Dael Orlandersmith

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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DramaWatch: Imago flies again

Plus: New boss in Ashland, Ferguson comes to Center Stage, Portland Playhouse's Crowning glory, a rolling "Jump," Just play "No," and more

What’s up at the theater? Funny you should ask.

Last May a wonderfully peculiar vision flew onto the Portland theater scene, and far too quickly, before all but a few people had had a chance to see it, flew off again. Well, spring’s arrived, and To Fly Again, Jerry Mouawad’s dancerly swan of a play, has landed at Imago Theatre again. It opens Friday for another brief run as part of Imago’s Next Wave Festival, and you should try to catch it before it flies the coop yet again on April 6.

The dusty dancers in Imago’s “To Fly Again.” Photo: Jubel Brosseau

I reviewed last year’s production, which had the same cast as the current one (you can read the full review here), and here’s what I wrote, in part:

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‘Forever’: swift wrinkles in time

Dael Orlandersmith's solo play at Portland Center Stage tells a gripping tale of the past and present mingling and shifting together

Forever is a fascinating title for Dael Orlandersmith’s equally fascinating solo play at Portland Center Stage, because the show traverses the fragile line between life and death. It dives deeply into the ways the two indelibly imprint one another in spite of the barrier between them: life begins and endures and ends, and yet it ripples on, becoming texture and meaning in another life, and on and on, forever.

Does this sound heavy? Well, it is. And yet it’s also light, because, although it travels relentlessly into dark places, Forever does so with a wit and warmth that make the journey both personal and personable, a kind of harrowing adventure guided by a truthful yet gentle hand. And it is excellent theater. Orlandersmith the writer is an expert storyteller, skillfully slowing things down and speeding them up, slipping assuredly from subject to subject, editing herself superbly, knowing when to be merciless and when to be merciful – not just to the audience but also to herself, because this is her own story. Orlandersmith the performer is congenial and enveloping, an actor with formidable presence and impressive range.

Orlandersmith, encompassing. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Orlandersmith, encompassing. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Staged simply in the company’s intimate downstairs Ellen Bye Studio, with little but a table, a chair, a turntable, and a tacked-up surround of memory photos, the 80-minute performance alternates between conversational ease and intense psychological drama. Orlandersmith manages the shifts subtly and sometimes shockingly: she can drop like a plummeting elevator into emotional depths that slow time down, and then ease her way back up again.

Forever, which opened Friday night at Center Stage, begins in a cemetery, Père Lachaise in Paris, where Orlandersmith has traveled to visit the graves of some of her heroes and heroines – Apollinaire, Proust, Richard Wright, Colette, Jim Morrison. At the cemetery, Orlandersmith finds herself part of an unlikely family, from the surly aunt guarding Morrison’s gravesite to the concerned gentleman to the awkward young woman who reminds her of herself. One way or another everyone’s here because of the famous people who are laid to rest in the cemetery grounds, and because of the effect their art and achievements still have on the living.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: February roars

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

The Fertile Ground festival of new works is tucked safely in bed for another year, and the city’s still tuning up for the Portland Jazz Festival, coming February 18-28 (Charles Lloyd! Dianne Reeves! Sonny Fortune! Brian Blade!). That doesn’t mean you get to relax. We’re heading into an extraordinarily busy week, from theater openings to First Thursday in the galleries to a revamped Late Now to the Oregon Symphony’s visit to The Planets, with a side trip to some piano parables by Paul Schoenfeld.

Enough with the intro. Let’s dive right in, starting with theater:

Dael Orlandersmith. Photo: Mikey Mann

Dael Orlandersmith. Photo: Mikey Mann

Forever at Portland Center Stage. The newest from writer/performer Dael Orlandersmith, in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio. Marcel Proust, Richard Wright, Jim Morrison, and the legacies of family, biological and chosen. In previews; opens Friday.

What Every Girl Should Know at Triangle. It’s 1914 in a Catholic reformatory. The new girl shows up, bringing an attitude and some contraband: pamphlets on birth control distributed by Margaret Sanger. Opens Thursday.

You for Me for You at Portland Playhouse. Gretchen Corbett directs Mia Chung’s provocative drama about two sisters attempting to flee North Korea. Opens Friday.

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