Langston Hughes

No opera glasses needed

Camille Sherman and Damien Geter showcase contemporary composers in Portland Opera’s new online recital series

On November 11th, Portland Opera premiered the second installment of “Live From the Hampton Opera Center,” a series of free, virtual recitals featuring artists who call the PNW home. In Women in Political Life, mezzo-soprano Camille Sherman embodies an array of first ladies and the husband of one late Supreme Court justice. The recital, directed and curated by Kristine McIntyre, features music by contemporary American composers Stacy Garrop and Jake Heggie. Sherman sings in English throughout.

Sherman begins her recital with Garrop’s song cycle In Eleanor’s Words. The songs’ lyrics are adapted from My Day, a newspaper column written by Eleanor Roosevelt from 1935 to 1960. What I like most about the cycle–and in the recital in general–is that it is also a piece of theatre. “The Newspaper Column,” the cycle’s first song, opens with the percussive sound of a keyboard. But the hands of pianist Susan McDaniel are still. Sherman, dressed in First Lady attire, is banging away on a portable typewriter. She turns from the typewriter to the camera. “Washington, September 8th, 1936,” she says, then proceeds to sing about the art of journalism.

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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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