andrea stolowitz

No news like good news

ArtsWatch Weekly: I Am MORE, Broadway Rose's 'Story of My Life,' PDX Jazz Fest, art around Oregon.

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.
 

S. Renee Mitchell (left) and, from left, Jeanette Mmunga, Justice English and Johana Amani of I Am MORE.

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.”

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Fertile, Grounded, Virtual & Here

ArtsWatch Weekly: Portland's festival of new performance goes online; finding the humans in the frame; fresh flicks; new theater & more

RIGHT ABOUT NOW EVERY YEAR FOR THE PAST ELEVEN YEARS before 2021 the hustle and bustle’s hit performance spaces large and small in Portland and environs – an energetic outpouring of new work at just about every stage of development, from first reading to workshop to staged reading to full-blown premiere production. In an ordinary year the Fertile Ground festival of new works presents more than 100 pieces of theater, dance, film, and other performance, by Oregon artists, from first-timers and unknowns to projects from the biggest performance companies in town. It’s been a creative free-for-all, predictable in its unpredictability, a sprawling mega-event in which you never know what you’re going to see next, and that’s a very big part of the fun.
 

Scene from Myhraliza Aaza’s “Oh Myh Dating Hell,” debuting at 9 p.m. opening night – Thursday, Jan. 28 – in this year’s online Fertile Ground festival of new works.

This year, of course, is far from ordinary – and so, Fertile Ground 2021 is far from ordinary, too. You might say it’s breaking new ground, which might be as fertile as the old, but in very different ways. Fertile Ground opens today – Thursday, Feb. 28 – and continues through Feb. 7 entirely online, with a lineup that’s both curated and vastly reduced: thirty-six projects, all created to be streamed online, making their debuts over the run of the festival and available to view on the festival’s Facebook and YouTube channels through Feb. 15. Streaming the shows is free, although the festival is happy to accept donations.

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DramaWatch: Uncommon Ground

Fresh voices and surprising ideas emerge through the annual Fertile Ground festival of new work, and the theater week stays busy elsewhere, too.

The time has come again for Portland’s annual mid-winter performance bloom. Fertile Ground, “a city-wide festival of new works,” marks its 11th year and features 11 days of world premiere plays, play readings, workshop productions of works in-progress, dance, puppet shows and so forth. Dozens of shows in dozens of places around town, some ticketed, some free, almost all accessible with a $70 festival pass — that “almost” caveat necessary because many shows sell out or at least producers of popular shows fill up the reservations set aside for pass-holders.
In any case, it’s a great time to take time to race around (obeying all traffic codes and etiquette, mind you) and indulge in the cold-weather cornucopia. 

In addition to the basic concept outlined above, you’ll want to consult the 2020 festival guide or its online equivalent to help make choices about what to see. It’s a lot to take in and even after — perhaps especially after — perusing the 24-page guide you’ll have questions. I did. So I called festival director Nicole Lane.

“Who the heck are all these people??”

Well, actually I tried to make the question sound more professionally journalistic than that. I mentioned that in the festival’s early years it featured major productions by big companies such as Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep, but that’s no longer the case. And that projects seems less likely these days to come from the ranks of theater artists and writers whose work we see the rest of the year. But I was really asking who are all these writers and directors and producers I’ve not heard of before.

Fertile Ground festival director Nicole Lane. Photo: courtesy of Fertile Ground.

“Fertile Ground has evolved in terms of meeting the needs of Portland artists,” Lane replied. “It was founded upon a very open, non-adjudicated process.”

In the beginning — not coincidentally, she pointed out, when she and festival founder Trisha Mead were working for some of those big theater companies — the big producers were paying attention to the opportunity the fest presented and scheduling new works in conjunction with it. But the overlapping complications of new-play development and season planning make it difficult to keep getting brand new plays produced and also make sure they get staged at such a particular spot on the calendar.
Lane points out that the large companies are “finding ways to be supportive without putting shows in,” such as the panel discussion on IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) that PCS is hosting on the festival’s final day, Feb. 9.

As for the folks who are in the festival, Lane was kind enough not to point out that the fact that I haven’t heard of them probably says more about me than about the artists in question. Instead, she gently reminded me that, ““one of the major tenets of Fertile Ground is producer education and opportunity — developing a new crop of producers alongside the new crop of works and ideas.”

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DramaWatch: Standing on a Rock

What was and what is, from Sacagawea to Standing Rock, in Mary Kathryn Nagle's time-traveling tale "Crossing Mnisose"

A bit of banter between a couple of young indigenous protesters at Standing Rock drills down wryly and comically on one of the key issues in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s new time-hopping play Crossing Mnisose: the way that many white people either venerate or underestimate nonwhite people, falling back on shopworn assumptions rather than taking the time to listen and learn and simply respect.

Carey (Nathalie Standingcloud), a young woman from nearby Bismark, and Travis (Robert I. Mesa), a key student activist in the 2016 fight to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline that poses a threat to reservation land and burial sites, break into an impromptu comedy routine about the ways that white New Agers approach them as embodiments of mystical indigenous powers. The mimicry’s spot-on, and only a little exaggerated, which makes it all the funnier, in a shoulder-shrugging, with-friends-like-this sort of way. It’s almost a courtship dance, tough and affectionate and satiric and seductive all at once.

Robert I. Mesa and Nathalie Standingcloud, flirtatious at Standing Rock. Photo by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Time warps in Nagle’s plays, or rather, overlaps. The past is prologue to the present, an enduring chord within a freshly written song, the sins of the fathers visiting generations to come. Nagle’s play Manahatta, which premiered last season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and opens next month in New York, bounces between the stories of a Lenape woman in the 1600s, when Dutch settlers began to take over Manhattan, and a modern-day Lenape woman who is a high-powered securities trader on Wall Street, which sits on land from which her ancestors were evicted.

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