Vision 2020: Connie Carley and Jerry Foster

For almost four decades the leaders of PassinArt have forged a strong and steady path for Black theater in Portland

For nearly 38 years PassinArt: A Theatre Company has been passing down art, culture, and heritage to the ensuing generations. That’s a long time for a theater company, a nickel-and-dime industry at the best of times. There are other organizations, such as Artists Repertory Theatre, that have been around longer and gotten bigger. But usually (except in special cases like Milagro) those companies’ longevity has been carried on by fresh influxes of new faces at different times.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


For PassinArt, Connie Carley and Jerry Foster have been keeping the flame alive this entire time. There have been periodic breaks here and there, some longer than others, but PassinArt always comes back, its vision intact, its mission still at the forefront of its endeavors: making sure that the next generation of Black people in Portland has something solid that belongs to them.“We are responsible,” Foster says, “for the health and the vitality of our community.” Put another way (when speaking about the fact that PassinArt has always paid its artists something), Carly says, “We’ve never been community theater. But we’ve always been about the community.”

A lot has changed over the years, of course. PassinArt has been around since 1982. At the time they were Connie Carley, Clarice Bailey, and Michael Grant. They had their first performance at the Matt Dishman Center in 1983. PassinArt gained its nonprofit status in 1986. Jerry Foster came on board as artistic director in 1995. In those days, they paid for every show out of their own pockets. Board members were expected to act or direct or work backstage or in the front of house. And they never started a project until a good percentage of funding was in hand.

George Hendricks and Jerry Foster in 2014’s “Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking.” Photo courtesy PassinArt

In the old days, surprisingly (to me, at least) PassinArt wasn’t the only game in town if you wanted to see Black theater. There were also Portland Black Repertory Theatre and Sojourner Truth. BRT was a more classic theater company and Truth specialized in historical works. PassinArt was a combination of both. The three companies would work together to make sure that year ’round, Black people could find themselves on stage if they needed to.

“We were able to create a whole season of Black plays pretty much,” remembers Foster. “When one was down, the other one was up and there was never competition amongst the companies. It was more of a collaboration.” Carley agrees: “Back then we coordinated our schedules. We were always supportive of each other, which we still are. We want to be supportive of all theater companies, especially companies of color.”

Foster and Carley were the two stalwarts of the company, the ones who remained when everything else around them was changing. Growth might have seemed slow to some, but that was essential to maintaining their focus. “We’ve been very strategic about it,” says Carley. “We want to make sure we stay in tune with our mission. A lot of times people would say, ‘Why don’t you do four or five shows?’ Or why don’t you do this or do that? And Jerry’s response would be, One: when was the last time you came to a PassinArt production, and Two: when was the last time you made a donation?”

Since then, Portland Black Repertory and Sojourner Truth have faded into the misty past along with Storefront, Tygre’s Heart, Stark Raving, and a host of other Portland theater memories. A very different theater scene has risen. Through it all, PassinArt remains a part of Portland’s past, present, and future. Carley and Foster have a unique bond, which seems to both to have been the reason they’re a team, and strengthened by the fact that they are a team. It’s the kind of bond that seems indispensable if you want to survive as a theater company for almost four decades.

“The No Play,” from left: Lydia Fleming, David Meyers, Kobi Flowers, Andrea White, Sami Yacob-Andrus. Photo courtesy PassinArt

What is your view of the cultural scene in Portland right now?

Carley: “I am pleased to see that more African-Americans and people of color are getting roles in other theaters, because those theaters are now doing more Black plays or plays by diverse artists. I’ve always felt that our community and other communities should be able to go through a variety of doors to see quality theater by minority artists, writers and directors. I’m pleased to see that people seem to be working more on a regular basis. I hope this is not just a
temporary trend. Last year was the first year I’ve seen where we’ve had four plays by Black playwrights and artists happening all at the same time.” [Note: Confrontation Theatre’s Jump; Portland Center Stage’s Until the Flood; Portland Playhouse’s Crowns; PassinArt’s The No Play — and one might even throw in Shaking the Tree’s production of local playwright Anya Pearson’s Made to Dance in Burning Buildings, also in the same period.] I hope that people are really committed to diversity of playwrights and having people of color on stage as well as behind and directing and being paid for their excellent work.”

Foster: A couple of years back, we had a chance to bring in a traveling exhibit, Kin Killing Kin. We did a play to go along with it (The Gospel of Lovingkindness) that dealt with gang violence. What came out of that, what was really at the forefront for us, was the knowledge that we are responsible. We are part of the solution. No matter what goes on in our community, it’s up to us as individuals to step up. It’s up to us collectively, as a people, to speak out. But we’re not gonna do all that if we just sit back and wait. We are a part of the solution.

Carley: That was one case where we thought it would be good to partner with other groups. We did a lot of pre-discussion with different community groups. When you hear stuff like kin killing kin and especially when you see those images of Black kids killing each other, we knew we had to have a discussion. So, we talked with people at the city, we talked with community groups that work with kids and parents, we talked with the Donald E. Long [Multnomah County juvenile detention home]. We initially thought we’d have four community discussions. Two at IFCC [Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center] and one at SEI [Self Enhancement, Inc.] and one at the library. Well, we ended up with eleven community discussions that happened.

2016 production of Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity.” Photo courtesy PassinArt

What do you hope/fear/expect to happen in 2020?

Carley: I think the challenge for artists is always going to be funding. I used to work for the state, working with kids and family issues, and I was promoting positive youth development, which means you put in money for kids to have the arts and mentorship and support. Let me tell you, arts are still seen as fluff or only for people who have money. I’m concerned that the city of Portland and the state of Oregon don’t put the money into the arts that other states do. My fear is that — it’s not a fear — I think arts organizations have to be advocates for the arts like other disciplines are. Or else we’ll see arts funding disappear even more.

Foster: This whole issue of space I think is a challenge for everybody, too. I think artists will find themselves probably looking at different spaces, being creative looking for spaces where people can perform.

Carley: The City of Portland has an affordable arts space plan to expand accessible performance spaces for artists and arts organizations. I don’t have a current update or know what’s happening with the plan now. The arts tax funds go to support arts education programs and local community arts organizations. I’m not excited about additional taxes but I was excited that it seemed they were trying to create a revenue stream for the arts.

What do you hope/fear/expect to happen culturally in the next decade?

Foster: They say that Portland is the whitest city in America. Well, we as a company are stewards of keeping our culture out there, keeping the culture in the light so that people don’t forget. A lot of the plays we do touch on the Civil Rights Movement. But there are also plays that touch on other social issues. For instance, glorification of the pulpit, mental health in the African-American community, AIDS in the African-American community. We’ve always had at least one of our productions focus on a challenging issue. We want to challenge people to take action, not just comment, “Oh that was nice.” That’s always been a focus of ours, really encouraging people to not only talk to each other from diverse groups and cultures for better cultural understanding, but also to take action.

Wrick Jones (left) as Memphis, Kenneth Dembo as Wolf, Cycerli Ash as Risa in August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” in 2018. Photo courtesy PassinArt

Carley: When we did The No Play last year some young people were shocked. They didn’t even know what Jim Crow was. They didn’t understand the impact it had on our community. Every time I think maybe we shouldn’t do something about history, we run into someone who really doesn’t have a clue and they were shocked. And these were young white students out of PSU. I’m like, “What are they teaching people in the schools these days?” Folks don’t know.

If you could make one thing happen in the 2020s what would it be?

Carley: “In the next decade I hope that we have a collaboration of artists that are well-funded, working together, continuing to support each other and the next generation. I hope that we have trained the generations under us and the ones under them so that they see the
value in art and they see that they can make a living being an artist, whether it’s on stage or backstage or in the various capacities. I think it’s our responsibility individually and collectively that we create this pipeline for our young people to move into the arts and see it as a vital career where they can make money. The challenge too is getting that younger generation into the theater. It’s that 18-35-year-old group. If it’s gonna survive, hopefully in the next decade, we’ll help them have those opportunities and present those opportunities. So they can see it’s a place for them.”

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And that of course, is PassinArt’s solemn trust: to provide that place for Black people. “I think,” Carley ruminates, “in our role as artists of color, it’s nice to work in other people’s houses but it’s always nice to own your own company too.”

Novella Hardy and Daniel Jackson in 2005’s “Flyin’ West.” Photo courtesy PassinArt

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This is the sixteenth in a series of twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the 2020s.

Previously:

  • Rachel Barreras-Kleemann. The “small” goals of the Newport dance teacher, who learned African-Brazilian dance forms in Brazil and performed with the marching samba band Lions of Batucuda: keep kids motivated to dance, give low-income kids a place to go.
     
  • Niel DePonte. The Portland percussionist, composer, and conductor for more than 40 years thinks about thorny issues ahead, and how to tackle them.
     
  • Darcy Dolge, Sarah West, and Nancy Knowles. Three leaders of La Grande’s Art Center East, which helps serve a sprawling ten-county stretch of Eastern Oregon, say funding cuts could have been dire in their rural area, but the community stepped up to keep arts thriving.
     
  • Maya Vivas and Leila Haile. The founders of North Mississippi Avenue’s Ori Gallery “often joke about how we would love to not be the only Queer, Black-run art space in town.”
     
  • Christopher Acebo. The longtime key figure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and recent chair of the Oregon Arts Commission talks about diversity, funding, and who controls the gate to the castle.
     
  • Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson. Beyond the arts bubble, the Wobbly duo see a dangerous world: “Hate based crime directed against people with disabilities has gone up.”
     
  • John Olbrantz. The director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art talks about the museum, Salem’s lively arts community, and its “blessing and curse” of being near Portland.
     
  • Joamette Gil. The lowdown on the Power & Magic of creating an indie comics universe that tells tales of life, love, and adventure in a nonbinary culture of color.
     
  • Rachael Carnes. The Eugene playwright, who’s written more than 80 plays in three years, praises her city’s bubbling arts community but fears it’s getting harder to break in: “Access is the foundation for a vibrant arts scene.”

  • Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini. “There’s a notion in Portland that anyone living outside Portland is a Klan member. … in fact the small towns and rural communities here are incredibly vibrant and resilient.” A new generation of leaders takes the renamed Five Oaks Museum deeper into the arts and into the diversity of culture around it.

  • Ella Ray. “There is this level of resistance coming from formerly colonized people who are marginalized, and I feel something bubbling under the surface,” the art historian and museum activist declares.

  • Martin Majkut. “The current generation of concert-goers is the last one with solid music education in schools.” Rogue Symphony Orchestra’s conductor talks about audiences, money, and music for troubled times.

  • Ka’ila Farrell-Smith. The Southern Oregon artist, mentor, and anti-fracking activist creates visual art “rooted in Indigenous aesthetics and abstract formalism.”

  • Sean Andries and Carissa Burkett. The leaders of Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center provide “a fertile ground for people of all walks of life to cross paths and connect,” from performances to visual and culinary arts.

  • Yaelle Amir. A promising curator makes her mark and then her job disappears. She rolls up her sleeves and makes her mark again.

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