How We Got On

Spirit, body, voice: how we get on

Portland Playhouse hops back to the '80s with a rhythmic rap tale straight outta the burbs


It’s 1988, and, Yo! MTV raps! We’re in the flyover states, the middle of nowhere, with the disappearing rust and wheat belts making way for the biggest malls in America. With How We Got On, Portland Playhouse and playwright Idris Goodwin are taking us on a journey through history, hip-hop, and a coming-of-age for three young black kids on the verge of adulthood.

Ithica Tell: The Selector selects. Photo: Owen Carey

Ithica Tell: The Selector selects. Photo: Owen Carey

The big beautiful magnet of hustle and bustle known as the City is far off. But for most kids of that era it was the place they wanted to be, and they went there by any means necessary, through their minds, curiosity and imagination. Book stores were few and far between, but the dial tone of the radio and cable television was everywhere. The silver neat-edged boombox tuned in, shouted back, and with two cassette decks could play, record and repeat. Music wasn’t just on the radio, but on the television: artists made little movies, music videos, that put their voices and hip, hyped-up icons in every room of the house. The kids ate it up and wanted more. In a series of composed boxes outlined with a few thin trees and concrete, the mall was the place to plug in and buy the electric-looking images they saw on their home screens. Shoes, shirts, hats, attitude and style could be played out, recorded and repeated. Why all the work? Suburbia was an adult world. Kids wanted their own thing, their own identity, and they wanted something new that had their meaning. Rap and hip-hop were bleeding through the cultural cracks and making their way to the Midwest. Life would never be the same.

Our guide on this journey is the Selector, graciously played by Ithica Tell. She’s the statuesque fair wise feminine energy of history. She’ll let you in and have your say as you become part of history, part of the story, but the Selector will put you in your proper place. The Selector choses the soundtrack, the back track that informs the lyrics that Hank, Julian and Luann will play out. She paints the backgrounds of former chapters and shows the heavy shoulders that all creative work builds upon. In a softly lit sound booth, she stands between two turntables and a DJ mixer.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Riffing on rap and the gallery map

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

When Portland Playhouse opens Idris Goodwin’s How We Got On on Saturday night, the city’s theater audiences will get a rare glimpse inside the history and politics of rap, which began as an underground movement before it transformed into a pop-cultural economic powerhouse. Goodwin’s play is set in the late 1980s, a golden age for rap and hip-hop culture, and captures some of the freshness and enthusiasm of the moment.

Mic Crenshaw: cultural historian in the groove.

Mic Crenshaw: cultural historian in the groove.

Portland artist, MC, KBOO radio co-station manager and political activist Mic Crenshaw is music director for How We Got On, an essential role for a production that explores how music shapes and defines people’s lives, and delving into the music in the play has been like taking a trip through his own life. He sat down the other day for a free-ranging conversation with ArtsWatch’s Christa Morletti McIntyre about rap, race, black culture, politics, and the music, from pioneer Gil Scott-Heron to NWA, and Kanye West, touching on topics from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Straight Outta Compton. It’s a fascinating conversation, and good preparation for what could be one of the fall season’s most intriguing stage offerings.


Michael Schulthuis's Pythagorean Lens (acrylic on canvas, 36 x 72 inches, 2015) at Froelick Gallery, which is marking its twentieth anniversary.

Michael Schulthuis’s “Pythagorean Lens” (acrylic on canvas, 36 x 72 inches, 2015) at Froelick Gallery, which is marking its twentieth anniversary.

Thursday is the first day of October, which means it’s also First Thursday in many of Portland’s art galleries, and this month’s openings of new exhibitions arrives at a time of landmarks and shakeups.

Thomas Alleman at Blue Sky: Inner Mongolia #1, 2010-2011, archival pigment print, 30 x 30 inches. Image © Thomas Alleman.

Thomas Alleman at Blue Sky: “Inner Mongolia #1,” 2010-2011, archival pigment print, 30 x 30 inches. Image © Thomas Alleman.


Waterstone Gallery, one of the city’s more interesting cooperative galleries, has moved down the street and around a couple of corners to the space at 124 Northwest Ninth Avenue vacated recently by the late and deeply lamented Quintana Gallery. Opening show: Earth Works, with paintings by Sue-Del McCulloch and sculpture by Stuart Jacobson.

The nearby Froelick Gallery celebrates its 20th anniversary with a group show by Susan Seubert, Matthew Dennison, Rick Bartow and many other gallery artists, plus a peek at classical geometry through Seattle painter Michael Schultheis‘s Pythagorean Eyes.

Jim Riswold at Augen: Beer Hall Putsch Hitler (1923), 2015, digital print, 60 x 40 inches.

Jim Riswold at Augen: “Beer Hall Putsch Hitler (1923),” 2015, digital print, 60 x 40 inches.

A few storefronts away, Blue Sky doubles the pleasure with 40/40, a celebration of the gallery’s 40 years as a center of photographic art. More than 300 works have been donated to Blue Sky by artists who’ve shown there during the past four decades, and each print will be on sale for $40 during October. Yes, that’s a bargain.

Other shows to keep an eye on: Tips for Artists Who Don’t Want To Sell, by the provocateur Jim Riswold, whose work teeters on a fine line between politics and his advertising background, at Augen; James Allen’s intricate Book Excavations, plus new work by Eric Stotik, at Laura Russo; and photographer Larry Kwik‘s The Far North: Portrait of the Arctic at Portland Community College Sylvania’s Northview Gallery. Kwik’s photos of the far northland seem particularly pertinent in light of Shell Oil’s announcement this week that it’s abandoning its controversial drilling expedition in the Arctic. They also fit intriguingly with Blue Sky’s other October show, Thomas Alleman’s documentation of a rapidly industrializing Inner Mongolia.

Larry Kwik at PCC Sylvania: "Zigzag Lead in Ice, Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik), Nunavut, Canada," 2014, inkjet print on Hahnmule fine art paper, 24 x 20 inches

Larry Kwik at PCC Sylvania: “Zigzag Lead in Ice, Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik), Nunavut, Canada,” 2014, inkjet print on Hahnmule fine art paper, 24 x 20 inches


A few things to look for on stage and screen this week:

  • Gaining Ground. Veteran Portland documentary filmmakers Barbara Bernstein and Elaine Velasquez unveil their newest, an 80-minute look at the challenges of community food supply through two rural farms in Oregon and an inner-city farm in Richmond, California, that are drastically changing what and why they do. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Cinema 21.
  • India Arts Fest 2015. Rasika‘s festival of music and dance begins Thursday and runs through Sunday, with early action at the Walters Cultural Center in Hillsboro and weekend attractions at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. Performers come from India and the United States. A prospective highlight will be Friday night’s Anubhava, a traditional Bharatha Natyam dance, featuring Jayanthi Raman.
  • The Turn of the Screw. Yes, it’s Portland Shakespeare Project, and no, it’s not The Taming of the Shrew. It’s Jeffrey Hatcher‘s two-person stage adaptation of Henry James‘s classic ghost story, and the thing looks promising: a smart director, JoAnn Johnson, joins two talented actors, Chris Harder and Dana Millican. Opens Friday, PSP at Artists Rep.



ArtsWatch links

Eugene Symphony at 50: looking back, moving forward. The symphony orchestra down the valley, ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell writes, has long been one of the country’s more innovative programmers. Now, at the half-century mark, it’s picking up the pace on contemporary music again.

Colin Currie’s passion for percussion. Then again, the Oregon Symphony is beginning to bang the drums for contemporary music, too. Campbell sets the table for young percussionist Kaleb Davies’ conversation with Currie, the Scottish percussion star who’s been beating the bushes all around the town at the beginning of his three-year residency with the Portland orchestra.

Over the hills, to Portland’s multicultural present. Pianist and writer Maria Choban goes looking for the cultural flowering of vibrant immigrant communities and finds it in her own back yard, where a recent Sri Lankan festival was typical of what goes on: “I live in a Bermuda Triangle, an incorporated area at the intersection of Hillsboro, Beaverton and Portland. I now share this once all white farming community (where I was the Greek minority growing up) with communities of Indian-, Pakistani-, Bangladeshi-, Sri Lankan-, Korean-, Chinese-, Japanese-, and African-Americans. For variety, add Mormons.”

The further adventures of Sabina Poole. Photographer and writer Poole has been traveling across Oregon in search of artists and the places where they work. It’s all in pursuit of a soon-to-be-published book, excerpts from which have been running on ArtsWatch. Latest to join the party: clay artist Ryan LaBar, who until recently worked in a studio in the remote Wallowas; and Eugene/New York artist Julia Oldham, who collects roadkill, can bleat like a goat, and “has been professionally trained as a snake handler.”

Julia Oldham and assistants in her south Eugene studio. Photo: Sabina Poole

Julia Oldham and assistants in her south Eugene studio. Photo: Sabina Poole




About ArtsWatch Weekly

We’ve been sending a letter like this every Tuesday for a couple of years now to a select group of email subscribers. We’ll continue to do that, and now we’re posting it weekly on the ArtsWatch home page. In ArtsWatch Weekly, we take a look at stories we’ve covered in the previous week, give early warning of events coming up, and sometimes head off on little arts rambles we don’t include anywhere else. You can read this report here. Or, you can get it delivered weekly to your email inbox, and get a quick look at all the stories you might have missed (we have links galore) and the events you want to add to your calendar. It’s easy to sign up. Just click here, and leave us your name and e-address.

And finally…

We end with a couple of requests. First, if you have friends or family members who you think would enjoy our cultural writing online, could you please forward this letter to them? The bigger our circle of friends, the more we can accomplish. Second, if you’re not already a member of ArtsWatch, may we ask you to please take a moment and sign on? What you give (and your donation is tax-deductible) makes it possible for us to continue and expand our reporting and commenting on our shared culture in Oregon. Thanks, and welcome!

Become a member now!

On rap: how Mic Crenshaw gets on

From Scott-Heron to Kanye, the musical director of "How We Got On" talks about the history and politics of the music at the heart of the culture


In an age when collecting has trumped the library and become a mausoleum of consumer culture, Rap is one of the last cultural holdouts to maintain a sense of the individual as prominent in the artistic process. Its fluid appeal is easily translated, copied and replicated from continent to continent. It carries an element of sharing and community that is disappearing from the downloading culture of Pop music, and has never been prominent with Classical collectors. Rap is a chameleon: it has a sister, Hip-Hop culture, and can be translated into material objects, literature, entertainment, sensibilities, attitudes, politics, movies, dance and plays.

By nature, Rap is centered on Black identity, and while the popular critical battleground is to name the “haves” and “have-nots,” at one point or another a Rap artist must address the Black identity of the art. The “haves” are held under a magnifying glass for popularizing material excess without allegiance to community or explaining the Western European origins of the commodities they exploit lyrically. There is a conflict, since Rap is by definition the ultimate popular and most accessible musical expression of Deconstruction: a reassembling of portable culture whose birth came out of poverty and necessity, which still relies on the premise of parts that refer to physical, emotional, and intellectual history. While the wealthiest of authors can afford the resources to make each part themselves, they still follow the origins of the structure.

Mic Crenshaw: cultural historian in the groove.

Mic Crenshaw: cultural historian in the groove.

There is also an elegiac pattern among Black intellectuals. The beautiful fragments that compose what we call this culture, or in this case, a play, all come onto a common ground with Idris Goodwin, author of How We Got On, which opens Saturday night at Portland Playhouse and continues through October 25. How We Got On is a celebratory bildungsroman told through a Selector of three kids during the late 1980s Golden Age of Rap who lay down beats and rhymes, overcoming dysfunction and isolation through the music that shapes their lives.

The history of Rap is still under debate: was it born from the field holla, the preacher call, the long history of Black poets in America? Some say that it was born in the late 1970s. Others look at the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron in the late ’60s as the fathers of the genre. Heavily politicized by them, that message never left Rap: fundamentally, when we assume art is by definition communication, Rap is a dialogue.

I spoke with Mic Crenshaw, who is musical director of Portland Playhouse’s How We Got On, the day after he MCed the new documentary Who Is Gil Scott-Heron?, directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, at the Clinton Street Theater. Scott-Heron was the voice of the Black Panther Party on vinyl: he gave us a new notion of how to look at the divisions of our cities and the marketing that invaded homes more prominently in the ’60s. His message remains clear and authentic, providing a legacy that still cuts a good groove. At the premiere of the documentary, Mic Crenshaw – community leader, artist, co-station manager of KBOO radio –presented a group of young poets who shared their lyrics on the state of society today. It was an ellipse of history in motion.

Crenshaw, born and raised in the Midwest, moved to Portland as a young adult. He’s taken on a lot of projects over the years, from poetry slams to recording to working closely with Education Without Borders, and is the Political Director of Hip Hop Congress, the Lead U.S. Organizer for the Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan. He also works with Black Lives Matter.