ArtsWatch Weekly: Vanport Mosaic

Remembering the destruction of a city and its culture, Brett Campbell's music picks, arts in Wilsonville, kabuki, and more

Sixty-nine years ago today, on May 30, 1948, a 200-foot section of dike burst in the lowlands south of the Columbia River and north of Portland, and the untamed river’s waters burst in, inundating the city of Vanport and killing 15 people. Almost overnight what had been the second-largest city in Oregon, with a population of about 40,000 at its peak, was no more. People fled in a panic, a more orderly evacuation made impossible because up to the last moment the Army Corps of Engineers and the Housing Authority of Portland had assured the city’s residents – many of them black or Japanese American, almost all of them working-class – that the dike was safe, and there was no need to worry.

Shipyard workers and Vanport residents, with their paychecks. City of Portland Archives.

Today there is little evidence of Vanport, which in its six brief years of existence had been a thriving “instant” community built to house wartime workers in the Kaiser shipyards and their families. Up to 40 percent of the population was African American, and although the neighborhoods were segregated, the schools and after-hours social life were not. Vanport was hardly a Utopia of cultural and racial harmony, but at the time it might have been the most socially progressive community in an almost completely white state.

All of that ended with the floodwaters, almost in a blink. But the memory lingers on. People who lived there or were born there are still alive; others are their children and remember the family stories. And the annual Vanport Mosaic Festival, a four-day event that this year ended Monday and marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the city’s birth, helps keep the flame alive.

On Sunday afternoon I went to the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, where much of the action took place (the center’s upstairs galleries hold a nice exhibition on Vanport’s history and culture) to see staged readings of two plays that were central attractions of the festival: Michael A. Jones’s Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water and Don W. Glenn’s American Summer Squash. Both are by African American playwrights, and both are about the displacement and trauma and readjustment of people caught in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 flooding of vast African American neighborhoods of New Orleans, an event that echoed the Vanport flood in both its environmental and its cultural effects.

Overturned cars and other devastation after the Vanport deluge of 1948. City of Portland Archives

There was, in spite of the tracing of vibrant African American cultures being shattered at least temporarily, and the lingering cultural and political questions about exactly why and how that happened, a feeling of hopefulness in the dramas and a sense of joy in the event itself. These are our stories. They are good to tell, and good to hear. That two stories of New Orleans were told in a celebration of the legacy of Vanport seemed fitting, somehow: the widely known disaster of Katrina, which cost at least 1,200 lives across the hurricane’s broad path, and the smaller, lesser-known destruction of Vanport seem like intimate cousins, forever linked. The texture of the tales also seemed to bleed into Portland’s ugly current events, in particular the murder of two men and serious wounding of a third in a racially charged crime on a MAX light-rail train, allegedly by a white supremacist who was threatening two young women, one of whom was wearing a hijab. There are the floods – the flashpoints – and the long-simmering circumstances in which they strike. Performances of the two plays repeat this weekend, at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at IFCC. Catch a slice of important history, and some engaging theater, if you can.




Child Of No Nation
This First Thursday multimedia “experimental container” includes visual art from Sarah Best, dance performances by Kiel Moton and Hank Logan, music and spoken word performances by Brad Hamers, video light by jdaugh, music by Ben Martens and Cat Child, and Child of No Nation, an offshoot of New York’s famed Living Theater that’s bringing back radical political lyrics reminiscent of ’60s New York happenings, joined with drones, beats, and other provocative sounds. Thursday, The Impossible Box, 215 SW First Avenue and Pine Street.

Virtuoso violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

Jean-Luc Ponty
The French violinist took over the jazz violin legacy established by earlier greats like Stephane Grappelli and Joe Venuti in the 1970s, when his jazz-rock fusion was all over jazz radio. Since then, he’s continued to merge jazz with other music, including Indian (with violinist L. Subramaniam), bluegrass (with Bela Fleck and Mark O’Connor), African, orchestral (major symphonies around the world) and even joined that paragon of fusion, Return to Forever. He’ll have a quartet featuring guitar, keyboards and rhythm section. Thursday, The Shedd, Eugene.

“Constructing Identity from Maxville to Vanport”
Picking up on the theme of this week’s post, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble work-in-progress performance and discussion event features vocalist Marilyn Keller and composer/pianist Ezra Weiss performing one song from the upcoming concert work “From Maxville to Vanport,” featuring text by Renee Mitchell. The writer, singer, historian, and composer will speak about the project, and take questions from the audience.
Friday, 6:30 – 8 pm, Portland Art Museum, Stevens Room.

Eugene Symphony
The orchestra’s second annual SymFest features traditional bluegrass (Corwin Bolt and the Wingnuts), Her Royal Slugness Eugenia Slimesworth, Mariachi del Sol, Danceability International, food carts, locally made kombucha, cider and, of course, malty, hoppy bubbly locally brewed beverages brewed up right here. At 7:30 p.m. the orchestra joins Eugene chanteuse Siri Vik singing some of her specialties, the music of Edith Piaf and Kurt Weill, and the energetic trio Time for Three, who’ll play music from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, mix Mahler’s mighty Symphony No. 1 with their arrangements of The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, Guns N’ Roses’ explosive Sweet Child O’ Mine, then sprinkle a bit of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with tunes from Hamilton, Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and Britney Spears’ Toxic. The festival closes with a post-concert dance party in the Hult lobby by DJ Foodstamp and a jazz lounge in Soreng Theater. Saturday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
ArtsWatch’s Terry Ross recently praised both the orchestra and venue on the other side of the Columbia, and you can hear why in this season-ending concert featuring the too rarely performed World War II Symphony No. 2 by Aram Khachaturian, plus pianist Sofya Melikyan starring in Richard Strauss’ Burleske For Piano and Orchestra. Saturday and Sunday, Skyview Concert Hall, 1300 NW 139th Street, Vancouver, Wash.

PSU’s Global Rhythms, 2015 photo.

Global Rhythms PDX
Portland State University choirs’ annual season-ending concert features arrangements of music from around the world for choir. This year’s travelogue includes works from Ireland, Haiti, Hawaii and beyond, but the real treat is the energetic performances, which can reach rock concert levels of excitement. Sunday, First United Methodist Church.

German Art Songs
Fifteen Portland and Vancouver singers, including members of In Mulieribus, Resonance Ensemble, Portland Opera chorus and more sing music by Schubert, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Sunday, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 426 E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Vancouver, Wash.

Angel Romero and Eliot Fisk
Two of the greatest living classical guitarists team up in music by Vivaldi, Rodrigo, Falla, Torroba, Granados, and even arrangements of Spanish folk songs by the martyred Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Monday, Newmark Theatre.





Wilsonville Festival of Arts. Summer festival season is kicking in, and Wilsonville gets a head start Saturday and Sunday with its annual celebration at Town Center Park. Attractions range from large-scale art installations to dance by BodyVox, Polaris, and Mexica Tiahui, music by  former Prince band singer Saeeda Wright and the Salsanova Orchestra, and much more.

Two kabuki plays: The Castle Tower and The Puppeteer. Portland State University Center for Japanese Studies presents the latest in its highly regarded series of kabuki plays: English-language versions of the occult playwright Izumi Loyak’s 1917 Castle and the folkloric tale of an itinerant puppeteer whose puppets come to life. This is a rare opportunity to see kabuki performed in the Northwest. Tuesday-Wednesday, Lincoln Performance Hall, PSU.

“Our City, Our Voice”: a walkabout on Thursday.

Our City, Our Voice. Artist Sabina Haque has been working with students at Madison High School who’ve created a silkscreen ‘zine and 10-foot murals addressing Portland’s cultural and geographical divides. The students will talk about their project at a family-friendly “walkabout” performance called We Need Our Voices Heard, 6:30-9 p.m. Thursday at the JADE/Apano multicultural space JAMS, in an old furniture store at the corner of 82nd Avenue and Southeast Division Street. It’s free, and there’ll also be art activities and Chinese and Indian food and drinks.

Jefferson Dancers spring recital. The elite high school dance program performs its spring show 7-9 p.m. Thursday at Jefferson High School.

Interum Echoes. PDX Contemporary Ballet performs three works by three choreographers in three shows, Friday-Sunday at N.E.W. Expressive Works.

The Goblin King: A David Bowie & Labyrinth Tribute. The dance company TriptheDark mixes contemporary dance with “some splattering of tap and modern movement, and a healthy amount of popular and obscure Bowie songs.” Friday through June 17, The Headwaters Theatre.




ArtsWatch links


Robert Frank’s San Francisco: Questions and confluences. “Frank’s photographs astonished me—they had the congenial spirit you get from poets like Allen Ginsberg, partly because of their everyday vernacular and spontaneity—but also because, maybe more subtly, of their keen eye to the plight of marginalized people.” Paul Maziak takes a fresh look at some master photographs from the 1950s, many of which are at the Portland Art Museum.

Oregonophony,’ turning place into sound. Composer Christina Rusnak lends an ear and an active mind to the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s explorations of the natural (both urban and wild) sounds of Oregon.

New Expressive Works: the tension builds. Nim Wunnan finds strength and diversity in work from NEW’s resident choreographers.

Portland theater, victimizing women. Recent modernizations of Greek tragedies, Maria Choban argues, misplace the essential power and violence of the originals, and so sap such tales and characters as Medea of their terrifying fury.

Michael Curry’s puppetry enhanced ‘Persephone.’

Puppetry redeems ‘Persephone’ at the Oregon Symphony. Bruce Browne writes that in the final chapter of the symphony’s three-part SoundSights series of collaborations with visual artists, Michael Curry’s brilliant large-scale puppetry helped Stravinsky’s flawed Persephone succeed.

Tom Gold talks ballet. In her essential column DanceWatch Weekly, Jamuna Chiarini carries on a fascinating conversation with Gold, the former New York City Ballet soloist who was in town to set his Festival Russe on The Portland Ballet, about dancing for Twyla Tharp, the differences between classic and modern ballet, why ballet dancers can look stiff when performing contemporary works, and other things.

June art: Quintana, Crow’s Shadow, Jewish Museum. Notes on the rebirth of Quintana Gallery, Crow’s Shadow’s visit to Portland, the Oregon Jewish Museum’s impending grand reopening, First Thursday, and more.

Everything you always wanted to know about Texas … but were afraid to ask. Christa McIntyre fills us in on the sordid comic doings in a tiny Texas town in Del Shores’ cult hit Sordid Lives, and updates the doings at the OUTwright Festival.

Listening, collaborating, exploring at the Music Today Festival. Gary Ferrington finds an explosion of variety in the University of Oregon’s celebration of contemporary sounds.

A new way to ask “what if.” A.L. Adams discovers a universe of possibilities at The Armory in Portland Center Stage’s Constellations, and some excellent performances by Dana Greene and Grimm star Silas Weir Mitchell.

45th Parallel, Bach Cantata Choir: new music, old strings; old music, new strings. Terry Ross considers the old and new and some invigorating crossing of boundaries in a pair of concerts.

The importance of being Earnestine. I review Artists Rep’s spritzy, entertaining new production of Oscar Wilde’s comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, and consider what choosing an all-woman cast does and doesn’t do.

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