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$1.1 million for poets laureate

ArtsWatch Weekly: Oregon Laureate Anis Mojgani has projects for the money. Plus: Classical gets up close, theater busts out all over, Mosaic, egg art, more.

IT’S NOT EVERY DAY THAT ARTSWATCH GETS TO ANNOUNCE MORE THAN A MILLION DOLLARS GOING TO THE POETS OF AMERICA. Today is one of those days. On Thursday morning the Academy of American Poets announced awards of $1.1 million for the 2021 Poet Laureate Fellowships, “given to honor poets of literary merit appointed to serve in civic positions and to enable them to undertake meaningful, impactful, and innovative projects that engage their fellow residents, including youth, with poetry, helping to address issues important to their communities.” Funding comes from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. That breaks down to $50,000 each for 23 state or city poets laureate in the United States ($25,000 each for the two poets who share Montana’s laureate position). And Anis Mojgani, Oregon’s poet laureate, is among the award winners.

Oregon Poet Laureate Anis Mojgani: $50,000 for projects around the state. Photo: Tristan Paiige

If large sums of money and the quiet pursuit of poetry seem somehow incompatible, consider the words of Dolly Levi, as she famously declares in Hello, Dolly!, the Broadway-musical adaptatation of Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker: “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”

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Stage & Studio: Vanport Mosaic 2021

The 6th annual festival is in full swing with virtual, indoor and outdoor activities through June 30. Dmae Roberts talks with founders Laura Lo Forti and Damaris Webb.

We The People (Remember – Repair – Reclaim – Re-imagine)

Dmae talks with Laura Lo Forti and Damaris Webb, co-directors of Vanport Mosaic, a multidisciplinary organization that devotes itself to memory activism through visual and performing arts, history and community dialogue. First formed to honor the history of the devastating 1948 Vanport Flood, the organization has embraced inclusivity to the point that this year its sixth annual festival includes 200 artists, activists, cultural organizers, historians, media makers, grassroots groups and nonprofits, all reflecting on what the WE means in the festival’s theme “We The People.”

Last year, during the height of shutdowns and quarantines, the festival was one of the first organizations to adapt into a virtual offering of performances, films and panels. This year, as a portion of Oregonians feel they’re ready to emerge, slowly, in public to attend events, the Vanport Mosaic Festival offerings include outdoor walking experiences and small indoor gatherings, sprinkled with some online virtual events.

In this podcast, we’ll hear about some of the virtual and in-person events.

Subscribe and listen to Stage & Studio on: AppleGoogleSpotify, Android and Sticher and hear past shows on the official Stage & Studio website. Theme Music by Clark Salisbury.

On co-directing the Vanport Mosaic organization, Dmae asks, what is their secret sauce?

Laura: “I don’t think there is a secret. I think there is a genuine respect for each other and genuine friendship. I’m constantly in awe and inspired by Damaris, and we both share (a) resistance to certain formula. We don’t believe in this words like ‘leadership’ but kind of in a horizontal way, meaning that we make decisions in a very easy and fun way…. and with the hundreds of people we collaborate with so it doesn’t feel (like) a struggle. It doesn’t feel a competition. We always feel there is an abundance of resources if we collaborate instead of compete with each other and especially with all the other organizations. So that that’s really, I think also she’s really fun and beautiful.”

Damaris: “I think that we both have a resistance to those kinds of constraints. When we try to imagine the stories or the relationships that need to be supported. We’re like, well, what would that look like? Not what, what should it look like? What would it look like? What does it want to, to be? There (are) all these levels happening concurrently, and we don’t have a season, rather we have initiatives. And some of them just go on for as long as – they’re still going, they’ve been going for years. And then other things morph into something else. So I think it’s also that neither of us is particularly interested in the product as the product, but that there are moments of opportunity to share. And there’s all kinds of like, different variations on that theme for anything.”

On the presentation of Act II of ‘Martha Bakes: a Biography of a Revolution and Insurrection that never happened,” a new play written by Don Wilson Glenn, directed by Damaris Webb and featuring Victoria Alvarez-Chacon as Ona Marie Judge.  Online at  7 and 9 p.m. Friday, June 4.

Damaris: “George Washington has recently passed away and in the will, he has suggested that the slaves be free upon Martha’s subsequent death, which has led to a slave uprising. Because if all that’s standing between you and freedom is one woman … Well, and she’s locked herself in the kitchen and proceeds to reflect on her life while baking us a three-course meal. The second act is about their runaway slave Oona Marie Judge, who we know even less about. In fact, I never heard about her growing up and in his history class. And then the third act, well, you’ll have to wait and see…”

About the intersections of Laura interviewing Mr. Kent Ford for an oral history when Damaris spotted a familiar photo.

Damaris: “Mr. Ford had been offering this walking tour, his memories of the Albina area. Laura had met him and made a documentary interview with him. A few years ago…Laura screened the interview of Mr. Ford, and there was a picture of my dad that I’d never seen before in there. And so then I realized that Mr. Ford and my dad had known each other.”

And that’s how Mr. Ford  history tours became an integral part of the festival and perhaps is the secret sauce of Vanport Mosaic.

Laura: “And this is often the case, and that’s why we call ourself a platform, because we want to be able to support these relationships. It all starts with a relationship, with a real connection. It’s never something that starts with, with our brains. We tell story with and not about. And so that’s why I think that’s really the secret sauce here. It’s all based on real genuine relationship.”

Walking through Portland with a Panther: the life of Mr Kent Ford, All Power” a new play by Don Wilson Glenn based on the walking tours with Mr. Ford, co-founder of Portland’s chapter of the ’60s-era black empowerment organization the Black Panthers. Virtual table reading, 1:30-3:30 p.m. June 12.

Mr. Ford’s walking tours are Saturday, June 5 and 19, 10 a.m. to noon, gathering at the Matt Dishman Community Center, 77 Northeast Knott Street, Portland. United Walking tour of Albina led by Kent Ford. Listen to Mr. Ford’s memories of revolutionary activism and community service. 25 max per tour. Masks required.

Two photos from the upcoming film adaptation of “SOUL’D”

SOUL’D: the economics of our Black bodies (the Black Joy edition), a performance piece adapted for film, 7-10 p.m. June 19, Echo Theatre, 1515 Southeast 37th Avenue, Portland.

Damaris:SOUL’D is an investigation into what ways our Black bodies have participated in the American economic dream. And it’s referred to as a devised piece. So part of it is who is in the collective ensemble at the time where we’re, you know, relooking again. So each time the pieces, a new piece with some continuation of story.”

Other events discussed (but not all!). Listen to the full podcast to hear about more of Vanport Mosaic Festival events:

About the We The People Weekend with Zine Machine, a collaboration with Taylor Valdes of The Venderia and A’Misa Chiu that includes a vending machine distributing free memory activism zines, postcards, CDs in North Park Blocks from 10 a.m. Friday, June 25, through 6 p.m. Sunday, June 27. This also inlcudes Soul Restoration Rituals, a series of morning and evening artistic (music, poetry, dance) offerings involving several artists, curated by Darrell Grant. 

Come Sunday by Darrell Grant, a  self-guided sound walk in collaboration with Third Angle Music, is available through June 30. The walk begins at Denorval Unthank Park, 3920 North Kerby Avenue. It’s inspired by inner-Northeast neighborhoods that were once home to more than 200 Black churches.

For a full schedule of Vanport Mosaic events, visit: https://www.vanportmosaic.org/festival2021-schedule.

Martha Bakes in Black & White

Fertile Ground 2021: Playwright Don Wilson Glenn and director Damaris Webb take a historical spin through the first First Lady's kitchen

You’d be hard-pressed in 2021 to find a more dynamic force in Portland theater than Damaris Webb. In the past few years she’s acted, directed, collaborated, written and produced at a dizzying pace, sometimes doing all five things at once on a given work of art. Webb and Laura Lo Forti are the twin engines that propel Vanport Mosaic, a multifaceted art nonprofit that specializes in “memory activism,” preserving and holding space for voices and stories from the greater Portland area that have been marginalized if not outright suppressed. 

If that weren’t enough, a couple of years ago, Webb played the mother of a legend in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s …And In This Corner: Cassius Clay. She conceived and then created, with a host of other Black artists, Soul’d: the Economics of Our Black Bodies, Vanport Mosaic’s powerful exploration of how the exploitation of Black bodies has been integral to the American economy since its inception. Webb directed the Confrontation Theatre/Portland Playhouse co-production of Dominique Morriseau’s searing Pipeline, a heart-wrenching piece about the prison-industrial complex. When it’s noted how much of her work is built around social justice, Webb says frankly, “Well, I’m Black and I’m a woman. What else am I gonna talk about?” 


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


That clarity of purpose is front and center in Vanport Mosaic’s new offering for this year’s Fertile Ground festival of new works, Martha Bakes, a brand-new piece (naturally) written by Webb’s long-time collaborator Don Wilson Glenn, directed by Webb, and starring Webb’s high school classmate, Portland stage veteran Adrienne Flagg, as none other than Martha Custis Washington. It premieres at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 2\31, on the festival’s Facebook and YouTube channels, where it will remain available to view for free through Feb. 15. 

(Glenn has another piece in this year’s Fertile Ground Festival, Troy, USA, which he co-wrote with Dmae Roberts, and which is being produced by Bag&Baggage as part of that company’s Problem Play Project. It premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31, at Fertile Ground.)

Playwright Don Wilson Glenn, author of “Martha Bakes” and co-author with Dmae Roberts of “Troy, USA,” both premiering online Sunday, Jan. 31, at Fertile Ground.

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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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