Anna Deavere Smith

Love & loss in the time of coronavirus

With stages shut down, the work's stopped cold. Bobby Bermea asks his fellow performance artists: Can the fire be relighted post-pandemic?

It’s weird when you wake up one day and realize that everything is different. 

For me, just how different hasn’t fully hit me yet, not even more than a month later. I still feel insulated, like I’m in a bubble where time has become elastic, amorphous. It takes an enormous effort just to intentionally shape the course of a given day. How many times already have I eaten at 11 at night or woken up at 11 in the morning? As violinist Michelle Alany puts it, the struggle is “trying to find some kind of rhythm and structure so I don’t lose the art and creativity.” 

In thirty years as a professional theater artist, I had never rehearsed a show for four weeks only to have it cancelled right before we opened. PassinArt’s Seven Guitars, which was scheduled to open in March, was the first. By that time, I think we’d all seen the handwriting on the wall. I remember the morning the call came that it was over: It felt like I’d woken up in another dimension. It wasn’t the last time I was going to feel that way. 

Since that day I have heard innumerous people describe this moment in history as “crazy” or “surreal” or “like science fiction.” Except, it’s not like science fiction. Face masks. Rubber gloves. Zoom. Science fiction is now real life.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


As I write this, about 37,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, about 420 a day since the first confirmed U.S. case on Jan. 21 (the first known U.S. death came five weeks later, on Feb. 28). That might not seem like much, considering that about 8,000 people die every day in the U.S. But the numbers are rapidly escalating. On April 16 alone, nearly 4,600 people in the U.S. died from coronavirus. That feels different. 

I have one friend who came down with COVID-19. She’s 70 years old and was my first harmonica teacher when I was working on Seven Guitars. She spent two weeks in the hospital. She has nothing but great things to say about the medical professionals who took care of her. But the disease is no joke, and she felt like hell most of the time she was there. While she was in the hospital we stayed in contact via text (talking took too much out of her). One of the times I checked in to see how she was doing, she texted back, “Feeling shitty! Everything pisses me off!” I suspect that anger helped get her through it. She’s home now. A nurse visits her three times a week. Only today she was told that she can go outside if she wears a mask and practices social distancing. It’s an incredible victory. 

Author Bobby Bermea in CoHo Theatre/Beirut Wedding World Theatre Projects’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train”: “If the actor cannot exist in the same physical space with the audience, then theater doesn’t exist.” Photo: Owen Carey/2019

When the proverbial feces came into contact with the rotating blades of the proverbial air circulation device, I called my parents and offered to come down to where they live in Southern California. I could do my job at Profile Theatre remotely, and I could help them by buying their groceries and taking care of whatever other needs they might have that took place outside of the house. My parents declined my offer, saying they were perfectly okay. 

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What’s up, doc? Let me down easy.

Profile Theatre winds up its season with Anna Deavere Smith's deep dive into health care in America. It's a matter of life and breath.

How are you feeling? Been to the doctor lately? How’s your health insurance? Uncovered emergency bills draining your wallet and shooting your blood pressure through the stratosphere? Go to the closest hospital instead of the in-network hospital for that medical emergency, and now you’re stuck with the entire thirty-thousand-dollar bill? Welcome to health care in America.

And welcome to Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith’s remarkable series of linked monologues that are getting a remarkably vivid and engaging performance through June 16 from Profile Theatre. Smith’s play both is and isn’t about such pertinent questions. First produced in 2008 as a solo show performed by its author, Let Me Down Easy predates Obamacare, “death panels,” skyrocketing costs on crucial medications, the relentless right-wing campaign to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and leave millions with no coverage at all, the state-by-state assault on abortion and reproductive rights, and the rising rebellion against private insurance companies and demand for single-payer health coverage.

Vana O’Brien as Texas Governor Ann Richards. Photo: Brud Giles

In a political sense, then, Smith’s play is last decade’s news. And yet it still feels fresh and up-to-date, because it’s less an agitprop play about specific policies than an inquisitive investigation into people’s attitudes toward life and death and the ways we think about what a healthy life means. In one way or another each of the twenty-odd characters in Let Me Down Easy is dealing with questions of mortality. As James H. Cone, a minister, puts it in the opening monologue: “Let. Me. Down. Easy. Those are words of a broken heart.”

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DramaWatch Weekly: Left Hook

Rich Rubin's Portland boxing tale, part of Vanport Mosaic, takes a jab at the city's woozy racial history. Plus the week's openings and closings.

“Let me tell you somethin’, boy. You never know what’s comin’ … and the sooner you learn that, the better off you be!”

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A few years ago, when playwright Rich Rubin approached Damaris Webb about directing some of his work, she chose the play Cottonwood in the Flood because it told a piece of history unfamiliar to her, the fascinating story of the 1948 Vanport flood. Left Hook, another Rubin play that Webb is directing, in a production that opens Thursday night at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, gets closer to a history she knows. Extending the story of the repeated displacement faced by Portland’s black community, Left Hook is set in the 1970s, as urban renewal roils the Albina neighborhood that had absorbed the black Vanport diaspora a quarter century earlier.

Damaris Webb directs Rich Rubin’s play “Left Hook,” running May 24-June 10, as part of Vanport Mosaic. The cast includes Anthony Armstrong, Kenneth Dembo, Jasper Howard, Shareen Jacobs, Tonea Lolin, and James Savannah. Photo: Shawte Sims

Webb, who has chronicled her bi-racial background in a solo show called The Box Marked Black, grew up in the Irvington neighborhood and none of her family was forced to relocate for the major construction projects of the era – Memorial Coliseum, the I-5 freeway, and an abortive expansion plan for Emanuel Hospital. But she recalls that during the development of Left Hook she was shown a photo of the Black Panthers Portland headquarters when it was in the midst of being shut down by city officials. She recognized someone in the photo: her father, who worked for the Portland Development Commission.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Pop-up City

It's a week for short runs, from Chekhov to Twilight in L.A. – plus full-run shows on Patsy Cline, the Irish Troubles, and a sex crime coverup

Pop-up restaurants. Pop-up bars. Pop-up nightclubs, galleries, boutiques, publishing houses, concerts. We’re living in a pop-up world, so why not pop-up theater?

The traditional method of producing is to start a theater company, announce a season, and run a half-dozen shows for several weeks at a time. That still dominates, especially in the nonprofit theater world.

But more and more, quick-hit shows are spicing up the scene. You might not see reviews of them very often, because they’re in and out, here and gone. But a growing number of  producers and performers are taking advantage of short-run opportunities, and it takes a little scrambling to keep up.

What is the Fertile Ground Festival but a massive series of pop-ups? What about a company like Boom Arts, which exists to bring in a steady stream of political or experimental shows from around the world for very brief runs? What about the several play-reading series in town? And it’s not just small lean groups popping up and down. The two biggest theater companies in town, Portland Center Stage at The Armory and Artists Repertory Theatre, are playing the short-run, special-event game, too.

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DramaWatch: First Nations first

The week onstage: A trio of shows by Native American playwrights; some Freddie Mercury; "La Belle" returns. Plus, new seasons news.

With a rising anti-immigration fever sweeping the United States and President Trump’s threat on Tuesday to deploy military guards along the Mexican border until his exclusionary wall can be built, it is well and truly time for this: A trifecta of plays by Native American writers highlights Oregon’s theater week. Once again, now: Who’s interloping on whom?

“Manahatta”: Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores) and Mother (Sheila Tousey) think they are signing an agreement for the Lenape to trade with the Dutch indefinitely. Jakob (Danforth Comins, left) and Peter Minuit (Jeffrey King) have other intentions. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The world-premiere production of Manahatta, by Cherokee writer and attorney Mary Kathryn Nagle, is off and running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. A tale of then and now, it’s the story of Jane Snake, a securities trader who lands on Wall Street in 2008, on the island that was home to her ancestors until they were forced out in the 1600s, and the struggles of her contemporary family in Oklahoma.

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