“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.
“I think that art that comes from cultural history, cultural lineage, cultural concerns is the strongest,” says MediaRites Executive Producer Dmae Roberts (who hosts the Stage & Studio podcast series at Oregon Arts Watch). “COVID really did something for us to reimagine. And I found, ‘Wow, I can do this monologue as a 15-minute film’—and I want to emphasize ‘film,’ not a ‘filmed theater piece,’ because we worked really hard.”
In a world where racism, sexism, and homophobia are often discussed in coldly abstract terms, The -Ism Project attempts to show audiences what it feels like to be a Black woman whose life is threatened by a white police officer, or a Latinx mother whose daughter is languishing in a detention center.
“[MediaRites] really has been an anti-racism organization since I took it over in 1991,” says Roberts, who has revealed that a forthcoming film in the series will focus on a former border guard. “That’s The -Ism Project—how do we build empathy, how do we build understanding, how do we get people to talk and to have open minds? The art is important, of course, but I don’t believe in art for art’s sake.”
Making the films of The -Ism Project in the midst of the pandemic was daunting. The risks of gathering with a group during the pandemic initially dissuaded Roberts from being on set during the filming of That Diversity Thing, which stars Shelley B. Shelley as a Black tradeswoman struggling to survive a hostile-turned-lethal work environment during COVID-19.
“The first time we filmed, I was too scared to go out there, so I sent [MediaRites associate producer Samson Syharath] and somebody to do sound and somebody to film,” Roberts says. “They tried to shoot for four hours in the heat in early July, and it was rough. And I realized I had to be there to direct it.”
Roberts ultimately directed That Diversity Thing at Shaking the Tree Theatre, which was stocked with masks and sanitizer. “It was done safely, but you still had to wonder, ‘Am I risking my life?’” Roberts says. “I’m not a spring chicken anymore. It was scary, but I believe we did it as safely as we could, and we did it in five hours. Nobody got sick, thank goodness.”
Adapting the original versions of the -Ism Project monologues meant acknowledging the tragedies of the past year, including the increase of anti-Asian hate crimes (which rose 150 percent in 2020, according to an analysis from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino).
“There is that constant fear of, ‘Is my family safe?’” says Syharath, who wrote and starred in See Her Strength (which debuted at the Vanport Mosaic 2020 Virtual Festival), a film about his parents, who are from Laos.
“My parents moved here to be safe,” Syharath says. “We didn’t realize that we were moving into a country that sees us as an outsider and as a threat. It’s been pretty difficult, especially because I live here in Portland and my parents are in Arkansas. The longer a phone call takes to get to me, the more worried I get—and vice versa.”
The -Ism Project also addresses the murder of George Floyd, whose death is referred to in Being Me in the Current America, which was written by Seid and recounts the horrifying harassment she endured from a police officer in Lake Oswego. “Dmae actually asked me if I wanted to be the actor that did it, and I said, ‘No, I can’t do that. That’s like going back into the trauma,’” Seid says. “But even seeing it … quite often, I’ll be shaking a little bit.”
Raw emotions also resurface in See Her Strength, in which Syharath explains how his mother accepted him as a gay man a year after telling him that she would shoot him if she saw him kiss a man. In the film, Syharath speaks effusively about his mother—who shielded her children from bullets as the family journeyed from Laos to Thailand—but he isn’t ready to show her the film.
“I’ve been hesitant,” he says. “I don’t know how she’d react to me telling her story and making it so public. In our culture, it’s kind of like we keep to ourselves and don’t really share this with the world, but in my generation, this is how I deal with it. This is how I process.”
So who is The -Ism Project for? Roberts has encouraged conversation by featuring talkbacks with both artists and activists alongside the films, but Seid believes that Being Me in the Current America isn’t a tool to transform white audiences. “I think it’s a very small percentage of people that actually hear these things and say, ‘I need to change my life,’” she says. “I’m really sending this particular project out to my people of color.”
Seid recognizes The -Ism Project’s power as a weapon against isolation. “When I see The -Ism Project and I see these other stories, I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s not just me. It’s not a burden I have to bear alone,’” she says. “I’m hoping that it feels like therapy to people who look like me, or to people who are not white.”
Syharath witnessed the project’s power when a stranger at a Washington County library told him that the stage version of See Her Strength reminded them of their relationship with their child. “I had just met this stranger, but we shared a hug, because we had such a connection through the piece,” he says. “I think creating that empathy was really what drove us to create these pieces in the first place, and I think it was a huge success in that way.”