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Northwest history hits the stage in “Astoria” and “db”

CoHo's "db" experimented wildly with DB Cooper's tale, while Portland Center Stage's "Astoria: Part One" took a traditional trail

By HAILEY BACHRACH

While dramas about American history never went away, I believe that we are now in the midst of a kind of history play renaissance. In the ten years since the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced its intention to commission a cycle of 37 plays about American history, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History was created (and named the OSF-commissioned All The Way one of its first winners), Arena Stage in Washington, DC, has launched a project to create a 25-play American history cycle, and of course, Hamilton happened.

Given the events of the past ten years—not to mention the recent election cycle—it is not entirely surprising that we find ourselves in a moment of reflection about our past and how it has shaped our identity as a country. While Obama’s presidency did not in fact usher in the glorious vision of a post-race America, it does seem to have mainstreamed a conversation about how the picture of our past can be expanded. The current wave of history plays are not only traditional political tragedies about important white men—though those are there, too—but many are also investigations into how our understanding and narration of America’s history can be radically reshaped by previously silenced voices.

For example, the five finalists for the 2017 Edward M. Kennedy Prize are Lisa Loomer’s Roe, about the 26-year-old lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, and the young lesbian she represented, who became known to history as “Jane Roe” (an OSF commission); 24 Hour History of Popular Music, a marathon musical spectacle by prominent queer artist Taylor Mac; Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, focusing on the racial tensions in a factory town in the mid-2000s (OSF commission); Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen, a comedy about how his parents met as refugees from the Vietnam War (which played at OSF); and Indecent by Paula Vogel, about a 1920s Yiddish play that was banned for its depiction of a lesbian relationship (OSF commission). Even the settings of some of these plays feel fresh—rural Arkansas and Reading, Pennsylvania. Traditional visions of America’s history have not only been circumscribed by race and gender, but by geography. How often do we see histories that move beyond the borders of the 13 colonies?

I have long been struck by the fact that none of the plays the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned so far have been set in Oregon or the Pacific Northwest. So I was excited to see that two Portland companies would be filling the gap for the Fertile Ground Festival.

“Astoria: Part One” at Portland Center Stage/Photo by Jennie Baker

The epic, sumptuous historical drama of the season is Astoria: Part One at Portland Center Stage (closing this weekend; part two is already scheduled for next year). Based on the nonfiction book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark, the production is adapted and directed by Center Stage’s artistic director Chris Coleman.

And over at CoHo Productions, Tommy Smith’s db, which close earlier this month, tells the (possible) story of Dan Cooper, the still-unidentified skyjacker who diverted a Portland-to-Seattle commuter flight, then jumped out of the plane into the night with his $200,000 ransom strapped to his body. Some of the money later turned up in a river. Neither Cooper nor the rest of the money were ever found, spawning decades of theories about his ultimate fate.

Both are strong showings by their respective companies, and each of the two presents a very different model of the new American history play.

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Let’s see, now, where were we? Big inauguration, American carnage, big threats, bellicose speech. Bigger protest, millions of women, pink hats, sea to shining sea. Twitter wars unabated. Health care on the skids. War on reporters. Alternative facts.

And, oh, yes, tucked away there in the corner: a vow to kill the National Endowment for the Arts. And kill the National Endowment for the Humanities. And “privatize” the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which has mostly been privatized already, anyway. Cost-cutting. Getting tough on the budget. Victory for the taxpayers. (NEA 2016 budget: $148 million. NEH 2016 budget: $148 million. Percentage of total federal budget, each: 0.003. CPB 2016 funding via federal government: $445 million. Percentage of total federal budget, all three agencies: less than 0.02. Federal budget 2015 for military marching bands, $437 million. Taxpayer expense to build or renovate National Football League stadiums, past 20 years, mostly through local and regional taxes: more than $7 billion.)

A fiscal conservative or libertarian can make an honest argument for eliminating the NEA and NEH on grounds that they’re simply not an appropriate use of taxpayer funding; culture should be funded privately. Here at ArtsWatch we don’t agree with that analysis. We believe there are many valid reasons for government financial aid to culture, and that the payoffs to taxpayers are many, from economic – in healthy cities, the arts are job and money multipliers – to educational and much more. Historically, consider the continuing dividends of the WPA and other cultural projects underwritten by the federal government during the Great Depression of the 1930s: In Oregon, for instance, Timberline Lodge.

But there’s much more to this move than a courteous philosophical/economic disagreement. The move to defund the NEA has a long and embattled history, dating at least to the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s and ’90s, when a resurgent right-wing political movement convinced that artists were mostly a pack of degenerate liberals discovered that attacking the arts was a splendid red-meat issue for its base. They didn’t succeed in killing off the national endowments, but they did weaken them. The new administration seems to think it can finally finish them off. That would weaken state agencies such as the Oregon Arts Commission, which gets funding from the NEA, and in turn weaken arts organizations across the state, which get money from the OAC and, often more importantly, a stamp of approval that helps them raise private donations. Killing the endowments would be a rash move that would save hardly anything in the national budget and cause deep mischief to the nation’s well-being. It strikes us as petty and vindictive and, frankly, foolish.

It’s also a reach that might fail. Republicans like culture, too, and understand its value, and often support it generously. Traditionally, that has included Republican politicians. Will they fall in line with the new administration, or will they quietly scuttle its gambit? Keep your eye on this thing. We will, too.

 


 

Duffy Epstein and Dana Green in the premiere of the D.B. Cooper play “db.” Photo: Owen Carey

THE FERTILE GROUND FESTIVAL, Portland’s sprawling celebration of new works in theater, dance, solo performance, circus arts, musical theater, comedy, and other things that ordinarily happen on a stage, continues through January 29. ArtsWatch writers have been out and about, writing their impressions. You can catch up with some of them below:

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ArtsWatch Weekly: let’s start over

A new year, a fresh start: Oregon gets set for a cultural revival in January and 2017

We’ve got that nasty old 2016 in our rear-view mirror now, and as our newest Nobel Laureate for Literature once warbled, Don’t look back. Nothing to see there. Or too much to contemplate. Sure, sure: what happens in 2017 will build on what happened in 2016, which built on what happened in 2015, and on and on down the line. But right now, let’s look ahead.

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TRADITIONALLY, JANUARY IS IN THE MIDDLE of the artistic season and also the beginning of what’s called “The Second Season” – a chance to buckle down after the holidays and reinvigorate. Here are a few things, big and small, coming up this month to keep your eye on:

Kara Walker (American, born 1969), “The Emancipation Approximation (Scene 18),” 1999–2000, courtesy the artist. Part of “Constructing Identity” opening Jan. 28 at the Portland Art Museum.

Fertile Ground 2017. This is one of the biggies, made up of all sorts of “smalls.” Begun as an annual festival in 2009, it’s blossomed into one of the biggest, most sprawling, and most intriguingly unpredictable events on Portland’s cultural calendar. For eleven days, in venues scattered across the city, dozens of new performance works by Portland artists will take the stage: plays, dances, solo shows, puppet shows, interactive shows, musicals, more. Shows will range from the biggest companies to indie pop-ups, and from full-blown world premieres to workshops and readings. Trying to keep up is bound to leave you breathless. Jan. 19-29.

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