/performer Samson Syharath, in the midst of the story of his Laotian-immigrant mother’s fortitude and coming to terms with her new culture and her son’s gayness, lays his head softly for comfort onto Jacobs’ lap. Everything stops: It’s a moment of revelation and grace.
On they roll, these short and telling stories, each its own tale yet all gathering force and strength from their mutuality. Sofia Molina’s firm yet gentle telling of Yasmin Ruvalcaba’s Carmelita, a story of danger and bravery and crossing the Rio Grande to the United States. The tough and sorrowful truth in Dré Slaman’s performance of Heather Raffo’s bone-rattling Lockdown Drills, about slain children and the psychic cost of mass-shooting lockdown drills in America’s schools: “Who grew this boy? This girl?” Shelley B. Shelley’s stubborn, wryly humorous, and sometimes angry performance in Bonnie Ratner and Roberta Hunte’s That Diversity Thing as a black lesbian blue-collar worker who loves her job but not the guff that comes with it: “Twenty years later I still hear that voice. ‘You’re only here because you’re black.’ Or, ‘You’re here because you’re a woman. That’s the only reason you’re here.’” Jane Vogel, in Dmae Roberts’ Harvest, her story of an Asian American woman growing up in rural and mostly white and inhospitable Oregon, and the state and family history of stolen land and incarceration during World War II: “It’s like the harvest was us.”
At their best, monologues can be intensely personal and rigorously cultural at the same time, telling the tale of how a cultural reality affects a single person’s life, and might affect the audience’s lives, too. The six tales in Theatre Diaspora’s Here on This Bridge fit that definition: the personal made political; the political made personal. The first full production (it’s done several staged readings) from the Asian American/Pacific Islander theater company that operates under the wing of Dmae Roberts’ Media Rites, Here on This Bridge premiered with four performances in the Fertile Ground Festival and will repeat Thursday-Sunday, Feb. 7-10, in The Boiler Room Theatre of Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall. (For these performances, Larry Toda will replace Vogel in Harvest.) Later it’ll tour to towns and cities across Oregon, and include, as it did in Fertile Ground, talkbacks and community events.
Under Catherine Ming T’ien Duffly’s efficient direction we see the six performers in Here On This Bridge onstage together a lot, but this is really six separate tales, linked thematically but each taking its own turn. The collection is also part of a growing trend toward theater not so much as fiction but as stories of sharp personal revelations: This year’s Fertile Ground was abloom with them. Stories are at the center of art, and always have been. It’s the way we tell them that changes. For years now the biggest story in the book-publishing world has been the extraordinary success of the memoir. Onstage, the memoir’s I-am-the-witness soul has flourished in storytelling environments ranging from Portland Story Theater’s Urban Tellers series to the immensely popular Moth Radio Hour and live shows, and even the personal/political provocations of writer/performers like Karen Finley and Mike Daisey.
Unlike earlier, biographical solo theater pieces like The Belle of Amherst or Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Live, memoir theater is autobiographical: true tales (or at least, as true as any purposely shaped story gets) told from the teller’s experience with the world. It can be raw and transgressive, like performance art or confessional standup comedy. It can be angry, hopeful, reflective. It can be simply explanatory: This is my experience; this is who I am. And it can be liberating, especially for people who’ve been cut out of the American story as it’s usually told, who view it from the side or bottom or the outside of the glass wall: women, people of color, immigrants, religious and gender minorities, the accidentally or systematically impoverished. Monologues can be financially liberating, too: With little more than a stage and a performer, they’re cheap to produce and can move easily from space to space.
Each of the tales in Here On This Bridge is compelling in its own way, with a ring of truth: There’s something reportorial, almost journalistic, about them. For the most part they could also easily be read as essays and have an impact, although being performed by an actor fleshes the stories out and makes them seem more immediate. Among the performances, all of which were affecting, I liked Shelley’s in That Diversity Thing best, for its undercurrent of down-to-earth humor and tightly contained exasperation ready to burst into blunt truth. From a writerly point of view, I most liked Lockdown Drills – by Raffo, also the author of the superb 9 Parts of Desire – for its swiftness and stage-smart twists and turns to keep the story flowing.
But the tale that sticks with me most is the opener, Seid’s Being Me in the Current America. Being safe and being black, it may not come as a surprise, do not easily coexist. Seid, a talented actor, director, and writer, talks of walking to rehearsals for a show in Lake Oswego and parking a little way from the theater. She’s careful when she gets there, and it’s still light outside. She’s fearful when she heads back to her car after rehearsal, in the dark. Or: Going to see a show with a white friend, who is driving, and who gets stopped for going three miles an hour over the speed limit. The cop never looks at his identification, but demands to see hers. She’s confused: But she’s not driving! Then it dawns. White guy in driver’s seat. Black woman in passenger seat. She must be a hooker. And although in the end no one is arrested or even gets a ticket, the impact is real.
I’ve heard enough stories from black male friends and acquaintances about being stopped for being black, or being stopped for being in the wrong neighborhood (even if they live there) at the wrong time, to understand this is a fact of life, and not just an irritation but a potential danger. Magnify that danger if you’re a woman. And understand, if you’re white, that your black friend can never get away from that danger: It is constant, in the background and sometimes in the foreground; inescapable.
That’s the sort of bridge The – Ism Project is talking about. For anyone of color in the audience, a play like this is a recognition and a confirmation. For a white audience member, it’s a chance not just to understand something in your head but to feel, if only for an instant, what life is like when you’re anything but white. There is power in both.
Power, and illumination, to the people, whoever they may be.
Theatre Diaspora’s Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7-10, in The Boiler Room Theatre, Lincoln Hall, Portland State University. Ticket information here.