Jerry Foster

Vision 2020: Connie Carley and Jerry Foster

For almost four decades the leaders of PassinArt have forged a strong and steady path for Black theater in Portland

For nearly 38 years PassinArt: A Theatre Company has been passing down art, culture, and heritage to the ensuing generations. That’s a long time for a theater company, a nickel-and-dime industry at the best of times. There are other organizations, such as Artists Repertory Theatre, that have been around longer and gotten bigger. But usually (except in special cases like Milagro) those companies’ longevity has been carried on by fresh influxes of new faces at different times.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


For PassinArt, Connie Carley and Jerry Foster have been keeping the flame alive this entire time. There have been periodic breaks here and there, some longer than others, but PassinArt always comes back, its vision intact, its mission still at the forefront of its endeavors: making sure that the next generation of Black people in Portland has something solid that belongs to them.“We are responsible,” Foster says, “for the health and the vitality of our community.” Put another way (when speaking about the fact that PassinArt has always paid its artists something), Carly says, “We’ve never been community theater. But we’ve always been about the community.”

A lot has changed over the years, of course. PassinArt has been around since 1982. At the time they were Connie Carley, Clarice Bailey, and Michael Grant. They had their first performance at the Matt Dishman Center in 1983. PassinArt gained its nonprofit status in 1986. Jerry Foster came on board as artistic director in 1995. In those days, they paid for every show out of their own pockets. Board members were expected to act or direct or work backstage or in the front of house. And they never started a project until a good percentage of funding was in hand.

George Hendricks and Jerry Foster in 2014’s “Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking.” Photo courtesy PassinArt

In the old days, surprisingly (to me, at least) PassinArt wasn’t the only game in town if you wanted to see Black theater. There were also Portland Black Repertory Theatre and Sojourner Truth. BRT was a more classic theater company and Truth specialized in historical works. PassinArt was a combination of both. The three companies would work together to make sure that year ’round, Black people could find themselves on stage if they needed to.

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Black Nativity: The joy is now

PassinArt's Portland production of Langston Hughes's gospel musical moves up to a bigger church, and keeps the music fresh

Fifty-seven years ago, Langston Hughes, Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade decided the world needed a celebration of Christmas apart from re-runs of It’s A Wonderful Life and myriad adaptations of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker in various mediums. What was needed, they surmised, was something with a little color to it, a little extra flavor. What they came up with was an original piece called Wasn’t It a Mighty Day? – traditional Christmas songs done in a gospel style along with other gospel music, all strung together by narration that tells the story of the Nativity. By the time it opened Off-Broadway in 1961 – one of the first Black productions ever to do so – Ailey and Lavallade had left the production over a dispute about the new name, Black Nativity.

Decades later, Black Nativity is still serving its original function of providing something other than the standard, all-white Christmas fare. There is a Black Nativity production going on somewhere in just about every corner of the nation. In Portland, Black Nativity is produced by the longest-running Black theater company in the city, PassinArt.

Almost forty years ago, following much the same impetus as Hughes, Ailey and Lavallade in New York, Connie Carley, Michael Brandt and Clarice Bailey decided to fill a need they saw in the cultural scene of Portland. Together, they created  PassinArt, whose goal is literally to pass the art and culture (and history, knowledge, etc.) of the Black community down from one generation to the next. After a brief period of flux, Carley became the managing director and Jerry Foster became the artistic director. The two have kept PassinArt going ever since. (Last season, their production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running garnered eight finalist nods in the Drammy Awards, including one for Oustanding Production, and took home the prizes for Ensemble and Set Design.)

The 2018 “Black Nativity” cast. Photo courtesy PassinArt

Like Two Trains, many PassinArt productions deal with issues around social justice that face the Black community. For both Carley and Foster, the purpose behind Black Nativity is the same – but different.

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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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Portland’s August occasions

The great playwright August Wilson takes the spotlight in Red Door's high-school monologues and PassinArt's gala and "Two Trains"

We’re in the middle of August Wilson Week in Portland, which is a very good place to be.

On Friday, PassinArt: A Theatre Company opens the great American playwright’s Two Trains Running at the Interstate Firehouse Center.

On Monday evening before a packed audience in the Newmark Theatre, the August Wilson Red Door Project held its fifth annual high school Monologue Competition, choosing two winners and an alternate to move on to the nationals at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway in New York.

On Saturday evening in a ballroom at the DoubleTree by Hilton near Lloyd Center, PassinArt celebrated its annual gala, Sweet Taste of the Arts, with a healthy crowd that included, among many others, Two Trains Running director William Earl Ray and the superb veteran actor J.P. Phillips, who is also riding the trains.

And with just a little patience, the August Wilson celebration extends: On May 2, Portland Playhouse will open its revival of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Fences. It’ll be the seventh of Wilson’s “American Century Cycle” of ten plays, each from a different decade of the 20th century, that the Playhouse has presented for Portland audiences – a gratifying and illuminating feat. Those plays – in addition to Two Trains Running and Fences they include Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf – constitute one of the great achievements of the American theater, and for that matter, of American literature and culture.

Wilson’s plays are vital historic documents, and they are still urgently current, as a story by Tracy Jan earlier this week in the Washington Post makes clear. Report: No progress for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years, it’s headlined, and it underlines both the disturbing intransigence of America’s racial divide and the continuing need for honest, revealing, compelling stories about ordinary life in all of the nation’s communities.

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Jump for joy: August Wilson monologue winners, from left: third place winner Alyssa Marchant, first place winner Noreena McCleave, second place winner Kai Tomizawa. Wade Owens Photography

Both the August Wilson Monologue Competition and PassinArt’s gala were intensely community events, art growing from the connections among place and people and time. Communities, of course, are both fluid and interlocking, and can be expanded or carried with you when you leave. In Wilson’s case it begins in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the economically teetering but culturally vibrant African American/Jewish/Italian neighborhood where he grew up and where most of his plays are set. But really, it begins further back, on the slave ships, in the fields and plantation houses (his great and mystical character Aunt Ester is 285 years old when we first meet her in Gem of the Ocean, and lasts through several plays and about 60 more years beyond that), along the route of the Great Migration that brought so many emancipated but not fully free African Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North, bringing their hopes and songs and stories with them.

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