immigrant stories

Urban Tellers’ immigrant tales

A new life in words: Portland Story Theater's immigrant and refugee storytellers weave tales about leaving there and coming here

By ALIA STEARNS

The power of stories is undeniable. Every time period has had a popular form of storytelling at least from the time of Cro-Magnon man, his hands filthy with iron oxide and black manganese after smearing mineral pigments along cave walls to communicate a message, or sitting with his tribe, their faces illuminated by firelight as they traded information.

One night last month at The Old Church Concert Hall, Portland Story Theater’s Urban Tellers series hosted its third installment featuring immigrant and refugee storytellers. (A fourth installment is scheduled for fall 2018.) The evening was powerful and no doubt reshaped how some of the people in the audience view people who fall into those categories.

Preethi Srinivas performing “Pretty Young Thing” at Urban Tellers. Photo: Kelly Nissl

And for some, it might have been surprising. Popular media often frame immigrants and refugees through a generalized trope fraught with heartbreak, loneliness, and rejection. But at The Old Church, that wasn’t the case at all. “It’s just like a regular Urban Tellers show,” Portland Story Theater co-founder Lynne Duddy notes, “except the people happen to be self-identified as first-generation immigrant or refugee.”

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Sitting in the packed audience at the Fremont Theater last Thursday night for Portland Story Theater’s latest Urban Tellers show was both exhilarating and disheartening. Exhilarating because this was the latest chapter in Urban Tellers’ illuminating series of tales told by immigrants in and around Portland. Disheartening because this was the next-to-last Urban Tellers show ever in this little jewel of a space on Northeast Fremont Avenue in the Sabin/Alameda/Irvington overlap.

The following night’s repeat performance would be the end. Both houses were sold out. That made no difference: The Fremont is shutting down Nov. 12, and for Portland Story Theater, this was the abrupt end of a regular monthly gig. Matthew Singer wrote about the shutdown in Willamette Week, telling an all too familiar tale. “The basic circumstances are that we just ran out of money,” co-owner David Shur told him. Shur also noted that attempts to soundproof the space to appease other tenants of the building proved too costly.

Rodrigo Aguirre, Ruiyuan Gao (center) and Marisol Batioja-Kreuzer in the final Urban Tellers at the Fremont Theater. Photo: Kelly Nissl

The Fremont was used mainly as a music space, becoming one of several halls that helped fill the gap for jazz shows after the legendary Jimmy Mak’s shut down early this year. But it was home to Portland Story Theater and a few other more theatrical presenters, too, including puppeteer Penny Walter’s daytime Penny’s Puppets family shows and the old-time radio theatrics of Tesla City Stories, whose live shows are presented as if in a radio studio, sound effects included. Penny’s Puppets has its final show at the Fremont this Friday, Nov. 10. Tesla bids its adieu to the Fremont with a show the following evening, Nov. 11.

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Can we all get along? Rodney King’s story for our times

Actor/playwright Roger Guenveur Smith talks about his show about the man whose videotaped 1991 beating shifted the story of race and police brutality in America

Artists Repertory Theatre is hosting Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man play Rodney King, about the “first reality TV star” whose beating by police in 1991 was captured on videotape and led to a public outage that echoes down to the age of cell phone videos and the ongoing national controversy over policing and racial violence. The Artists Rep performances April 21-23 will be Smith’s last onstage before the release on April 28 of Spike Lee’s film version on HBO.

Rodney King is one of several culturally or politically provocative pieces to hit Portland stages since last November’s national elections, heralding an increased activism in the theater.

– Triangle Productions is opening Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall on Thursday, April 20, as part of a “rolling world premiere” at theaters across the country. The author of The Kentucky Cycle and the Lyndon B. Johnson plays All the Way and The Great Society that premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before moving on to acclaim on Broadway began writing Building the Wall “in a white hot fury” last October as the presidential race was tightening up. Lee Williams has written an excellent interview with Shenkkan for The Oregonian.

– Last weekend, partly in response to a wave of anti-immigration policies, Portland Story Theater presented two evenings in its Urban Tellers series of short personal stories by immigrants from Argentina, Somalia, Iran, Indonesia, Mexico, and Denmark, and has plans for a similar program in the fall.

– And PassinArt: A Theatre Company has just concluded its run of Marcus Gardley’s moving Gospel of Lovingkindness, a play that probes the causes of a random murder in the black community and the lives it tears apart. Director Jerry Foster says he’d like to have the show tour in schools.

Smith, the author and performer of Rodney King, agreed to answer a few questions from ArtsWatch via email about his play, his career, and the culture that’s helped shape both. Here’s what he has to say:

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Roger Guenveur Smith as Rodney King. Photo: Patti McGuire

Bob Hicks: People remember the car chase and the brutal beatings and the famous quote, “Can we all get along?” I’m not sure how many also remember that the police were mostly acquitted by an almost-all-white jury in Simi Valley, or that the whole thing was a key factor in the pressure leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Does Rodney King focus on that series of events, or does it also follow King’s life in the years after?

Roger Guenveur Smith: Rodney King is an intimate meditation on a life lived and lost, revealing a boy and a man and a man in a myth.
 The high speed chase of March 1991 comes to an abrupt halt in June 2012. Along the way there is a beating, and a trial, and a riot, the immense weight of which takes Mr. King to the bottom of his backyard swimming pool.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Random favors

Steven Dietz's "This Random World," Ronald K. Brown dance, Portland Photo Month, Brett Campbell's music picks of the week, Blitzen Trapper & more

Steven Dietz is one of the most famous American playwrights Broadway’s never heard of. Last year’s This Random World is his 34th produced play, and that’s not even counting his 11 adaptations – an astonishing number, approaching the total of that fellow from Stratford. Many of them have been hits on the regional theater circuit, from the Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (where This Random World got its start) to major companies coast to coast. Except New York, where his Fiction, to make a long story short, made it to Off-Broadway’s Roundabout in 2004.

“This Random World” opens this week at Portland Actors Conservatory.

There’s little explaining a situation like this. Dietz’s plays are smart, well-shaped, actor-friendly, and on interesting topics, although they tend not to include things like falling chandeliers or singing cats. No matter. Regional audiences like them. A lot. Many of his plays have helped shape the contemporary American theater, and they move from city to city with ease: More Fun Than Bowling, Foolin’ Around with Infinity, Ten November, God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Becky’s New Car, Rancho Mirage, and more.

This weekend, This Random Life gets its West Coast premiere at Portland Actors Conservatory, and there’s reason to believe it’ll be worth a visit. This year’s class at the professional acting school has some very good talent, and it’s coming off a knockout production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood. PAC’s talented Beth Harper is directing, and the fine veteran actor Kathleen Worley is a guest artist. Plus, it’s a secret you can keep from the Great White Way while it’s busy reliving Groundhog Day.

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