Queens Girl in the World

DramaWatch: Goal-oriented theater at Portland Playhouse

"The Wolves" leads the week in theater with teens and teamwork. Also: the Mueller Report on stage; big buildings and Vertigo; and sensational soloists.

Portland Playhouse’s season-opening production, The Wolves, focuses on the nine teen girls who make up an indoor-soccer team. Which presents an obvious question.
“Is this a rousing, heart-warming, inspirational sports story?,” I ask director Jessica Wallenfels. “Or is it good?”

A disingenuous question, that latter one. Because by all accounts, The Wolves is a terrific play. Written by Sarah DeLappe — apparently her first play to get any notable production — it was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for drama. According to American Theater magazine, it’s one of the Top 10 most-produced plays in the country for the 2019-20 season. Among the many critical huzzahs typed its way, Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote of a 2016 Off-Broadway production that it exuded “the scary, exhilarating brightness of raw adolescence.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the most striking playwriting debuts in recent memory, and absolutely not to be missed.”

Kailey Rhodes (foreground) works on ball control in The Wolves at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Wallenfels humors me. “It is inspiring,” she responds. “But not in the usual ways.
“It’s inspiring in the way that it shows a group of girls and insists that their lives, their concerns, their thought processes be considered, in a way that they’re usually not.”

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The Week: Art is where you look

From Eastern Oregon to a paint-out on the coast to queer opera and TBA Fest in Portland to the streets of New York, art is all around us

THE ARTS WORLD MIGHT BE FINANCIALLY FRAGILE, with a tenuous toehold on the economic stepstool, but art and culture are all around us, wherever we look – and certainly, wherever ArtsWatch’s writers look. Carnegie libraries-turned-community-art-centers in Eastern Oregon. Street art and “high” art having a deep-in-the-trenches conversation in New York. Dancers in the woods near Astoria and a landscape paint-off in Cannon Beach. Queer Opera in Portland, a virtuoso theatrical solo turn in Clackamas County, Pavarotti on the radio, contemporary performance art at PICA’s TBA Festival in Portland, a great photographer imprinted on the nation’s memory. And really, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of things.

Pendleton Center for the Arts, in a former Carnegie Library. In the
home of the Pendleton Round-Up, Randy Gundlach’s horse statue by
the entrance adds a Western touch. Photo: David Bates

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“Queens Girl”: a colorful, complicated coming of age

Rich, evocative writing and Lauren Steele's vibrant performance highlight a winning one-woman play at Clackamas Rep.

Over the course of decades writing about performing arts in Portland, I have come to recognize a certain sort of experience that I refer to as a “black dot show.” This is when I happen to glance around at the audience and notice that I am the black dot amid an auditorium full of white people. As a Portland native, I find these occurrences neither surprising nor uncomfortable. 

On a second scan of the crowd at Clackamas Repertory Theatre this weekend, I spotted a young family in the back row that tilted the melanin equation a bit, but I already was musing about the company’s choice to stage Queens Girl in the World — a play about black adolescence and identity in early-1960s New York — for what I would guess is the oldest and whitest audience among Portland-area theaters.

Lauren Steele as Jacqueline Marie Butler, navigating the tricky terrain of adolescence and the socio-political changes of the ’60s in “Queens Girl in the World” at Clackamas Rep. Photo: Travis Nodurft


I’m not the only person to find the choice surprising. In an unusually personal program note, the playwright, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, recalls her initial inclination to deny Clackamas Rep’s request for performance rights: “I pulled up your website and here’s what I saw: both of you (artistic director David Smith-English and managing director Cyndy Smith-English) are white. Your past theatrical seasons were white. Your theatre is located in a white community. You are outside of the City of Portland. Enough said.” But a follow-up phone call and a chance visit changed her mind.
“I should have remembered that embracing with curiosity, empathy and love the stories of those who look like ‘the other’ is the very definition of the theatrical impulse,” she wrote. “Silly me. How could I have forgotten that the more specific our stories, the more universal their themes?”

From the moment that Lauren Steele steps onstage as 12-year-old Jaqueline Marie Butler, all bright-eyed innocence and pin-point-polite diction, specificity is the hallmark of this terrific production. Written with abundant heart and loads of evocative detail, performed with winning vibrance, Queens Girl draws us in and charms us from the outset, then brings us along on a journey of surprising scope, depth and, yes, universality.

We meet Jacqueline — or Jackie, as she’s mostly called — on the stoop of her family’s two-story detached brick house in a neat but modest part of Queens, serenaded by the roar of planes on their descent to LaGuardia Airport. She comes across as sweet and sheltered. It’s quickly apparent that she’s hard at work, navigating and negotiating a path between the exacting uplift-the-race standards of her parents and the looser culture of the surrounding neighborhood. Her mother is a stickler for propriety, in speech and manners, such a model of Negro grace and bearing that Jackie refers to her not as “Mom” but as “Grace Lofton Butler.” By contrast, Persephone — a neighbor girl who is growing up a bit faster and less inhibited than Jackie — says things such as, “James ain’t feel me up! He jus’ kiss on me lil’ bit.”

It might seem at first that we are in for an engaging, lighthearted coming of age story. Jackie looks forward to confirmation classes at church, because her Grace will let her trade in her kid’s anklets for real stockings. When Grace begins talking tactfully of “womanly cycles,” Jackie is half puzzled, half excited: “Am I getting a bike?!” she wonders. Jackie’s social development briefly gets airborne with her first crush/kiss, then is blown off course when her parents transfer her from PS 124 to a private school in Greenwich Village, where suddenly she’s a black dot. 

All of this is easy to enjoy and easy to relate to, regardless of the racial/cultural specifics — Jackie’s or those of any audience member.

Steele is a wonderfully winning performer, and versatile to boot. (The program lists 13 roles portrayed by Steele, but as is often the case with such shows, this really is a single character telling us a story. While young Jackie vividly recreates the distinctive speech and mannerisms of the people in her life, we see these others strictly from her perspective, which is sometimes sensitive, sometimes broadly comic.) Director Damaris Webb has shaped the production with a sure and easy rhythm and unfussy, solidly supportive design work (Haley Hurita’s projections are especially effective). And Jennings’ writing is studded with descriptive gems: Jackie says her mother has a voice like “twilight-colored taffeta,” sketches an image of her proud West Indian father with his “dimples and brushed mustache,” and swoons at the 15-year-old boy whose recently changed voice sounds like “melting butter in a skillet.”

What ultimately elevates Queens Girl in the World, though, is the “in the world” part. By gradual, graceful, deceptively significant steps, Jennings builds her story (“semi-autobiographical,” according to Webb’s director’s note) outward from that unassuming front stoop, taking in larger ideas and events: the pros and cons of cultural assimilation, gradualism versus radicalism in politics, the tricky relationship of social-justice allies, the complex overlays of racial/economic/ideological identity, the cascading cataclysms of the march on Washington, the Birmingham church bombing, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X.  As she is at the outset, toggling between Persephone’s street vernacular and her mother’s textbook English, through all the growth and change and turmoil and learning Jackie repeatedly finds herself in complicated social dynamics, facing contradictory expectations, having to construct and calibrate an identity that fits herself and her situation.  

In that regard, maybe Jackie’s neither black dot nor black sheep, as much like any of us as different from us — not just a Queens girl in the world, but a chameleon riding a rainbow.

The Week: TBA or not TBA?

As the contemporary arts festival surges onto an already bulging September calendar, that is the question.

A NEW CROP OF APPLES IS HITTING THE PRODUCE STANDS. Lush ripe tomatoes are overflowing gardens and markets. Cukes are ready for pickling. America’s schoolchildren, ready or not, are back in the saddle again. And today, for the 17th year, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual TBA Festival kicks off again. “TBA” stands for “Time-Based Art,” which mainly means performance – art that takes place in a set period of time, in front of an audience – although visual art’s part of the mix, too. And the time is very contemporary: the art of today, for good and sometimes ill. As PICA puts it, the festival, which runs in venues around Portland through Sept. 15, “gathers artists and audiences from around the world” for eleven days of “contemporary performance, music, visual art, film, workshops, lectures, food, drink, conversation, and celebration.” 

Eiko Otake. Photo courtesy Joseph Scheer, IEA at NYSCC, via PICA


Over the years TBA’s had a lot of hits and a lot of misses. Its emphasis on non-traditional and resolutely experimental work can elevate the narcissistic and the sloppy. It can also champion fresh art of astonishing provocation and beauty, as it did in the festival’s very first incarnation, on Sept. 11, 2003, when, on the second anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, the great butoh-influenced performers Eiko and Koma stunned their Portland audience with an outdoor performance in and around the water at Jamison Square, beneath a darkening sky. That performance, eloquently titled Offering, was sad, deep, ghostlike, hopeful, profound. “It strikes me, on this anniversary of death, that the world’s war-makers would detest this dance, which is about deep truths that can’t be glossed or managed,” I wrote at the time. “One watches an invisible flight of ideas. It is the holy and the profane, inseparable, wrapped into one. A mystery.”

The good news is that Eiko Otake is back at TBA for the first time since that 2003 performance, and she’ll be a busy part of things. You can see her tonight, at TBA’s opening reception, in her evolving piece A Body in Places, based on her return to post-nuclear disaster Fukushima. Prints and video works will also be on view through Oct. 24 at PNCA’s 511 Gallery. There’ll be a screening of her film A Body in Fukushima: Reflections on the Nuclear in Everyday Life, on Sept. 9. She’ll perform her Duet Project: Distance Is Malleable, with several collaborators, Sep. 12-14. And in a free event on Sept. 13, she’ll be in conversation with chroreographer Linda K. Johnson and PICA Artistic Director Kristan Kennedy.

 

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