Tough questions, tough answers

Fertile Ground 2021: Lisa Collins' "Be Careful What You Ask For" delves into a Portland killing and issues of race.

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Be Careful What You Ask For opens on a sunbathed backyard deck at the home of a Portland couple. A man (Keith Cable) is reading a newspaper and drinking coffee; a woman (Vana O’Brien) enters holding an iPad. “I love our morning time together,” she says, taking her seat. The morning appears to be the most typical of Portland mornings. But this wonderful and exacting play – written by Lisa Collins, directed by Jennifer Lanier, and opening Monday, Feb. 1, in the online Fertile Ground festival of new works – isn’t content being content. Something is not well, and that something is America.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


The action of the play—essentially a conversation between a married couple—consists of a man and woman trying to articulate what is wrong with the country. The woman, Karen, wants to make the world a better place. Her husband, Jerome, wonders if the world hasn’t done enough for him. At first, the couple struggle to identify the source of their unease. Karen’s goals are vague. “Too many people are dying,” she says. “I want to help.” But she doesn’t say which people are dying, or how she might help. Jerome, meanwhile, acts like he would rather avoid the conversation altogether, and he blames his wife’s surge of altruism on her recent retirement.

About two-thirds of the way into the play, the world comes crashing into their picturesque backyard—or at least, real-life events are discussed. Karen brings up the death of Jason Erik Washington, a Black man who was killed by Portland State University officers in 2018. We realize that this—the disproportionate use of lethal violence wielded against Black Americans by police—is the direction the conversation was headed all along.

Keith Cable and Vana O’Brien in “Be Careful What You Ask For.” Photo: Lisa Collins

Collins wrote the play in 2018 following Washington’s death. “I was working part time at PSU, and something broke,” says Collins. “I sat down and wrote this all at once.” The play itself was a combination of talks she’d witnessed over coffees and dinners. “I’ve heard every bit of this conversation many times with many people.”

Collins, who is Black, wrote Be Careful What You Ask For as a way to spark conversations about racial inequities. To that end, she chose to write her script for white actors. “To be quite honest, if the actors were Black, it wouldn’t have the same weight,” says Collins. “Because Black people have been talking about injustices for a very long time, and nothing has changed—and for things to change, people need to have empathy.”

In many ways, the play is a search for empathy. Collins hopes people who watch the play will ask questions—and that these questions might help in creating a framework for racial healing. “We do need to start having some conversations around race,” says Collins. “How are we going to have those?” Be Careful is certainly a great place to start. A series of guided questions written by Collins will be available to viewers, and there will be a talkback following Monday’s premiere performance.

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PREVIOUS STORIES ABOUT FERTILE GROUND 2021:

Sponsor
  • Fertile Ground 2021: Digital seedlings sprout. Bennett Campbell Ferguson previews the festival and talks with director Nicole Lane about the switch from live to online viewing.
  • Interactive cookies and scares. Bennett Campbell Ferguson writes about two plays with interactive aspects: Fold in Gently and RE: Lilith Lopez.
  • Martha Bakes in Black & White. Bobby Bermea talks with playwright Don Wilson Glenn and director Damaris Webb about Martha Bakes, a play about race and history and the nation’s first First Lady in her colonial kitchen.

About the author

Max Tapogna is an actor, singer, and writer who hails from Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Puget Sound in the spring of 2020 with a BA in Theatre Arts. Max is currently a 2020-21 acting apprentice at Portland Playhouse.

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