Andrea White

Two tales in black & white

John Henry Redwood's "The No Play" at PassinArt and Dael Orlandersmith's "Until the Flood" at Center Stage dig deep into race in America

It’s 1949, in the Jim Crow town of Halifax, North Carolina, and a private atrocity that threatens to destroy a close-knit family is going down.

It’s 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, and a white cop shoots and kills a black teen-aged man, setting off a firestorm of rage.

It’s 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a gunman opens fire, killing 17 people. National Rifle Association spokesmen mock surviving students who push hard for stronger gun control, advocating for armed security in the schools instead. NRA membership spikes.

It’s 2019, in Christchurch, New Zealand, and yet another gunman opens fire, murdering 50 people in two mosques. Back in Parkland, two survivors of the high school shooting, still reeling from the trauma, commit suicide. After years of private grief, so does the father of a first-grader killed in the slaughter that took the lives of 14 children and three adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. The word “survivor” becomes complex and fraught with multiple meanings.

The stories of those first two years, 1949 and 2014, are being told onstage in two sterling productions in Portland right now: John Henry Redwood’s family drama The No Play at PassinArt: A Theatre Company, and Dael Orlandersmith’s solo stage docudrama Until the Flood at Portland Center Stage. Both are plays specifically about African-American life and the American original sin of racism. And both, perhaps surprisingly given their subjects, are enthralling in the telling. They’re just good theater, delivering pleasure along with a punch to the emotional gut.

I bring up New Zealand and Parkland and Sandy Hook as well because, although they represent a different sort of trauma – mass murders, not solitary events – they, too, are connected to a sordid history of violence that reaches back to lynchings and slave ships and the ethnic cleansings of indigenous people, forward to migrations and fears of the Other, inward to the itch for infamy. Christchurch was an act of violence aimed specifically at Muslims because they are Muslim, echoing America’s history of white-on-black violence. The tragedy of the past week’s suicides underscores the lasting effects of trauma on those who undergo it. No one escapes unscathed, although many come to terms with it and move on, altered. For many others, the trauma gnaws and shifts and settles in, defining memory and seeping into everyday life, sometimes overwhelming it.

Parkland and Christchurch have their own stories that are being told in their own ways. Remember that they’re linked – it’s all linked – and let’s move on to Halifax and Ferguson and the Portland stage:

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The No Play

“The No Play,” from left: Lydia Fleming, David Meyers, Kobi Flowers, Andrea White, Sami Yacob-Andrus. Photo courtesy PassinArt

The talented John Henry Redwood’s 2001 play is a fiction, although it’s based on a thousand historical realities, and despite the trauma that sets its conflict into motion it’s largely a celebration of strength, mercy, forgiveness, and survival – and, yes, a little vengeance, too. I was going to write that at the story’s heart is the long history of the rape of black women by white men, but that’s not quite right. Rape, and the belief in racial supremacy that breeds it, is the evil of the tale, the thing that violates and poisons and spreads. The play’s heart lies in the ways the victims respond – the strength and even grace of the dispossessed who have been immorally and violently possessed.

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November surprise at Post5

As "Coyote on a Fence" opens, the company is rocked by resignations and the news that it is losing its Sellwood space. (P.S.: the show is good.)

The true drama of Coyote on a Fence, Post5’s newest show, came after the performance: It’ll be the company’s last production in its Sellwood home. What’s more, ArtsWatch has learned, artistic directors Rusty Tennant, Paul Angelo, and Patrick Walsh tendered their resignations on Nov. 1.

While passing the traditional Post5 giving basket, Coyote  lead actor Jeff Gorham told the audience the company had put on some good productions over the last five years, but this would be it in Sellwood. Board member Stefan Feuerherdt said Monday in an email that the company has found other spaces for the last productions of its current season, and will be exploring options for what’s next with Post5. Oregon ArtsWatch will report more as the story unfolds.

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Farewell, Sellwood: Post5 jumps off the fence.

Farewell, Sellwood: Post5 jumps off the fence.

Almost anticlimactically, Coyote on a Fence has a lot going for it, beginning with a Death Row inmate named John Brennan, who has the sort of sensitive intelligence that we often underestimate in our stereotypes about the South. He carries a torch for the English language and its infinite possibility to tell a story with precision and care. His wardrobe is dictated by the times, doing hard time on Death Row. Post5’s Coyote on a Fence is a well-rounded look into prison and the people in its orbit.

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A hunger for a new mythology

Defunkt's "The Udmurts" comes from somewhere over there, riding on horses and a sense of possibility

Once upon a time there was a place called Europe, a place called Russia, a place called the U.S.S.R., and finally, all the places that fell in between. Somewhere it happened that a great migration of people came over to the United States and brought with them their lanterns of culture. Defunkt and playwright David Zellnik dip into the warmth and adventure of this uprooting in their unlikely (of course, that’s how all fairytales begin) play The Udmurts.

The first things you should know are that the Udmurts are a people, and that horses may house spirits. Horses in their elegant frames have travelled with us across regions: in their large and fiery eyes, through millennia and breeding, hoof by hoof, they counter us. We test our freedom, in our companionship with horses, by aligning ourselves with these almost domesticated animals. It is in this wildness, the canter of it, where  Zellnik’s tale begins.

Syharath and Geesman, bonding in otherness. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Syharath and Geesman, bonding in otherness. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

When wild people are settled in and grow older, their habitats seem unreal; they contain an uncomfortable ground. No one likes to sit with the dead. More than that, no one likes to sit with people who live between the living and the dead.

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