Dmae Roberts

A flood of memory, a mosaic of the future

ArtsWatch Weekly: The Vanport Mosaic Festival goes virtual, bringing the legacy of the great flood of 1948 into contemporary Portland

ON MEMORIAL DAY IN 1948 A RAILROAD BERM BURST in the lowlands just south of the Columbia River and north of Portland, sending a swiftly moving wall of water over the edge and inundating the city of Vanport, killing 15 people, leaving 17,500 homeless, and essentially wiping the city off the map. Vanport had been hastily constructed six years before to house workers and their families building warships in the Kaiser shipyards of Portland and Vancouver. At its height it had had a population of 40,000, making it the second-biggest city in Oregon at the time. In the decades since, the disaster has been forgotten by many, lost in the march of “progress” (Delta Park and the Portland International Speedway now sit where Vanport once thrived). For others it’s become an almost mythological touchstone, an emblem of what Portland and Oregon had been and what it would become, especially in its attitudes and actions about race. As Brett Campbell put it in his 2015 review of Rich Rubin’s play Cottonwood in the Flood, which debuted at an early Vanport Mosaic Festival and was set in Vanport in the 1940s, the city became, “along with Celilo Falls, Oregon’s Atlantis.” 

Henk Pander, “Vanport,” watercolor, 40 x 60 inches, from his series of large history paintings of the flood and its aftermath. Pander will be part of the Vanport Mosaic virtual festival in an online conversation, “Painting History,” with Chisao Hata and other artists who have depicted Vanport in their work. Image © Henk Pander 

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Playing chicken at the book bash

Stamina, lively conversation & Colson Whitehead's chicken recipes help our correspondent survive the crush of the AWP's national gathering

I don’t eat chickens, much less cook them. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the delectable chicken-themed keynote speech by Colson Whitehead that officially kicked off the 2019 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference the last week in March at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Established as a nonprofit group by fifteen writers in 1967, AWP “supports literary authors who teach, provides services, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 550 college and university creative writing programs, and 150 writers’ conferences and centers.” To get a sense of the breadth and scope of this year’s conference, imagine how such a mission statement translates into the organization’s premier annual event—the biggest of its kind in North America, one that draws somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 attendees each year.

Colson Whitehead: on writing, and cooking chicken. Photo: Madeline Whitehead

Like any story, time—the actual fact of it, and how it’s negotiated—is really the engine of the narrative. Sessions began at 9 a.m., lasting an hour and fifteen minutes, and went all through evening, with fifteen-minute breaks, allowing for an airport-like rush from one end of the convention center to the other. Preparation was unruly and complex, and scrolling through the substantial online schedule seemed to be the only real option (though, I confess, it took me hours to do this: more than once, I would get half way down a page and forget what time-slot I was looking at). I did hear a few stories from those daredevil types who went without any plan whatsoever, and they seemed to fare just fine. If I had advice to offer future attendees, just know that your swag bag will contain a comprehensive glossy program, and unlike the impressively designed online app that didn’t work because my phone could not manage to stay connected to the internet in the conference center, the glossy program never let me down!

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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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Full Circle: a universe of theater

At TCG's national conference in Portland, people of color traded stories on how to build an American theater that includes everyone

I straddle many worlds as a journalist, writer, and media and theater artist. When I interview artists, I often have to pull back from their perspective to gain a more outside view. Yet it’s the inside look that draws me to the work of the artist, and it’s the personal I find fascinating. Crossing lines and boundaries of many worlds is in my DNA. I’m mixed-race. I’m Asian. I’m Chinese or Taiwanese or a person of color, an immigrant, an American. Like all PoCs (People of Color), I switch languages, cultures and sometimes personalities depending on the world I inhabit. I was not prepared to find the worlds presented at Full Circle, the Theatre Communications Group national conference June 8-10 at the Hilton Downtown, so welcoming and meaningful.

Theatre Communications Group’s leaders of color gather for a group shot at TCG’s national conference in Portland. Author Dmae Roberts is near the center in the second row from the top. Photo courtesy Elena Chang / TCG

I don’t generally like conferences, but lately I’ve found ones focusing on racial and cultural issues impact me the most. Last October I forged deep connections with API (Asian/Pacific Islander) theater artists at the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival (ConFest). I honestly thought TCG would pale compared to ConFest. I was wrong.

I’ve been to enough conference sessions dealing with diversity issues to become skeptical. At one public radio conference, I recall a session on “Unintentional Bias” with great irony when a white executive director of a national radio program barged her way to the head of a line filled with PoCs waiting to comment. She felt defensive and thought nothing of interrupting a Latinx radio producer to tell everyone her network wasn’t biased.

So when I saw the TCG conference had numerous EDI sessions, I was hopeful yet cautious. Equity, diversity, and inclusion, or EDI, has become the phrase of choice when looking at changing the structures limiting the imagination when it comes to hiring practices and the kind of art that’s presented, particularly in theatre. This year’s Full Circle exceeded my expectations.

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Day 1 – June 8, 2017

On the first day of the TCG conference, I attended TCG’s Commitment to EDI session, which pretty much foreshadowed EDI as the main theme of the conference. I turned to another conference attendee and asked if this was a typical focus for the TCG conferences. The person nodded her head and said it was even more last year.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: the language of bargains, a prints of a town

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

Portland’s a provisional sort of town, a place to try things out, take a chance, experiment a little and see what happens. It might have something to do with the town’s rough-and-tumble history, its roots in fishing and logging and shipping, its historical country-cousin status among West Coast cities, without the swagger of San Francisco or glitter of L.A. or sun of San Diego or deeper pockets of Seattle. You can hide in Portland, and just do stuff, and make a life while you’re at it. In the arts, this can be both a blessing and a curse: the extra polish of high-level professionalism doesn’t always get applied, but the sheer guts of working things out, the passion of the process, don’t get ironed away, either.

Leo Lin and Wynee Hu in "TheLanguage Archive"; background: Sofia May-Cuxim, Enrique Eduardo Andrade. Theatre Diaspora photo

Leo Lin and Wynee Hu in “TheLanguage Archive”; background: Sofia May-Cuxim, Enrique Eduardo Andrade. Theatre Diaspora photo

And as an audience member, you can find bargains – deals to see something genuinely interesting but unfinished or in the works. For eight bucks last weekend I dropped down to the basement Ellen Bye Studio Theatre at Portland Center Stage to catch a staged reading of Julia Cho’s smart and insightful comedy The Language Archive, produced by Theatre Diaspora and directed by Dmae Roberts, whose MediaRites is the small theater company’s mother ship. Diaspora specializes in plays written or performed by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and in addition to doing its own thing it chips away at some stubborn patterns on the city’s theater scene, opening doors for AAPI performers and cluing people in to a wealth of potential dramatic material from Asian American writers. The Language Archive will have one more reading, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Milagro Theatre, which itself has been a pioneering force in town for Hispanic performance.

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