It’s 1949, in the Jim Crow town of Halifax, North Carolina, and a private atrocity that threatens to destroy a close-knit family is going down.
It’s 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, and a white cop shoots and kills a black teen-aged man, setting off a firestorm of rage.
It’s 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a gunman opens fire, killing 17 people. National Rifle Association spokesmen mock surviving students who push hard for stronger gun control, advocating for armed security in the schools instead. NRA membership spikes.
It’s 2019, in Christchurch, New Zealand, and yet another gunman opens fire, murdering 50 people in two mosques. Back in Parkland, two survivors of the high school shooting, still reeling from the trauma, commit suicide. After years of private grief, so does the father of a first-grader killed in the slaughter that took the lives of 14 children and three adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. The word “survivor” becomes complex and fraught with multiple meanings.
The stories of those first two years, 1949 and 2014, are being told onstage in two sterling productions in Portland right now: John Henry Redwood’s family drama The No Play at PassinArt: A Theatre Company, and Dael Orlandersmith’s solo stage docudrama Until the Flood at Portland Center Stage. Both are plays specifically about African-American life and the American original sin of racism. And both, perhaps surprisingly given their subjects, are enthralling in the telling. They’re just good theater, delivering pleasure along with a punch to the emotional gut.
I bring up New Zealand and Parkland and Sandy Hook as well because, although they represent a different sort of trauma – mass murders, not solitary events – they, too, are connected to a sordid history of violence that reaches back to lynchings and slave ships and the ethnic cleansings of indigenous people, forward to migrations and fears of the Other, inward to the itch for infamy. Christchurch was an act of violence aimed specifically at Muslims because they are Muslim, echoing America’s history of white-on-black violence. The tragedy of the past week’s suicides underscores the lasting effects of trauma on those who undergo it. No one escapes unscathed, although many come to terms with it and move on, altered. For many others, the trauma gnaws and shifts and settles in, defining memory and seeping into everyday life, sometimes overwhelming it.
Parkland and Christchurch have their own stories that are being told in their own ways. Remember that they’re linked – it’s all linked – and let’s move on to Halifax and Ferguson and the Portland stage:
The No Play
The talented John Henry Redwood’s 2001 play is a fiction, although it’s based on a thousand historical realities, and despite the trauma that sets its conflict into motion it’s largely a celebration of strength, mercy, forgiveness, and survival – and, yes, a little vengeance, too. I was going to write that at the story’s heart is the long history of the rape of black women by white men, but that’s not quite right. Rape, and the belief in racial supremacy that breeds it, is the evil of the tale, the thing that violates and poisons and spreads. The play’s heart lies in the ways the victims respond – the strength and even grace of the dispossessed who have been immorally and violently possessed.
Director William Earl Ray, whose last work for PassinArt was last year’s excellent production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, has a way of bringing out a sense of kinship in his casts, creating a true and likable ensemble, and he does it again with The No Play, which is sparked by Andrea White’s tough and graceful and encompassing performance as Mattie Cheeks, the wife and mother and bonding glue of the rural Cheeks clan. Mattie’s the boss, and White can give her a sardonic cutting edge, which is partly bluff – Mattie loves her clan deeply – and partly the expression of protective caution: Mattie also knows, deeper than anyone, the perils and implications of the larger world, and the ways necessary to survive it. White is well-matched by James Dixon as Mattie’s husband, Rawl, who is genial and loving and ambitious – he works hard, and wants to take his family north to Cleveland, to start fresh where the prejudice is less deeply entrenched – but ultimately not as strong as Mattie.
Their daughters are played with splendid sass by Sami Yacob-Andrus as the older and more studious Joyce, and seventh-grader Kobi Powers as trouble-prone Matoka. These four are the firm family, with the ethereal, black-shrouded Aunt Cora (Lydia Fleming) floating wordlessly around the edges, arriving silently to pick up baskets of food and drifting equally silently back into the surrounding woods. And an outsider – the excellent David Meyers, as the academic researcher Yaveni Aaronsohn, who is teaching Rawl to play chess and, despite his Jewishness, is not averse to a plate of Mattie’s pork chops – joins the chamber group as an astringent rhythm player, enlivening the music with his own cross-beat.
The relationship between the Jewish outsider and the black characters is essential to the tale, bringing an intimately human and generous alliance to the sometimes tendentious history of American blacks and Jews. Aaronsohn claims a kinship with the Cheekses because, he says, as a Jew he, too, is not white: He’s different from the bigots and power-holders in the Jim Crow South, an outsider and potential victim, too. There are shades of truth to his position. Redwood’s original title for The No Play was No Niggers, No Jews, No Dog – a stark repetition of the message on signs scattered across the South proclaiming who was and was not welcome where, or else.
I’ll not tell you more, because things shift, and you’ll want to discover them for yourself. But there’s a lovely intimacy to this show, which makes the story’s jagged edges both easier and harder to bear, and it’s supported by the simple but distinctive designs (Kyra Stanford’s rural shack-centered set, Wanda Walden’s quietly distinctive costumes) for the stage of the equally intimate Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, which is a very good place to see this play. Redwood was an accomplished actor who performed nationally in a lot of August Wilson plays, among others, and came to writing relatively late, ostensibly to create good roles for himself, but who wound up, as many people have noted, excelling at writing excellent characters for women actors in The Old Settler and other plays. He died of heart disease in 2003, two years after The No Play’s premiere, at the age of 60, and it’s tempting to regret what he might have accomplished if he’d lived longer: another three, four, five good plays? Better to appreciate what he did achieve – which you can do at IFCC through April 14.
Until the Flood
If The No Play is a fiction based on reality, Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood is a reality with a light overlay of fiction. On August 9, 2014, Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, got into an altercation with Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old black man. Reports on what did or didn’t happen conflict greatly. Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, who was a witness, said that Wilson started it, grabbing Brown by the neck; Wilson said that Brown attacked him in his police car and tried to grab his gun. Protesters declared that Brown put his hands up in surrender and shouted, “Don’t shoot.” The FBI said it found no evidence of that.
Three things are incontrovertible. One, Wilson did shoot Brown. He fired 12 bullets, hitting Brown six times. Two, the killing set off a local and national firestorm of unrest. Three, a grand jury declined to indict Wilson, igniting even more protest and unrest.
Orlandersmith, an accomplished writer and performer who’s been to Center Stage before with her solo show Forever, traveled to Missouri after the shooting to talk with dozens of people – white, black, liberal, conservative, all the stops between – to get a sense of the emotional topography: What did the people who actually lived there think about what happened? What was its effect on the larger community and the way people lead their lives? Here is where the overlay of fiction comes in. In Until the Flood Orlandersmith presents several people who are actually composites of the many people she interviewed, representing similar views but without the identifying features of real individuals. “Because I made it very clear to everyone I spoke with – I don’t have a right to invade your life that way,” she explained in an interview with Sarah Brandt that is reprinted in the Portland production’s program. “”I have a right as a playwright to tell a story. But I don’t have a right to dig into someone’s life like that. Because that’s no longer about theater, that’s perverse voyeurism.”
Nevertheless, the personalities she so adeptly voices have the feel of reality and seem accurate reflections of the broad and personal reporting that she did. They have life, and character, and firmly held convictions that are sometimes utterly in contradiction to a voice you’ve heard moments before, and their variety and breadth reflect both the degree to which people in and around Ferguson have thought about the issue and how complex and difficult their responses are. There is no magic wand, no easy solution. Attitudes are complex and deeply ingrained, woven into the history and culture of a community at odds with itself. Yet simply sitting down and listening lessens the heat and broadens the light. Where are we? We are here, and here, and here, and here.
We are with the retired policeman, who believes that as long as a cop upholds the law it shouldn’t make any difference what his color is – although almost all, as it turns out, are white. We are with the young and black aspiring art historian, who just wants to hold on for another year in Ferguson and then get away to someplace safe: “Please God, let me get out. Please God, don’t let that happen to me.” We are with the white-nation believer with a dream: “Clean. Pure. White. Like it used to be once. Like it will be again.” And you realize that Ferguson, like the nation at large, is a long deep way from understanding, let alone agreement, on one of its crucial core issues.
Yet again, there is grace in the telling of these tales, and even here and there a touch of humor, because the people speaking are human and honest according to their own perspectives, and open enough to have entered into conversation with Orlandersmith, an outsider in an overlap of closed communities.
As she was in Forever (which was also directed, as is this show, by Neel Keller), Orlandersmith is alone onstage, and her performance is literally transformative: She shifts subtly from character to character with a rise or drop of the voice, an inflection, a reshaping of her movements and physical expression. Theatrically, it’s a joy to behold, a bravura performance that nevertheless subsumes itself in the stories she tells and the people she represents. In a theatrical sense she does have two co-performers: video designer Nicholas Hussong, whose array of moving images both sets and shifts the scene, and scenic designer Takeshi Kata, who fills the stage of the intimate basement Ellyn Bye Studio at The Armory with a depiction of the street memorial to Brown, from garlands of flowers to protest signs. Together, Hussong and Kata give the show an epic scale. Orlandersmith, with her quiet command and individual purpose, scales it back to intimacy. The combination seems right for a subject that is both intensely personal and as broad and complex as the nation itself.
With Regina Taylor’s jaunty musical Crowns packing Portland Playhouse and the Milagro/Confrontation collaboration on the national “rolling premiere” of Charly Evon Simpson’s Jump, the city’s stages are bringing a welcome coalescence of African American stories and voices to audiences for the next few weeks. This is cause for both celebration and introspection: celebration because black stories are being told onstage from so many angles at once; introspection because, in Portland, a convergence like this is such a rare event. We are many people, with many stories to be told and heard.
- PassinArt’s production of The No Play continues through April 14 at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N. Interstate Ave., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.
- Portland Center Stage’s presentation of Until the Flood continues through April 21 in the Ellyn Bye Studio of The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., Portland Ticket and schedule information here.