Shelley B. Shelley

The Endurance of The -Ism Project

How a monologue series about race, gender, and sexual identity leapt from stage to screen

“Put your hood on so you don’t get soaked. Take your hood off so you don’t get shot.” Playwright Josie Seid spoke those words aloud to herself on a rainy day. As water fell from the sky and onto her hair, she pulled on her hood—then reconsidered.

“That process in your brain of trying to keep safe in this world that we live in as people of color—especially Black females, Black people—that’s always going,” Seid says. “I see the American flag on someone’s house and I have to decide, ‘Am I going to walk past that house?’ I see an open garage door and I have to decide, ‘Am I going to walk past there? Is something going to happen?’”

Seid’s experience is chronicled in The -Ism Project, a cinematic anthology from the multicultural production organization MediaRites that ruminates on race, gender and sexual identity in profoundly personal terms. It began as a series of monologues, but as the pandemic ravaged the planet, MediaRites shifted the project from stage to screen.

Shareen Jacobs in Josie Seid’s play “Being Me in the Current America.” Photo courtesy MediaRites

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On the bridge: American true tales

Theatre Diaspora's "Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project" tells six stories of life from the nonwhite side of the national divide

Shareen Jacobs, performing the opening monologue in Theatre Diaspora’s Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project, takes her audience for a walk on the wild side. The wild side is the sidewalks and streets of Lake Oswego, the small and pretty Portland suburb often cited as Oregon’s safest city to live in, but which, in Josie Seid’s short solo piece Being Me in the Current America, can be very much something else again.

Minutes later, in his own piece See Her Strength, writer/performer Samson Syharath, in the midst of the story of his Laotian-immigrant mother’s fortitude and coming to terms with her new culture and her son’s gayness, lays his head softly for comfort onto Jacobs’ lap. Everything stops: It’s a moment of revelation and grace.

Samson Syharath and Shareen Jacobs in “See Her Strength.” Photo: Alex Haslett

On they roll, these short and telling stories, each its own tale yet all gathering force and strength from their mutuality. Sofia Molina’s firm yet gentle telling of Yasmin Ruvalcaba’s Carmelita, a story of danger and bravery and crossing the Rio Grande to the United States. The tough and sorrowful truth in Dré Slaman’s performance of Heather Raffo’s bone-rattling Lockdown Drills, about slain children and the psychic cost of mass-shooting lockdown drills in America’s schools: “Who grew this boy? This girl?” Shelley B. Shelley’s stubborn, wryly humorous, and sometimes angry performance in Bonnie Ratner and Roberta Hunte’s That Diversity Thing as a black lesbian blue-collar worker who loves her job but not the guff that comes with it: “Twenty years later I still hear that voice. ‘You’re only here because you’re black.’ Or, ‘You’re here because you’re a woman. That’s the only reason you’re here.’” Jane Vogel, in Dmae Roberts’ Harvest, her story of an Asian American woman growing up in rural and mostly white and inhospitable Oregon, and the state and family history of stolen land and incarceration during World War II: “It’s like the harvest was us.”

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