August Wilson Red Door Project

Social engagement: politics, resistance, and art

2018 in Review, Part 5: Oregon ArtsWatch visited creators in all media who are addressing problems ranging from racism to climate change

The world is indisputably in a precarious position — not just politically and socially, but economically and even ecologically. It is a moment of crisis. Artists play a crucial role in moments like these, helping the rest of us arrive at a shared cognition of what is — of seeing, sensing, and feeling that roil of life in a way that clarifies, opens eyes, and maybe even showing us a way forward.

What struck me in compiling this year-end reading list on socially engaged art in Oregon is the extent to which artists strove not simply to see and interpret, but to peel back layers, to reveal what is largely hidden — either by design or by accident — by institutions, by geography, and even by the telling of history. There may be no “new” stories to tell, but too many stories haven’t been heard by those who need to hear them, by people who perhaps want to see, but don’t know how.

So dive into this compilation. There’s a bit of everything: visual art, theater, music, conceptual art, literature. And, of course, the usual disclaimer: The choices here are highly subjective and presented in no particular order, and obviously are not intended to be comprehensive.

 


 

Witnesses in a churning world

Artist Hung Liu says “Official Portraits: Immigrant” (2006, lithograph with collage) is one of three self-portraits representing stages of her life.

Sept. 27: ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks checked out a fall show at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem called Witness: Themes of Social Justice in Contemporary Printmaking and Photography. It featured a lineup of artists who look at the world through a lens that is both personal and cultural, and in a way that connects our present moment with history.

“The idea of art as a pristine thing, separated from the hurly-burly of the everyday world and somehow above it all, is a popular notion,” Hicks wrote. “But a much stronger case exists for the idea of art as the expression of the roil of life, in all its messiness and cruelty and prejudices and passions and pleasures and occasional outbursts of joy. Art comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is the world in which we live.”

The article is a mini-tour of the exhibition itself, with nearly 20 pieces accompanied by the artists’ personal statements reflecting the roil and rebellion of their creative processes.

 


 

David Ludwig: Telling the Earth’s story through music

Chamber Music Northwest performs ‘Pangæa.’ Photo: Tom Emerson.

July 27: “Pangæa was the single huge continent on Earth encompassed by one vast ocean over 200 million years ago – eons before dinosaurs, much less humans,” musician David Ludwig writes in the program notes for composition of the same name. “It was an entirely different planet than one we’d recognize today, lush with life of another world.” That’s the world Ludwig interpreted musically in the West Coast premiere of Pangæa, a piece inspired by the ancient Earth, and the threat of extinction as a result of human-caused climate change. Matthew Andrews talked to him about this extraordinary piece of music for ArtsWatch. Best of all: You can listen to it yourself.

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Talking a blue streak

The powerful "Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & Blue," from the August Wilson Red Door Project, furthers a public conversation about law enforcement and race.

“Ain’t no reason to lie, just me and you right now,” says a 22-year-old black man, standing center stage in only underwear.

His near-naked body slowly disappears as he pulls on black clothing and snaps in and buckles up layers of heavy riot gear. This black man is a police officer. This police officer is confiding something in the audience. Beneath all the modern paramilitary armor, he admits he’s still afraid.

So begins Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & Blue, presented by the August Wilson Red Door Project.

Cop Out is a series of monologues written for and with police officers. It is a companion piece to Hands Up, a piece written by and for African Americans dealing with police profiling.

Cop Out delves into the hidden realities of those men and women whose job it is to exist in the liminal space between order and chaos — realities that involve a tremendous amount of unexpressed trauma and fear.

Julana Torres takes the public to task for its irresponsibility in one of the complex, powerful monologues of “Cop Out.” Photo: Kathleen Kelly

Each monologue in Cop Out, directed by Red Door co-founder Kevin Jones, explores the never-ending nuance and complexity of each officer’s experience.

“So I Was Driving Along,” by Andrea Stolowitz, stands out as an especially challenging piece. Victoria Alvarez Chacon plays an off-duty black police officer who takes a wrong exit and gets lost in white suburbia. She is soon pulled over, with her daughter asleep in the back of the car. Tension rises as we hear the audible approach of black boots on concrete and the tapping of a gloved hand on her window. An aggressive light flashes on Chacon, and the first thing she sees, with “telescopic vision”, is the police officer’s hand resting on his gun.

“I’m starting to freak out. I’m a cop, and I’m freaking out. Why is his hand on his gun?,” she asks, as her heartbeat sounds through the speakers.

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“Ye think sin in the beginning full sweet,

Which in the end causeth thy soul to weep,

When the body lieth in clay.”

— from The Summoning of Everyman: a treatise how the high father of heaven sendeth death to summon every creature to come and give account of their lives in this world and is in manner of a moral play.

“Hey, everybody. Don’t be so crazy in life. Like, you may think all that ‘craziness’ is great initially because it’s really fun but, when you die, you may regret all that fun, because — though we honestly don’t know what happens when you die — we have this hunch that you could wind up someplace which is objectively worse than this one — and let’s call that ‘Hell,’ this state of eternal, unfathomable suffering. And this craziness, let’s call it ‘sin’ — this ‘sin,’ or at least too much of it, is our idea of how you wind up there. We think.”

— from Everybody, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Everybody dies.

Oh, so sorry! I forgot to say “Spoiler alert!”

Because when I say “Everybody dies,” I don’t mean — only — that anyone who reads this column will die (because that sounds rather threatening, and I actually love readers), or that all humans eventually will die (at least it seems that way so far). I mean that Everybody, the title character of the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Everybody, which opens Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, dies.

Facing Death with (varying degrees of) dignity: Ted Rooney (as Death, at left), John San Nicolas, Andrea Vernae, Barbie Wu, Michael Mendelson and Sara Hennessy in “Everybody” at Artists Rep. Photo: David Kinder

Everybody follows a similar template, albeit with a much breezier, funnier tone and a less doctrinaire path through the philosophical questions involved. Compared with the tricky satire of racial representations in An Octoroon, Everybody should be controversy free; but it presents a different kind of challenge: How do you cast somebody — anybody — to portray Everybody?

The clever, if complicated, solution that Jacobs-Jenkins employs addresses the issue of representation — not choosing a white male or any single type to stand in for all of us — but also the randomness of death. Out of a 10-person cast, five of the actors play varying roles, with an onstage lottery early in each show determining who will perform the role of Everybody, who will be Friendship, Kinship and so on. This means that those five actors have had to learn and rehearse five roles and be ready to drop into any of them at a moment’s notice — and that they (and the audience) have 120 potential combinations.

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DramaWatch: Going to the Chapel and we’re gonna see theater

Chapel Theatre Collective makes its debut in Milwaukie, the Red Door Project finds a helpful way to "Cop Out," Red Riding Hood goes Shaking the Tree, and more.

Jason Glick had no intention to run a theater company.

“I’d tried to start a theater company before, in Nashville, when I was in my twenties and I didn’t know what not to do,” he says. “And I was happy with my place in the community here, with the acting work I was getting at Artists Rep and such. Fundraising, worrying about where the money’s coming from for the next show, that kind of stuff was never on my bucket list.”

And yet, here he is at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, a performance space that opened earlier this year, preparing the debut show by  the resident theater company, the Chapel Theatre Collective.

“It really just fell in my lap,” he says, talking before a recent rehearsal of Anatomy of a Hug. “And there was a feeling that we’re in the right place at the right time.”

Jessica Hillenbrand (clockwise from front right) Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Amanda Vander Hyde and Jason Glick rehearse “Anatomy of a Hug” at Chapel Theatre. Photo: Danielle Weathers.

The place is a refurbished church a reasonable drive from Portland proper, not far off of highways 99 and 224. It has 99 seats on movable risers, a small bar for beer, wine and sodas, a computerized lighting board, and a basement eatery called the Secret Pizza Society (a relative  of the Southeast Portland vegan deli Papa G’s). The time is an era of increasing competition for too few performance spaces in the city. (The space also is the regular home of the dance company Trip the Dark., and the company Street Scenes also has plays scheduled there later this year.)

The origins of the Chapel Theatre Collective can be traced back to Milagro’s 2016 production Davita’s Harp, whose cast included, among others, Glick, Danielle Weathers and Illya Torres-Garner. Later, after Torres-Garner, who owns a construction company, had purchased the old chapel near his home, he also happened to be doing work on Glick’s house and talked about wanting someone to produce theater in his new space. Glick, a former Theatre Vertigo member,  joined on as artistic director, with Weathers, who’s been leading the Reading Parlor series at CoHo, and Torres-Garner as associate artistic directors.

The company will present three productions for its inaugural season, with Anatomy of a Hug looking like a very promising start. The script, by Kat Ramburg, concerns an awkward, TV-obsessed young woman trying to cope with the unexpected attentions of a sweetly enthusiastic co-worker and with an uncomfortable reunion with her mother, released from prison as she’s dying from cancer. Glick directs, with Jessica Hillebrand in the central role, plus Jacklyn Maddux, Murri Lazaroff-Babin and Shareen Jacobs.

Chapel Theatre Collective’s “Anatomy of a Hug” deals with the difficulty of getting close when you’ve become a wooden character in your own life story.

February will bring Stephanie Alison Walker’s Friends With Guns, with Torres-Garner directing Glick and Weathers, then sometime in the spring, Weathers will direct Torres-Garner and others in Rachel Bonds’ Curve of Departure.

Regardless of the choice of the scripts and the talent on stage, fledgling theaters can have a rough go of it. Is this a scary thing to be doing?

“Not when I’m in the rehearsal hall, ‘cause that’s my jam,” Glick says with a smile. But he’s approaching it all seriously. “We have to run it like a business, not like a bunch of theater kids having fun. It’s about not having egos but working together toward a collective goal. And I’m not in this for one season, My hope is that we’re doing this for long-term prospects.”

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An article in The New York Times from Sunday, Aug. 19 (sorry, I’m perpetually behind on my reading) examined two Oregon productions of Oklahoma!, the classic 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical being allowed some 21st-century interpretive elbow room. Chris Coleman is about to christen his new tenure as artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theater Company with his version, set amid an all-black town in the Oklahoma territory, of which there actually were a few. The approach was a hit — albeit a controversial one — for Coleman in 2011 at Portland Center Stage, producing an especially vibrant show that introduced local audiences to the marvelous Rodney Hicks, who starred as Curly (and later became Coleman’s husband).

What sparked the Times coverage, though — as the story’s “Ashland, Ore.” dateline suggests — is this season’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in which director Bill Rauch has recast the show’s driving romantic relationships with same-sex couples: Curly and Laurey both women, Will Parker and the slightly renamed Ado Andy both men.

Curly (Tatiana Wechsler, right) tries to entice Laurey (Royer Bockus) into accompanying her to the box social, in Bill Rauch’s unconventional Oklahoma! Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Writer Laura Collins-Hughes quotes Coleman about how “really, really picky” the Rodgers & Hammerstein representatives have tended to be about treatment of the shows, and suggests that both a lofty reputation in American theater and a longstanding relationship with Ted Chapin, who oversees rights to the catalog, where needed for Rauch to earn his leeway. Chapin, however, sounds more reasonable than rigid: “For anybody to think they have to be done in exactly the way they were originally done — I mean, that’s sort of Gilbert and Sullivan thinking. And Gilbert and Sullivan is kind of dead.”

Well, maybe so. (Note: Not “Gilbert and Sullivan are dead,’ which is long-established fact about the persons, but “Gilbert and Sullivan is dead,’ which is opinion about the work.)

But here’s the thing: Apparently neither Chapin nor Collins-Hughes caught what Rauch did with The Pirates of Penzance.

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Portland’s August occasions

The great playwright August Wilson takes the spotlight in Red Door's high-school monologues and PassinArt's gala and "Two Trains"

We’re in the middle of August Wilson Week in Portland, which is a very good place to be.

On Friday, PassinArt: A Theatre Company opens the great American playwright’s Two Trains Running at the Interstate Firehouse Center.

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.

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Jump for joy: August Wilson monologue winners, from left: third place winner Alyssa Marchant, first place winner Noreena McCleave, second place winner Kai Tomizawa. Wade Owens Photography

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.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Encore!

What goes around comes around: Portland performances ArtsWatch is happy to see again.

This week, let’s give it up for encore performances, from racially significant statements to heartwarming Christmas traditions. Turns out there are plenty of kinds of performances that make you go, “Hey. Let me see that again.”

The August Wilson Red Door Project’s “Hands Up” returns for two performances.

Here’s a serious one: This weekend, the August Wilson Red Door Project re-presents Hands Up for two nights only at Wieden + Kennedy. This collection of monologues features seven playwrights’ insightful, individual takes on a sadly recurring theme: police violence against Black people. Hands Up plans another (longer/wider) run in 2018, and your support now can help make that happen. Hopefully as the message reverberates, the atrocities that make it so necessary will abate. But even the best theater can only change a few minds at a time, so realistically, this may be the beginning of a long run.

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