James Dixon

Charles Grant’s Matter at Hand

The Portland actor-writer brings a vivid sense of movement to his play about the ever-present danger of violence that Black Americans face

Matter, conceived, written, and performed by Charles Grant and directed by James Dixon, is a deeply personal portrayal of a young Black man’s quest to find a way to save Black lives by examining police brutality and gun violence. Co-produced by Portland Playhouse and Many Hats Collaboration, the one man, 20-minute, filmed theater piece methodically examines the facts amidst opposing viewpoints, social division, and the constant barrage of news. Grant, frustrated and grieving over the many Black lives that have been lost, becomes aware of his vulnerability as a Black man and the possibility of his death at the hands of the police. While not strictly a dance work, Matter includes a lot of movement, as life should, and includes sections that could be called dances, with movement direction by Many Hats Collaboration’s artistic director, Jessica Wallenfels. Through a combination of camera angles, lighting, sound, text, movement, and the cast’s lived experiences, real emotions and trauma are expressed in the work, framing the complex Black experience. 

Charles Grant in the 2017 version of “Matter.” Photo: Tamera Lyn

“From early conversations with Jessica [Wallenfels], I knew that I wanted to incorporate more dance and movement into this piece,” Grant told me in an email. Grant originally conceived of Matter in 2017 as part of his apprenticeship at Portland Playhouse and is unofficially calling it Matter 2.0 this time around. Sadly, it is still part of our larger cultural conversation because of the disproportionate amount of violence toward Black bodies. He hopes he doesn’t have to keep bringing it back over and over again. 

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OUTwright: a Booty Candy tale

Fuse's annual festival of queer theater focuses on a comedy about a black man navigating the world of sex. It's laughter with an edge.

For a long time now, Fuse Theatre Ensemble has been one of the most openly political theater companies in town. Queer-forward, inclusivity has been a hallmark and a principle of its work for years. But this season is different. This season, the crowning gem of Fuse’s OUTwright Festival is Robert O’Hara’s Booty Candy, and, for a theater company that prides itself on pushing boundaries and upsetting expectations, this production is yet another new direction.

For eight years Fuse’s OUTwright Festival, which this year continues through June 30 at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, has been one of the most anticipated and adventurous events of the theatrical year. It’s never quite the same from one season to the next. Sometimes it engages several venues, sometimes only one. It started out as only table readings of scripts, but now incorporates readings, full productions, and forums exploring a variety of topics centered on the company’s mission. Whatever the offerings, however many venues, whoever the artists are that are involved, the goal of the OUTwright Festival stays constant. “The mission never really changes,” says Fuse Artistic Director Rusty Tennant. “We’re here to celebrate the queers.”

Gerrin Mitchell, Charles Grant, Shareen Jacobs in OUTwright Festival’s Booty Candy.

Tennant, who wears many hats as a theater artist (director, scenic designer, actor, technical director, teacher are just the ones I know off the top of my head) is forthright about what makes this particular OUTwright Festival different from the ones that have gone before. “The focus of this year’s festival,” he says, “is centering people of color and underrepresented groups within the LGBTQIA-plus umbrella.” When asked why this was the year to focus on people of color in the queer community, Tennant says simply, “Because we hadn’t.”

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Two tales in black & white

John Henry Redwood's "The No Play" at PassinArt and Dael Orlandersmith's "Until the Flood" at Center Stage dig deep into race in America

It’s 1949, in the Jim Crow town of Halifax, North Carolina, and a private atrocity that threatens to destroy a close-knit family is going down.

It’s 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, and a white cop shoots and kills a black teen-aged man, setting off a firestorm of rage.

It’s 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a gunman opens fire, killing 17 people. National Rifle Association spokesmen mock surviving students who push hard for stronger gun control, advocating for armed security in the schools instead. NRA membership spikes.

It’s 2019, in Christchurch, New Zealand, and yet another gunman opens fire, murdering 50 people in two mosques. Back in Parkland, two survivors of the high school shooting, still reeling from the trauma, commit suicide. After years of private grief, so does the father of a first-grader killed in the slaughter that took the lives of 14 children and three adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. The word “survivor” becomes complex and fraught with multiple meanings.

The stories of those first two years, 1949 and 2014, are being told onstage in two sterling productions in Portland right now: John Henry Redwood’s family drama The No Play at PassinArt: A Theatre Company, and Dael Orlandersmith’s solo stage docudrama Until the Flood at Portland Center Stage. Both are plays specifically about African-American life and the American original sin of racism. And both, perhaps surprisingly given their subjects, are enthralling in the telling. They’re just good theater, delivering pleasure along with a punch to the emotional gut.

I bring up New Zealand and Parkland and Sandy Hook as well because, although they represent a different sort of trauma – mass murders, not solitary events – they, too, are connected to a sordid history of violence that reaches back to lynchings and slave ships and the ethnic cleansings of indigenous people, forward to migrations and fears of the Other, inward to the itch for infamy. Christchurch was an act of violence aimed specifically at Muslims because they are Muslim, echoing America’s history of white-on-black violence. The tragedy of the past week’s suicides underscores the lasting effects of trauma on those who undergo it. No one escapes unscathed, although many come to terms with it and move on, altered. For many others, the trauma gnaws and shifts and settles in, defining memory and seeping into everyday life, sometimes overwhelming it.

Parkland and Christchurch have their own stories that are being told in their own ways. Remember that they’re linked – it’s all linked – and let’s move on to Halifax and Ferguson and the Portland stage:

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The No Play

“The No Play,” from left: Lydia Fleming, David Meyers, Kobi Flowers, Andrea White, Sami Yacob-Andrus. Photo courtesy PassinArt

The talented John Henry Redwood’s 2001 play is a fiction, although it’s based on a thousand historical realities, and despite the trauma that sets its conflict into motion it’s largely a celebration of strength, mercy, forgiveness, and survival – and, yes, a little vengeance, too. I was going to write that at the story’s heart is the long history of the rape of black women by white men, but that’s not quite right. Rape, and the belief in racial supremacy that breeds it, is the evil of the tale, the thing that violates and poisons and spreads. The play’s heart lies in the ways the victims respond – the strength and even grace of the dispossessed who have been immorally and violently possessed.

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Two Trains, hambone not included

PassinArt's revival of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" delves into the destruction of a black neighborhood. Oh: it's warm and funny, too.

“I want my ham!” a fellow named Hambone shouts as he stands near the entrance of Memphis Lee’s diner in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. He pauses, gathers energy, then shouts again, louder and more intense this time, in a voice that could shatter steel: “I WANT MY HAM!

In Two Trains Running, PassinArt: A Theatre Company’s new revival at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center of August Wilson’s majestic and surprisingly funny 1990 play, Hambone’s been loudly wanting his ham every day for nine and a half years, since the shopkeeper across the street from the diner promised him one for some manual labor and then offered him a chicken instead, saying he hadn’t done the work well enough to earn the ham.

Hambone, played with brilliant physical intensity and attention to detail by Tim Golden, knows better: a deal’s a deal, and he carried out his end. So every morning he goes to the shopkeeper and demands his ham, and every morning the shopkeeper offers him a chicken instead, and every morning Hambone refuses the chicken and walks across the street to Memphis’ diner and shouts “I want my ham!,” and then sits down while the waitress, Risa, gets him a cup of coffee and maybe a bowl of soup.

We are a people made of rituals, and some rituals stick stronger than others.

Wrick Jones (left) as Memphis, Kenneth Dembo as Wolf, Cycerli Ash as Risa in PassinArt’s “Two Trains Running.” Photo: Jerry Foster

Two Trains Running, like all of Wilson’s cycle of plays about African American life in the 20th century, is filled with symbolism and metaphor and tall-tale exaggeration, and it’s structured so musically that you can almost imagine the cast singing it. Director William Earl Ray’s PassinArt actors play the thing a bit like a good blues band, delivering their lines in an array of timbres, tones, and speeds, from the quizzical uptick of veteran Wrick Jones’s Memphis to the mirthful jangle of Kenneth Dembo’s bookie Wolf to the deliberative modulations of Jerry Foster’s undertaker/real-estate player West. If Golden’s booming Hambone holds down the bass line, Jones’s rat-a-tat-tat in Memphis’ angry or exasperated moments provides the snares. James Dixon as the young just-out-of-prison swain Sterling is the slide trombone noodling around the staccato cornet jabs of Cycerli Ash’s Risa, who skitters away a little closer every time she hears that sound. On opening night Saturday director Ray was on book as the old-timer Holloway, having just taken over the role. His voice was still developing: keyboards, maybe, filling in the chords.

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