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“Queens Girl”: a colorful, complicated coming of age

Rich, evocative writing and Lauren Steele's vibrant performance highlight a winning one-woman play at Clackamas Rep.

Over the course of decades writing about performing arts in Portland, I have come to recognize a certain sort of experience that I refer to as a “black dot show.” This is when I happen to glance around at the audience and notice that I am the black dot amid an auditorium full of white people. As a Portland native, I find these occurrences neither surprising nor uncomfortable. 

On a second scan of the crowd at Clackamas Repertory Theatre this weekend, I spotted a young family in the back row that tilted the melanin equation a bit, but I already was musing about the company’s choice to stage Queens Girl in the World — a play about black adolescence and identity in early-1960s New York — for what I would guess is the oldest and whitest audience among Portland-area theaters.

Lauren Steele as Jacqueline Marie Butler, navigating the tricky terrain of adolescence and the socio-political changes of the ’60s in “Queens Girl in the World” at Clackamas Rep. Photo: Travis Nodurft


I’m not the only person to find the choice surprising. In an unusually personal program note, the playwright, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, recalls her initial inclination to deny Clackamas Rep’s request for performance rights: “I pulled up your website and here’s what I saw: both of you (artistic director David Smith-English and managing director Cyndy Smith-English) are white. Your past theatrical seasons were white. Your theatre is located in a white community. You are outside of the City of Portland. Enough said.” But a follow-up phone call and a chance visit changed her mind.
“I should have remembered that embracing with curiosity, empathy and love the stories of those who look like ‘the other’ is the very definition of the theatrical impulse,” she wrote. “Silly me. How could I have forgotten that the more specific our stories, the more universal their themes?”

From the moment that Lauren Steele steps onstage as 12-year-old Jaqueline Marie Butler, all bright-eyed innocence and pin-point-polite diction, specificity is the hallmark of this terrific production. Written with abundant heart and loads of evocative detail, performed with winning vibrance, Queens Girl draws us in and charms us from the outset, then brings us along on a journey of surprising scope, depth and, yes, universality.

We meet Jacqueline — or Jackie, as she’s mostly called — on the stoop of her family’s two-story detached brick house in a neat but modest part of Queens, serenaded by the roar of planes on their descent to LaGuardia Airport. She comes across as sweet and sheltered. It’s quickly apparent that she’s hard at work, navigating and negotiating a path between the exacting uplift-the-race standards of her parents and the looser culture of the surrounding neighborhood. Her mother is a stickler for propriety, in speech and manners, such a model of Negro grace and bearing that Jackie refers to her not as “Mom” but as “Grace Lofton Butler.” By contrast, Persephone — a neighbor girl who is growing up a bit faster and less inhibited than Jackie — says things such as, “James ain’t feel me up! He jus’ kiss on me lil’ bit.”

It might seem at first that we are in for an engaging, lighthearted coming of age story. Jackie looks forward to confirmation classes at church, because her Grace will let her trade in her kid’s anklets for real stockings. When Grace begins talking tactfully of “womanly cycles,” Jackie is half puzzled, half excited: “Am I getting a bike?!” she wonders. Jackie’s social development briefly gets airborne with her first crush/kiss, then is blown off course when her parents transfer her from PS 124 to a private school in Greenwich Village, where suddenly she’s a black dot. 

All of this is easy to enjoy and easy to relate to, regardless of the racial/cultural specifics — Jackie’s or those of any audience member.

Steele is a wonderfully winning performer, and versatile to boot. (The program lists 13 roles portrayed by Steele, but as is often the case with such shows, this really is a single character telling us a story. While young Jackie vividly recreates the distinctive speech and mannerisms of the people in her life, we see these others strictly from her perspective, which is sometimes sensitive, sometimes broadly comic.) Director Damaris Webb has shaped the production with a sure and easy rhythm and unfussy, solidly supportive design work (Haley Hurita’s projections are especially effective). And Jennings’ writing is studded with descriptive gems: Jackie says her mother has a voice like “twilight-colored taffeta,” sketches an image of her proud West Indian father with his “dimples and brushed mustache,” and swoons at the 15-year-old boy whose recently changed voice sounds like “melting butter in a skillet.”

What ultimately elevates Queens Girl in the World, though, is the “in the world” part. By gradual, graceful, deceptively significant steps, Jennings builds her story (“semi-autobiographical,” according to Webb’s director’s note) outward from that unassuming front stoop, taking in larger ideas and events: the pros and cons of cultural assimilation, gradualism versus radicalism in politics, the tricky relationship of social-justice allies, the complex overlays of racial/economic/ideological identity, the cascading cataclysms of the march on Washington, the Birmingham church bombing, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X.  As she is at the outset, toggling between Persephone’s street vernacular and her mother’s textbook English, through all the growth and change and turmoil and learning Jackie repeatedly finds herself in complicated social dynamics, facing contradictory expectations, having to construct and calibrate an identity that fits herself and her situation.  

In that regard, maybe Jackie’s neither black dot nor black sheep, as much like any of us as different from us — not just a Queens girl in the world, but a chameleon riding a rainbow.

A punch to the civic jaw

Rich Rubin's "Left Hook," set in Albina when urban renewal was tearing the black district apart, packs a personal tale in a political wrapper

Rich Rubin’s Portland boxing drama Left Hook, set in the 1970s era of urban renewal when the city’s vibrant Albina black neighborhood was largely clear-cut for a hospital development that never occurred, had its world premiere Thursday at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center as part of the Vanport Mosaic Festival, and the timing was propitious. Earlier in the day President Trump had issued a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, the early 20th century heavyweight boxing champion who was convicted of the crime of transporting a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes – or, more frankly, of being a free black man in America who openly reveled in his wealth and talent and refused to “stay in his place.”

It was a put-up job, frankly racist, and without a shred of justification. The woman in question was one of Johnson’s many lovers, accompanying him willingly, and the irony is thick that after more than a century of politicians floating like butterflies away from the issue the president who finally pardoned him is a man who has used race- and immigrant-baiting code words to build a fervent following of angry white voters. (You can also say that however welcome the pardon is – and it is very welcome – the word “pardon” itself seems somehow insufficient, implying as it does that the person in question was guilty of a crime but is forgiven out of the goodness of the forgiver’s heart. “Exoneration,” stating clearly that a wrong has been committed and that the fault lies not with the accused but with the state that was the accuser, seems much more to the point.)

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 Bowen II. Photo: Shawte Sims

The crimes against the habitués of Ty’s boxing club and their Albina neighbors in Left Hook are softer (indeed, in legal terms there is no crime at all) but of equally disruptive, perhaps even devastating, consequence. What occurs is a potent blend of money, ambition and politics, a triumvirate that often sees high opportunity in the displacement of the poor and underrepresented. In Portland, urban renewal already had resulted in the bulldozing of Italian, Jewish, and working-class neighborhoods at the south end of downtown; the removal of miles of homes and other buildings to push three freeways through a thicket of neighborhoods, dissecting and isolating them in the process; and the destruction of a bustling black community and the jazz and nightclub scene that went with it to build Memorial Coliseum (the Portland Trail Blazers’ original home) and other “civic improvements.”

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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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Vanport Mosaic: story comes home

The Mosaic's citywide exhibits and events bring the many stories of Vanport back to life 70 years after the flood changed Portland history

“Stories need to be freed to do their work.” — Laura Lo Forti

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Memorial Day, 1948, was a seminal moment in the evolution of contemporary Portland. On that day, the city of Vanport, hastily constructed to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II, was wiped out when a dike gave way at 4:05 p.m. The swelling Columbia River came crashing through the breach, and by nightfall, there were at least 15 dead. Vanport, at one point the largest housing project of its kind in the United States and the second largest city in Oregon, was under water and some 18,500 people were left homeless.

A few of the fasces of Vanport. Photo: The City of Portland Archives

This Memorial Day week – Wednesday-Monday, May 23-28 – the Vanport Mosaic will commemorate the 70th anniversary of that cataclysmic event with a four-day festival of “exhibits, theater performances, a reunion/celebration of former Vanport residents, documentary screenings and recordings, poetry, tours of the historic Vanport City area and community engagement activities.” You can see the full schedule here.

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Solofest preview: e pluribus unum

Bag & Baggage Productions' new festival shines a spotlight on storytelling by excluded voices

It’s easier than ever for us to hear people who have long been marginalized. From vlogs to podcasts to YouTube and the rest, the proliferation of expressive avenues has revealed a tremendous demand to hear personal stories from once-stifled voices. “The rise of shows like The Moth shows that storytelling is becoming super-trendy,” says Bag & Baggage Productions’ artistic director Scott Palmer. “Whether on a podcast or a TED Talk, there’s a movement featuring the singular voice of the storyteller.”

As solo storytelling has spread, theater has followed. Theater artists like Anna Deavere Smith and others have used solo storytelling to widen the lens to include stories of America’s diverse cultures and experiences. “We’ve been noting over last few years an increased awareness and interest in solo performers across the country,” Palmer says, “especially when those pieces are tied directly into issues of equity and social justice.” For example, “there are significant implications of the #metoo movement — people listening to and respecting individual stories. They’re a touchstone of how we move through the world.”

Damaris Webb performs in Solofest this weekend.

Result: while in the past, inexpensive-to-produce storytelling was sometimes dismissed as “poor man’s theater” more suited to fringe festivals than mainstream venues, Palmer says, “the values of artistic excellence, commitment, and preparation have risen, and those barriers between theater and storytelling are coming down.”

That’s why, when the company moved into its intimate new venue The Vault last year, Palmer created Solofest, which he hopes will be an annual showcase for solo performers, especially those telling stories that reflect the company’s values of equity and diversity. Curated by Palmer and B&B associate artistic director Cassie Greer, this year’s debut installment features four different performers telling personal stories in a theatrical setting. Two stories will run at each performance in different combinations from Feb. 1-4 at The Vault. 

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FG reviews: Staging history

Cottonwood in the Flood, Deception, and One Weekend in October dramatize racially charged moments.

This year’s Fertile Ground Festival offered several plays relating to race and history. I caught readings of three of them, each in a different stage of development. All three show promise, as well as flaws that are easier to spot once they’re actually read before an audience — a prime reason Fertile Ground is so valuable.

The terrific cast of Rubin's Cottonwood in the Flood.

The terrific cast of Cottonwood in the Flood.

Cottonwood in the Flood

The story of a mid 20th century African American family that moves from south to north and deals with the challenges of social, economic, racial and even geographical change — it sounds like an ideal set up for an August Wilson play, if the longtime Seattle based playwright had written about the Northwest he migrated to instead of the Pittsburgh he grew up in.

Wilson liked to write about how place changes over generations, and Vanport, Oregon — the site of Portland playwright Rich Rubin’s Cottonwood in the Flood and the aforementioned fictional family’s struggles — existed for only six years, before succumbing to the great flood of 1948, and becoming, along with Celilo Falls, Oregon’s Atlantis. It proved an eventful stretch, both militarily (with workers churning out important components of America’s World War II arsenal), and socially, as a de facto experimental precursor to racial integration.

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