White Bird Ballet Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Portland Oregon

Remembering forgotten women, onstage

A conversation with writer Cindy Williams Gutiérrez, whose choreopoem "In the Name of Forgotten Women" is debuting at CoHo.

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UPDATE: CoHo has postponed its opening on “In the Name of Forgotten Women” because of a positive Covid test, the company announced on Wednesday afternoon, March 23. From the announcement:

“On Tuesday, a member of the Forgotten Women cast tested positive for Covid-19. While the actor is asymptomatic, our team at CoHo places great emphasis on protecting the health and well-being of both our staff, cast/crew, and patron community. We are proud to be a Covid-cautious theatre, and after careful consideration, we’ve made the difficult decision to postpone Opening Night for one more week.

“As of today, In the Name of Forgotten Women has been officially rescheduled. All shows between March 24 – 27th have been canceled. Preview will now take place on Thursday, March 31st at 7:30 PM, and Opening Night has been rescheduled to Friday, April 1st at 7:30 PM. We’ve also added two Wednesday night performances (4/6 and 4/13) and Closing Night will now take place on Sunday, April 17th at 2 PM. The remainder of the schedule will remain the same.” 

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Sometimes art approaches the urgency of the moment so befittingly that one cannot help but feel its import. Such is the case with the choreopoem In the Name of Forgotten Women, written by Oregon artist Cindy Williams Gutiérrez and premiering at Portland’s CoHo Theatre on Friday, March 25.

In commemoration of International Women’s Day, National Women’s Month, and the United Nations’ Declaration for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the work draws on real-life events in more than fifteen countries and tackles atrocities leveled at women over the past four centuries. Director Gemma Whelan views the work, which is brought to life by a diverse cast of seven, as “a cry against forgetting”: “Through music and song and dance and projection and movement and poetry these women conjure the past and challenge us to create a better future where the power of the feminine is restored.”

Left to right: Eleanor Amorós, Kristin Robinson (seated on left side of bench), Mini Sharma-Ogle (seated in center of bench), Melanie Moseley (seated on right side of bench), Hannah Edelson (kneeling on floor), Naiya Amilcar (seated on floor). Photo: Karen Weliky

Whelan, who also worked with Gutiérrez on her play Words That Burn, which won the Oregon Book Award for Drama in 2017, collaborates closely on Forgotten Women with musical director/ sound designer Gerardo Calderón (who can likely play more instruments than I can name, and is learning to play the berimbau for the production),  the consummate lead choreographer Lyra Butler-Denham, and the writer herself, comprising a core group of co-creators employing a talented cast and the insight of eight cultural consultants.

Curiosity, I once read, is stimulated by challenging common beliefs, but I can’t help but wonder if some people are just born with more than the rest of us. Maybe curiosity is a gift bestowed by the divine at the train station just before we step into an incarnation. If that’s the case, Cindy Williams Gutiérrez cheated the system and sneaked back in line for seconds. We recently had the lucky occasion to speak about In the Name of Forgotten Women, which she refers to not as a production but as an “activist theater project that resides at the nexus of sacred theater and activist theater.” The heart of this distinction matters, and I considered its import later while reading a report in which Amnesty International’s secretary general, Agnes Callamard, warned that “events in 2021 and in the early months of 2022 have conspired to crush the rights and dignities of millions of women and girls.”

Poet and playwright Cindy WIlliams Gutiérrez. Photo: Russell J. Young

My first question to Gutiérrez might have been, “What exactly is a choreopoem?” But owing to her disarming laugh and a quality I can best describe as an openheartedness that instantly draws one in, I talked too much and forgot most of my questions. I opted to drop the journalistic oars and instead join Cindy in the meandering stream of conversation. As outlined in a synopsis provided by the author, the term choreopoem was coined by Ntozake Shange in response to her innovative work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. It describes a theater form that incorporates poetry, music, dance and song.

When I wondered how a modern piece inspired by poetry translates to the stage, Cindy cited the director, who believes that the process of telling any story is an act of creation; a birthing. In the Name of Forgotten Women is a series of vignettes enacted in a prologue and two acts, with unifying elements. It begins with the Sumerian High Priestess, Enheduanna, thought to be the world’s first known author, narrating and asking to be brought back to blood and bone. Considered the midwife of this choreopoem (and of writing!), she beckons women to return from the past four centuries and share their stories. The dramatist reveals that there is an arc to the play, a transfer of power, a transformative change. The cast includes a multi-talented group: Dre Slaman as Enheduanna; Kristin Robinson as African Woman; Mina Sharma-Ogle as Asian Woman; Naiya Amilcar as North American Woman; Eleanor Amorós as Latin American Woman; Hannah Edelson as European Woman, and Melanie Moseley as Crone.

Kristin Robinson (foreground), Hannah Edelson behind her, Naiya Amilcar in back. Photo: Karen Weliky

As Gutiérrez explained, the moving parts are complex, and no one will feel this as acutely as the actors, who are given poetry, “which can be more challenging to memorize,” as well as “movement, and dance, and ritual and live music.”

In reading more about the invention of choreopoem and Shange’s work, it isn’t so much that the elements are disparate, but that the importance of each is exactly equal, so that a piece could not reach its zenith with an absence of any one element. (I am reminded of some advice about musical theater: Only make them sing when talking just isn’t enough.) Every element — poetry, movement, costume, dance, music, ritual — has resonance, and Gutiérrez hopes ultimately “culminates in a call to action.” The author felt compelled to draw on atrocities that are less well known in history. This instinct lends itself well to current theater: We can bear witness to the mechanisms that have historically repressed women around the globe without the heightened emotion or politicization tethered to more recent events. The hope is that the ripples will overtake the river, and connections will be made. In the tradition of Bertolt Brecht’s historification, a slight remove can allow an audience to better think, and then, to act.

Inspired by Gutiérrez’s poetry collection Inlay With Nacre: The Names of Forgotten Women, which garnered the Willow Books 2018 Editor’s Poetry Selection and a 2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship, the author began crafting the play about four and a half years ago and submitted it two years ago to CoHo’s beloved Philip Cuomo. (Philip has since passed, but even in his absence, his vision and humanity remain permanent presences in the theater community, and carry onward through this process).

Hannah Edelson, foreground, with, from left: Eleanor Amorós, standing; Kristin Robinson, seated on left of bench; Melanie Moseley, seated on right of bench; Naiya Amilcar, seated on floor. Photo: Karen Weliky

Dizzying in scope and depth, the poems from Inlay With Nacre bring forward voices silenced by time and often subjected to grotesque forms of violence. She covers grim terrain – from genital mutilation to “Mississippi appendectomies” (forced sterilization of poor and unsuspecting Black women) to the antiquated funerary Hindu custom of “sati,” in which a widow must choose to throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre or commit suicide by some other method after his death. The poems are powerful and brave and crafted with such precision that the impact is gut-wrenching. Consider the poem “My Body”/the consolation prize / my holes the spoils of war / my name is gynocide.

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Or another poem found early in the collection:

“Hair”/ was the first thing / the Third Reich took. /It was already dead.

The book explores multiple forms. “I am passionate about form,” Gutiérrez told me. Often the forms derive from the cultures about which she writes: “I have such a love for culture. It fascinates me to no end, the rituals associated with them.”

The poet, who holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast creative writing program with concentrations in Mesoamerican poetics, drama, and creative collaboration, wrote in the last semester of that program, “I have these two lenses, a cultural lens and a feminist lens. This started to appear in the first book and really became the focus for the second.” It’s worth mentioning that the poet also has a scholarly lens. The breadth and specificity of the research accompanying the poems is impressive, as is evident in the collection’s highly instructive notes section. She knew she had entered new creative territory after crafting the first poem she wrote for the collection called C-Word. Even after the manuscript’s completion she said, “I would lay my head on the pillow at night, and the women wouldn’t stop speaking to me!”

Dramatizing the work relies on a collaboration that left Cindy exuding enthusiasm as we spoke after a rehearsal. She credits Whelan with creating an atmosphere in which “tiny miracles happen all the time. Every voice is heard. Every idea is welcome.” The cultural consultants have been integral to the process, exponentially deepening all of the artists’ understanding of the characters they attempt to embody and the worlds they attempt to create. Gutiérrez spoke about the consultants with something akin to awe, thanks not only to the profundity each brings to the project, but also at what she describes as the deep varied resonances with the work. At the time of our chat, the ensemble had met with a Celtic music consultant; a professional musician living part-time in Chicago who plays the Bodhran; a First Nations woman who came from British Columbia to be with the cast; an Afghani cultural consultant with whom Cindy felt a connection instantly; and the Rwandan consultant who survived the Rwandan genocide.  She credits The Immigrant Story for its phenomenal work and input. Additionally, the consultants will engage in a conversation moderated by Naskah Zada, a journalist who focuses on Middle Eastern issues, following the performance on Saturday, April 2; it will be made available later as a podcast.

The bounty of this kind of cultural exchange cannot be measured: Gutiérrez describes the process as “the most rewarding” of her artistic life. For her, as opening night blinks toward the present, it is the connections in the moment, the richness of rehearsal and each new piece of information that elicits recognition and understanding, the “bringing so many diverse communities together,” that most inspires her. This immersive, heartfelt exchange is what she aims for as a teacher herself (she’s taught poetry to every grade in school). Her eyes shine as she describes a curriculum she uses to work with freshmen. “When I teach poetry, I consider it a subversive act because I use craft and poetry as a vessel of transformation. But what I really care about is instilling confidence in each young person’s voice. That’s what I care about more than anything else.”

Melanie Moseley (left) and Mini Sharma-Ogle. Photo: Karen Weliky

Gutiérrez grew up bilingual with English and Spanish and then picked up Portuguese when she lived and worked in Brazil. She praises her father for having a huge influence on her love of history and culture and language. A major history buff and a voracious reader, he considered himself a man of two countries. Born in Mexico, but not Mexican by blood, he would “come back from work at midnight and read my English papers and stay up and write me a page of comments and give me synonyms.” Her mother, a substitute teacher who taught the young Gutiérrez to read, was “an incredible storyteller. She would tell you about a wedding with such a level of detail, you felt like you were there. What everyone wore, what everyone ate, all the interactions. She was a wonderful storyteller!”

As a graduate of the first class of the Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies, in Philadelphia, her background serves her well for her role as producer, which she describes as one of the “most challenging, compelling opportunities of her life.” In addition to her invaluable role as a core collaborator, Gutiérrez also arranged for eight community engagement events that will serve as talkbacks after performances. They are free, several sponsored by Ronni Lacroute and one, “Taking Charge of Our Bodies,” sponsored by the CHP Group. The talks cover crucial, wide-ranging topics, helping expand and personalize the theatrical experience.

As I contemplate my conversation with Cindy, while receiving constant news updates on the war in Ukraine that yet again threatens the sanctity of life for reasons no sane person can grasp, I am overtaken by fury and a feeling of helplessness. Then I remember why we must look to our artists, who, as Cindy reminded me, owe only one thing to their craft: “to continue to brave the terrain of the human heart.”

Perhaps when our hearts are most cracked open, we look to the past to guide us. For the sake of women all around the globe and the nearly 3 million new Ukrainian refugees at the time of this writing (many of them women and children) — lives upended while tending wounds, giving birth, caring for relatives, leaving loved ones behind, and fleeing into the unknown – we can only hope. One glimmer came to me by way of email from the author, who informed me, “The women began speaking to me again! In fact, they’re clamoring. It turns out they have a few new ideas on how to bring the poems to life.”

I am profoundly heartened that these women, and this undaunted author who has resurrected their stories, refuse to be silenced. What a gift, and an opportunity, for all of us. Brave terrain, indeed.

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  • In the Name of Forgotten Women opens Friday, March 25, at CoHo Theatre, 2257 N.W. Raleigh St., Portland, and continues through April 16 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays- Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Ticket information here.

Danielle Vermette

Danielle Vermette

Danielle Vermette is a writer and actor. She arrived in Portland in 1998 with a BFA in theatre from the University of Central Missouri and has been an Imago Theatre company member since 1999, appearing in a dozen shows and touring nationally and internationally for many years in Imago’s show Frogz. She was a student in PSU’s MFA fiction program and writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction. She works in the Abdominal Organ Transplant Department at OHSU as the Hepatobiliary Coordinator.
Danielle Vermette

Danielle Vermette

Danielle Vermette is a writer and actor. She arrived in Portland in 1998 with a BFA in theatre from the University of Central Missouri and has been an Imago Theatre company member since 1999, appearing in a dozen shows and touring nationally and internationally for many years in Imago’s show Frogz. She was a student in PSU’s MFA fiction program and writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction. She works in the Abdominal Organ Transplant Department at OHSU as the Hepatobiliary Coordinator.

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