We’re in the middle of August Wilson Week in Portland, which is a very good place to be.
On Monday evening before a packed audience in the Newmark Theatre, the August Wilson Red Door Project held its fifth annual high school Monologue Competition, choosing two winners and an alternate to move on to the nationals at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway in New York.
On Saturday evening in a ballroom at the DoubleTree by Hilton near Lloyd Center, PassinArt celebrated its annual gala, Sweet Taste of the Arts, with a healthy crowd that included, among many others, Two Trains Running director William Earl Ray and the superb veteran actor J.P. Phillips, who is also riding the trains.
And with just a little patience, the August Wilson celebration extends: On May 2, Portland Playhouse will open its revival of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Fences. It’ll be the seventh of Wilson’s “American Century Cycle” of ten plays, each from a different decade of the 20th century, that the Playhouse has presented for Portland audiences – a gratifying and illuminating feat. Those plays – in addition to Two Trains Running and Fences they include Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf – constitute one of the great achievements of the American theater, and for that matter, of American literature and culture.
Wilson’s plays are vital historic documents, and they are still urgently current, as a story by Tracy Jan earlier this week in the Washington Post makes clear. Report: No progress for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years, it’s headlined, and it underlines both the disturbing intransigence of America’s racial divide and the continuing need for honest, revealing, compelling stories about ordinary life in all of the nation’s communities.
Both the August Wilson Monologue Competition and PassinArt’s gala were intensely community events, art growing from the connections among place and people and time. Communities, of course, are both fluid and interlocking, and can be expanded or carried with you when you leave. In Wilson’s case it begins in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the economically teetering but culturally vibrant African American/Jewish/Italian neighborhood where he grew up and where most of his plays are set. But really, it begins further back, on the slave ships, in the fields and plantation houses (his great and mystical character Aunt Ester is 285 years old when we first meet her in Gem of the Ocean, and lasts through several plays and about 60 more years beyond that), along the route of the Great Migration that brought so many emancipated but not fully free African Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North, bringing their hopes and songs and stories with them.
Wilson moved on from Pittsburgh to the Upper Midwest, to St. Paul, Minnesota, and then again to Seattle, where he wrote several of his plays, and wherever he went, Pittsburgh’s Hill District went with him, stitching itself into the fabric of communities across the country as his plays moved from town to town. Wilson’s community melded with the larger African American community, and broadened into the community of all Americans, subtly shifting the trajectory of the American myth. The monologue program quotes him on the subject: “The commonalities of all culture within the life I know best – which is black life, that’s who I am – I’m gonna express that. That’s what I want my art to be about. This is the way we do things. We all bury our dead. We all have parties, we all decorate our houses, but we do it different, and it ain’t nothin wrong with it.”
Nothing at all. The Red Door Project’s monologue program is part of a national community begun in 2007 at True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta. There are now competitions in Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Haven, New York, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Portland, Dallas, and Greensboro, N.C., each leading to the national finals on Broadway: two winners from each regional get all-expenses trips to New York. Like the others, Portland’s regional delves deeply into the literary community that Wilson created and connects it to its own city’s community – in particular to high school students, who spend months working with professional actors and directors, learning the plays, choosing characters and monologues from them, discovering why they say the things they do, and delivering the scenes.
It’s a process of exploration and discovery, taking the young actors both inside themselves and far beyond themselves. This year, 13 semifinalists performed their pieces, in a range of characters both male and female from a range of Wilson’s plays, and all 13 were young women. It was also an extraordinarily young group of semifinalists, with several freshmen and sophomores.
The monologues were raptly attended to by the packed and cheering house in the Newmark while the judges sat in a row taking notes, ready to have their discussions and make their cases once intermission rolled around. The young performers spoke quickly, sometimes comically, sometimes fiercely, sometimes with the ache of a character hurting or breaking.
This year’s winners, the first two of whom will head for finals:
First: Noreena McCleave, senior, Woodrow Wilson High School, who performed a monologue by Memphis in Two Trains Running. She came in third in last year’s competition.
Second: Kai Tomizawa, freshman, Grant High School. Becker from Jitney. She’ll be the first freshman from Portland to go to finals in New York.
Third: Alyssa Marchant, junior, Rex Putnam High School. Tonya, King Hedley II.
The other semifinalists:
Edom Daniel, sophomore, David Douglas High School.
Zakia Elazami, junior, Christa Mcauliffe School of Arts and Sciences, Portland Community College.
Mekdes Hilete, freshman, Jefferson High School.
Chinenye Igwe, junior, Clackamas High School.
Tosha Kitungano, junior, Roosevelt High School.
Kaylee Low, junior, Fort Vancouver High School.
Ahliah Nordstrom, junior, Roosevelt High School.
Dashiell Rucka, freshman, Jefferson High School.
Delaina Wolmut, junior, Benson Polytechnic High School.
Naomi Kabale (alternate), junior, Madison High School.
The evening was truly a community celebration, with greetings from Red Door co-founders Kevin Jones and Lesli Mones, breezy and funny emceeing from Northwest actor Chantal DeGroat, a quick greeting from master class instructor and talented actor Victor Mack, and DJing by David VanOvereem. While the judges (who included, among others, PassinArt artistic director Jerry Foster and actor/director Bobby Bermea, a frequent contributor to ArtsWatch) were deliberating, Oluyinka Akinjiola and Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater gave a rousing performance, followed by some sharp music from jazz keyboardist Darrell Grant, Bobby Torres, Redray Frazier, and vocalist Maeve Dahlen. After the awards presentations singer Mic Crenshaw closed the evening, sending the crowd out upbeat and energetically.
And, speaking of community: Red Door announced a $100,000 challenge grant from Ronni Lacroute, who consults with and supports dozens of arts groups (including Oregon ArtsWatch) in Oregon. Double your gifting, double your fun. It’s a generous challenge, just waiting to be met.
PassinArt’s Sweet Taste of the Arts gala was a happy community celebration, too, a good catered dinner spiced and sweetened with good conversations, good art (some of it auctioned, the rest for sale), a little dancing, a little fundraising, some terrific music from blues queen LaRhonda Steele and band, and an affecting performance by a quartet of actors and singers of a short script by the artist and costume designer Wanda Walden. Her piece included the great writer and activist W.E.B. DuBois’s call, during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, for an African American theater “for us, by us, near us, about us” – about as clear a description as you can get for a truly community-centered art. It was a clarion call for artists to connect with and reflect the cultures they live in – to be part of them rather than separate from them.
And it aptly defined PassinArt’s history of creating excellent theater tied closely to its cultural base. Wilson’s Two Trains Running is about to enter the PassinArt station. Among other recent projects that suggest the breadth and depth of PassinArt’s connection to its interlocking communities: a production of Marcus Gardley’s taut play Gospel of Lovingkindness, based on a random murder in a black community and run in tandem with artist James Pate’s provocative exhibition Kin Killin’ Kin; co-production of a workshop reading of Rich Rubin’s play Cottonwoods in the Flood, about the infamous Vanport flood that wiped out a thriving multiracial community just north of Portland in 1948, in the Fertile Ground festival of new works; and a sweet and moving production of Langston Hughes’s 1961 gospel-music pageant Black Nativity. “The miracle, if you will, of his version,” I wrote of PassinArt’s production of Hughes’s musical play, “is that it makes the story feel less like a ritual or a dogma and more like a current event, something happening right now in real time.”
The evening was also distinguished by the presentation of several “Sweet Taste of the Arts” awards, and it was a great lineup of talented people who have made a habit of sharing with their community. Honorees included:
Writer, teacher, performer, poet, and all-around inspirer S. Renee Mitchell, who for several years was a columnist for The Oregonian.
Actor J.P. Phillips, who’s in the Two Trains Running cast and whose distinguished career includes more than 20 seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he’s performed in almost every Shakespeare play.
Dancer and educator Rolia Monyongai-Jones, founder of the innovative Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe (which has its own benefit gala coming up soon, on April 7).
Soul singer Ural Thomas, leader of the group The Pain.
I was deeply honored to be included in this group, for “excellence and contributions in Oregon through media coverage and support of the arts.”
It’s all community, and even as an observer and chronicler, I’m happy to be a part of it.
Two Trains Running, by the way, which opens Friday at PassinArt, is set in the 1960s in a once-bustling Hill District café that is now threatened by urban renewal and its inevitable partner, gentrification. That’s the all too familiar backdrop for an intensely personal and cultural tale: Something’s gotta give. When we talk about community, we talk about community. To be continued.