Bobby Bermea

Museums set sail for Reopenland

ArtsWatch Weekly: The doors swing open, carefully. Plus: Black & white in America, "new normal" in the wayback machine; follow the money.

WHILE MUCH OF OREGON’S CULTURAL WORLD REMAINS FROZEN IN LOCKDOWN, the ice is beginning to thaw in the river of art. A lot of commercial galleries have been open by appointment for some time. Now Portland’s three biggest museums are also reopening their doors for visitors:

  • OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, is open already, complete with its under-the-skin exhibit Body Worlds & the Cycle of Life, although many of its popular interactive attractions are under strict control.
     
  • The Oregon Historical Society Museum reopens Saturday, July 11, with several attractions including the exhibition Nevertheless, They Persisted: Women’s Voting Rights and the 19th Amendment. 
     
  • Across the Park Block from the history center, the Portland Art Museum swings open its doors again on Thursday, July 16, with several exhibitions including its big Volcano! celebration of Mount St. Helens forty years after its explosion and its Robert Colescott retrospective Art and Race Matters. The museum will welcome visitors with free admission the first four days of its reopening.
When the Portland Art Museum reopens on July 16, so will the special exhibition “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott.” Pictured: “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook,” 1975, Acrylic on Canvas, 84 x 108 inches. © Estate of Robert Colescott / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo: Jean Paul Torno

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Dangerous Days: Being Black in America

Wondering why "Black Lives Matter" matters? The answer's baked into the nation's racial attitudes and its acceptance of police violence

These are the most dangerous days to be Black in America. 

On May 25, via social media, the world watched George Floyd be brutally murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin. Since then, America has erupted in racial and social unrest – protests, riots, statues toppled, flags changed, cops out of control. Historically, there’s nothing America hates more than being called out for its racism, and it will do anything to not have to change its ways. The response to calls for social justice have been one hundred percent on-brand. Violence, thick and pungent and unpredictable, is in the air. These are the days when, in the past, churches were bombed and children were killed, civil rights leaders were assassinated, men were lynched, civil wars were fought. At the best of times, Black people live with the knowledge that at any moment, for any reason, everything they have fought for, built, achieved, can suddenly be snatched away because of the color of their skin. We learn to live with that awareness at an early age.* But in times like these, that awareness needs to be turned up to defcon five, because white America is on the defensive.

Tributes to George Floyd outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis, where Floyd died after a police officer held a knee to his neck for nearly 8 minutes. Floyd’s death sparked a national protest movement that is still going strong. Photo: Vasanthtcs / Wikimedia Commons

Today it’s the Fourth of July. I was asked to write this a month ago. But it’s been hard. I wake up every day angry. A long time ago I had to take an anger management class. In that class they taught us that anger is never the first emotion. There’s always something underlying that drives it: fear, frustration, guilt, pain. This has never been more apparent than in the past month. I wake up some days and my hands are shaking and it feels like I’ve had three cups of coffee before I’ve touched a drop. Turning on the news or social media is like stepping into the ring with a heavyweight. Every day, every hour, every minute, there’s a new video, a new outrage, a new spasm of violence. Responding, reacting, donating, writing. It feels like you’re at the beach trying to mop up the ocean. 

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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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The Week: Seatbelts & Bumpy Nights

The mirror crack'd: Dance, art, and theater ripped from the anxieties and tensions of an unruly world at large

WHAT A WEEK IT’S BEEN, RIGHT? Phone calls and whistleblowers and suppressions and impeachment hearings. A teen-aged climate activist who speaks sharply at the United Nations and prompts both cheers and jeers from the political-media talking heads. A fair amount of fiddling, if we can make a historical comparison, as Rome burns. The Ukrainian Affair looks dark and complex, which by coincidence is what Bobby Bermea has to say about Theatre Vertigo’s season-opening show, the world premiere of Dominic Finocchiaro’s play complex – small “c”, infinite anxieties. Bermea, in his pre-opening interview with Finocchiaro, calls Vertigo “the David Lynch of Portland theater,” and if it feels like we’re living in a David Lynch world, well, that’s life in the 21st century fast lane.

complex, hanging out in the no murder zone. Theatre Vertigo photo

ALSO OPENING THIS WEEKEND, at Portland Playhouse, is Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, a play about “the vim and vigor of a pack of adolescent warriors” who do their battle on the soccer pitch, and if that doesn’t remind you just a bit of the young climate activist Greta Thunberg playing on a much bigger field, well, I ask you. Meanwhile, Portland Center Stage is moving into preview performances at The Armory of what looks to be a hard-boiled, stripped-down, lean and mean Macbeth, with all of its raw palace intrigue, which gets me thinking also about Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II and “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and … well, things do circle around, don’t they?

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The Madness of Asae Dean

It's a Shakespearean double or nothing – in rep! –for the mastermind of Salt and Sage's "Troilus and Cressida" and "Antony and Cleopatra"

Making art is often a difficult and thankless proposition. Producing theater, in particular, can be even more of both. It follows that for most fringe theater companies, producing either Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra OR his Troilus and Cressida would be an arduous enough undertaking. Tackling both at the same time, as Salt and Sage Productions is doing with a repertory that opens on Friday, would be an epic task of Herculean proportions – maybe even a little crazy.

Salt and Sage artistic director Asae Dean probably wouldn’t even deny the charge. “Theatre is hard work,” she says on her website, “it’s supposed to hurt a bit – you should break a sweat, you should shed a tear – you are doing work that stretches the soul.” 

Asae Dean, double or nothing. Photo: Heath Hyun Houghton

IN THE DIGITAL AGE, THEATER IS THE LOWEST RUNG on the pop culture ladder, and Dean is the outsider’s outsider. She’s been knocking on the door for the past seven years and just can’t get in. “I’d be totally lying to you if I didn’t say that it disappoints me that it seems so hard to gain traction in this city,” she admits. Many who have tried to break into the Portland theater scene have found it a tough shell to crack. If you’re trying to break in solely as a director, it can be even more difficult. When you’re on the fringe level, producers either hire themselves or artists whose work they’re familiar with for the spots that do come open.

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Spotlight on: a theatrical ‘Jump’

In a leap of faith, Confrontation and Milagro collaborate on a "rolling premiere" of Charly Evon Simpson's new play

Expect the unexpected from Confrontation Theatre.

Its second full production, a co-production with Milagro, is Charly Evon Simpson’s Jump, which opens at the Milagro space on Friday. Two full shows in (its first full production was James Webb’s comedy Sibling Rivalry in 2017) and the nascent theater hasn’t come across as a company that, on the surface, might seem particularly “confrontational.” That’s just how artistic director La’Tevin Alexander Ellis wants it.

“Confrontation means to confront all topics,” Ellis says, “all things within the Black community first, and then those outside of our community. It’s not necessarily about picking a fight and arguing, and it’s definitely not just about racism, because that shit gets tiring. There’s not anything stereotypical. There are no caricatures. That’s the goal, that’s the plan – confronting all of that. Not just in the negative of trying to pick a fight with white people.”

Not that Confrontation is averse to more volatile subject matter. In smaller productions, it’s taken on Amiri Baraka’s searing The Dutchman (2015) and took part in 2016’s Every 28 Hours national series of extremely short plays in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. And its next show, another co-production (with Portland Playhouse), will be Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, a piece “about the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Ellis. “We’ll come back with the little bit about race there but it’s more about motherhood and how do we respond to this unjust, inadequate educational system.”

In other words, Confrontation Theatre is about presenting and exploring issues that confront the Black community in all its nuance and complexity. Which is what drew Ellis and the rest of Confrontation (actor Andrea Vernae, actor/director Tamera Lyn, sound designer Philip Johnson, education director Jasmine Cottrell and community outreach director Alagia Felix) to Simpson’s multi-faceted jewel of a play, Jump.

Andrea Vernae in “Jump.” Photo: Russell J Young

“These are just people going through human shit,” says Ellis, “and we’re watching it unfold before our eyes. It’s a story about something that really impacts our community but is not explicitly about our community.” Jump is a story that could happen to anybody. The family in this case just happens to be Black. Which is important because the play deals a lot with depression, which is as much of an issue in the Black community as elsewhere, but no one ever talks about it. “Historically, there is a lack of both diagnostic and treatment studies on depression. This lack of studies on depression in African Americans has existed for decades. African Americans are underserved, understudied, and misdiagnosed as a group.” A key study published in 2014 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, Misconceptions of Depression in African Americans, underscores that.

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Inside Fertile Ground: Six Tales

Bobby Bermea talks with the creators of "The Undertaking," "Sirens of Coos Bay," "The Tarot Show," "The Bad Hour," "Friends with Guns" and "Hazardous Beauty"

For the past ten years, Fertile Ground has been the most dynamic event of the Portland theater season. For eleven days the city is engulfed in theater that is by turns thrilling, preposterous, fantastic, raw, hilarious, scary, brutal, inconsistent, challenging, and courageous – sometimes all at once. For these eleven days, good or bad, professional or not, polished almost never, audiences encounter theater at its most honest, vital and perhaps even important — or dangerous.

There is the opportunity, at Fertile Ground, to see something magical. There is also a chance to see something that is totally raw and unfinished, or even just bad. And then there are the myriad stages in between. It’s new work. Anything can happen. What Fertile Ground provides is the opportunity to be present at the exact moment that the spell is being cast.


FERTILE GROUND FESTIVAL 2019


Few moments in life bridge the gap between the magical and the mundane like the act of creation. Inspiration, where it comes from and why, is a mystery that borders on the supernatural. But getting from inspiration to actualization demands discipline and hard work. Sometimes hard work is encapsulated in the nuts and bolts, the rolling-your-sleeves-up and getting-your-hands-dirty. Other times, hard work can mean recognizing what’s holding you back – and then overcoming it.

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