Bonnie Ratner

ArtsWatch Weekly: Confronting the great divides

America's battle with itself comes alive in a pair of plays, a book on the working-class tightrope, and a photo show about the persistent South

AS YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED DURING OUR RECENT IMPEACHMENT SPAT and other real or manufactured public outrages, we are living in deeply divided times. One of the roles of art is to look into such abysses and give them shape that either clarifies the issues or reveals them to be more confusing and complex than we believe. In times like these art is not simply decoration: It also can be, and likely should be, a relentless and unwaveringly human mirror. 

Jason Glick and Andrea White, caught in a Blind. Photo: Lindberg Media

Art often looks back to look forward. While watching Lynn Nottage’s brilliant play Sweat in its recently closed, knockout production by Profile Theatre, I felt the lurking presence of the late, great Arthur Miller in the hall. Nottage’s play, which deals with the economic crumbling of the American working class and the way such stresses also can reveal racial and other fault lines, suggests some of the underpinnings of populism’s hard turn to the right and left. It also feels like an updating and almost a reverse image of Miller’s 20th century social realism in the likes of All My Sons, a play that looks at the effects of economic skullduggery from the vantage of the owners, while Sweat considers its brutalizing effect on the workers.

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On the bridge: American true tales

Theatre Diaspora's "Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project" tells six stories of life from the nonwhite side of the national divide

Shareen Jacobs, performing the opening monologue in Theatre Diaspora’s Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project, takes her audience for a walk on the wild side. The wild side is the sidewalks and streets of Lake Oswego, the small and pretty Portland suburb often cited as Oregon’s safest city to live in, but which, in Josie Seid’s short solo piece Being Me in the Current America, can be very much something else again.

Minutes later, in his own piece See Her Strength, writer/performer Samson Syharath, in the midst of the story of his Laotian-immigrant mother’s fortitude and coming to terms with her new culture and her son’s gayness, lays his head softly for comfort onto Jacobs’ lap. Everything stops: It’s a moment of revelation and grace.

Samson Syharath and Shareen Jacobs in “See Her Strength.” Photo: Alex Haslett

On they roll, these short and telling stories, each its own tale yet all gathering force and strength from their mutuality. Sofia Molina’s firm yet gentle telling of Yasmin Ruvalcaba’s Carmelita, a story of danger and bravery and crossing the Rio Grande to the United States. The tough and sorrowful truth in Dré Slaman’s performance of Heather Raffo’s bone-rattling Lockdown Drills, about slain children and the psychic cost of mass-shooting lockdown drills in America’s schools: “Who grew this boy? This girl?” Shelley B. Shelley’s stubborn, wryly humorous, and sometimes angry performance in Bonnie Ratner and Roberta Hunte’s That Diversity Thing as a black lesbian blue-collar worker who loves her job but not the guff that comes with it: “Twenty years later I still hear that voice. ‘You’re only here because you’re black.’ Or, ‘You’re here because you’re a woman. That’s the only reason you’re here.’” Jane Vogel, in Dmae Roberts’ Harvest, her story of an Asian American woman growing up in rural and mostly white and inhospitable Oregon, and the state and family history of stolen land and incarceration during World War II: “It’s like the harvest was us.”

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Speed-dating at Fertile Ground

As the new-works festival gets ready for its tenth annual run, a horde of writers and performers check out the media (and vice versa)

And lo, on the third day of the New Year, a great clamor fell upon the multitude, and the dread Pealing of the Four Minutes rang out, and the people scurried from line to line, taking their spots in the sun, pitching their pitches, eager to be heard. And a mighty clatter and confusion arose, accompanied by press releases and business cards, and then the next wave burst, and the pieces shuffled yet again. And the creator of it all smiled, and said, “That’s good!”

It’s true. On January 3, in the upstairs lobby of Artists Repertory Theatre, producers, performers, directors, and writers of shows in Portland’s 10th annual Fertile Ground festival of new works met with members of the press, pressing them, as it were, with quick-hit details on their shows and why the media members should really, truly see and publicize them. Once again Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane was stage-managing this frenzy of what she calls “media speed-dating,” cracking the whip – or, more accurately, blowing a harmonica – to keep things moving swiftly along. What sometimes seemed like bedlam actually had a drill-sergeant efficiency: Line up in front of a press member sitting at a table. Take your turn. Make your pitch. You get four minutes. The mouth harp shrieks. You move on to another line, and someone takes your place.

The Fertile Ground speed-dating crowd. ArtsWatch’s contingent is tucked discreetly toward the back, hidden behind more dashing daters. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

This year, ArtsWatch’s contingency in the hot seats consisted of me and Marty Hughley, our theater editor and chief theater columnist. We made a deal beforehand. Marty would get the lay of the land, find out what’s out there, use his brief talks to help strategize our coverage, including which full productions to review. I would do my best to simply report the evening as it occurred from my table. And Bobby Bermea, who wasn’t at date night (sensible man), would tackle the festival from the inside, talking about the stages of some of the shows, and talking with artists about the process of creation. 

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