August Wilson Red Door Project

DramaWatch Weekly: Encore!

What goes around comes around: Portland performances ArtsWatch is happy to see again.

This week, let’s give it up for encore performances, from racially significant statements to heartwarming Christmas traditions. Turns out there are plenty of kinds of performances that make you go, “Hey. Let me see that again.”

The August Wilson Red Door Project’s “Hands Up” returns for two performances.

Here’s a serious one: This weekend, the August Wilson Red Door Project re-presents Hands Up for two nights only at Wieden + Kennedy. This collection of monologues features seven playwrights’ insightful, individual takes on a sadly recurring theme: police violence against Black people. Hands Up plans another (longer/wider) run in 2018, and your support now can help make that happen. Hopefully as the message reverberates, the atrocities that make it so necessary will abate. But even the best theater can only change a few minds at a time, so realistically, this may be the beginning of a long run.


Theater at the intersection

Two themes at TCG's national conference in Portland – diversity and "maker" creativity – suggest a future for the art form

The Theatre Communications Group annual national conference, which landed in downtown Portland for four days last week, had two stated themes which I initially found, if not exactly contradictory, at least not particularly relevant to one another. One of the main programmatic strands was called “At the Intersections,” a series of structured workshops centered on diversity and allyship. The other was a stated interest in celebrating Portland’s “maker” culture, and exploring ways to apply this concept to theatrical work. Both interesting and worthy and, laid side-by-side, at first seeming sort of random.

But as I actually attended the conference, I found unexpected resonance between the two strands. The question of diversity and the question of how to redefine theater’s cultural role in relation to new movements and technology seemed to me to intersect in a broader question about how the theatre industry can find new ways to define its value.

I mean that in two senses, and they both feel particularly pressing here in Portland. The first is, of course, financial. As Artists Rep artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez pointed out during a live taping of the American Theatre magazine podcast, in most cities, the most well-established companies pay a symbolic fee on an incredibly long lease, while the smaller and less financially stable companies pay exorbitant monthly or weekly rents. This is true in Portland, too, where the brunt of the financial burden of steeply climbing real estate prices is borne by the small companies least able to absorb any additional costs, much less costs growing at the rate of Portland’s rents.

Portland-based “Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments,” the August Wilson Red Door Project’s touring show of works by African American writers, was featured at the TAG annual conference.

Pair this with theater’s increasing—or at least ongoing—cultural irrelevance. As exciting as Hamilton was, it does not seem to have heralded theater’s return to the mainstream. We know well, and it remains true, that audiences are small, white, and old. How can theaters prove their value to new and current audiences in order to remain alive in both the short and long term? How can they prove their value to a city that seems happy to fill its trendiest areas with condos and storefronts instead of arts venues?


ArtsWatch Weekly: Conduit’s last dance, Russian lost love, the color of race, chamber tales

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

For more than 20 years Conduit was a vital link – in many ways, the vital link – in Portland’s chain of contemporary dance organizations. A home base for some of the city’s most creative dancemakers, it was also the place that visiting choreographers and dancers made their temporary work home when they were in town. Major work and vital experiments were created here by a host of talented people. Mary Oslund, Tere Mathern, Linda K. Johnson, Gregg Bielemeier, V. Keith Goodman, Jim McGinn, Katherine Longstreth: the list goes on and on, creating a tapestry of the tale of a very large and significant chapter in the history of the city’s dance.

It’s all history now, or will be as of July 23, when Conduit hangs up its hat for good, at least in its current form. The party’s over – but not before an actual party, A Wake for Conduit, fills the Ford Building for a final celebration this Wednesday, July 13. Bring your stories, and put on your dancing shoes. Jamuna Chiarini has the story for ArtsWatch readers.

There Mathern's "Gather: a dance about convergence," performed in 2012 in Conduit's original home in the Pythian Building. Photo: Gordon Wilson

There Mathern’s “Gather: a dance about convergence,” performed in 2012 in Conduit’s original home in the Pythian Building. Photo: Gordon Wilson



A TALE OF RUSSIAN LOVE LOST. Bruce Browne reviews Portland Opera’s new production of Eugene Onegin, which continues in the relatively cozy Newmark Theatre through July 26. Tchaikovsky’s opera, based on Alexander Pushkin’s extraordinarily popular Russian verse novel, is re-set in this production to the late years of the Soviet Union and the early years of the post-Soviet era, a switch that works for Browne: “The reason this production works so well is that the actors/singers embraced the change.” He particularly praises Jennifer Forni as Tatiana, the country miss who’s spurned by the cold title character: “Forni’s voice has the power and brilliance of a roman candle, and yet is never pushed, always in control. She has the best messa di voce (getting softer and louder on one note) I’ve heard in a long time. And she convincingly brought to life the facets of her teenage angst, brought about attempting to deal with Onegin.”


Talking race: the color of now

An overflow crowd at Imago Theatre delves into Oregon's racial history, race conflicts in America, and the role that art and artists play in the discussion

When the doors finally opened and the long line wandering down the sidewalk began to surge forward, the intimate Imago Theatre began to be overwhelmed by a human tide. Every seat, it seemed, was taken. I don’t recall seeing the theater this packed even in the heyday of Frogz, Imago’s huge and long-running anthropomorphic-animal hit. For that matter, I’d forgotten the place even had a balcony, which on Monday night was packed, as the saying goes, to the rafters. Old people were there, and young people, and the generations between, and this being Portland there were more white people than people of color but the mix was evident. Almost immediately a baby started crying, a sound not usually heard in theaters unless it’s a sound effect for a play. This was a real baby, in real time. “Cool,” said Chantal DeGroat, the actor and moderator for the evening. “Rock ‘n’ roll. Rock. And. Roll. To the families.”

Jones and DeGroat: "What's RACE got to do with it?" Photo: Peter Irby

Jones and DeGroat: “What’s RACE got to do with it?” Photo: Peter Irby

The event was a conversation called “What’s RACE Got To Do With It?,” produced by the group The Color of NOW and hosted by Third Rail Repertory Theatre, which shares the Imago space. Part performance, part talk show and part back-and-forth with the audience, it included a monologue to an unborn child – a child who, given the state of the world and its racial volatility, would remain unborn, an idea derailed – by actor Joseph Gibson, and a little music from Ben Graves, and a long conversation about the nitty gritty of race in America and Oregon in particular with the actor, director, and activist Kevin Jones, artistic director of the August Wilson Red Door Project, an organization whose ambitious goal is to “change the racial ecology of Portland through the arts.”


ArtsWatch Weekly: popcorn time

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

What does ArtsWatch watch? Pretty much, the culture in and around Portland: plays, dance, art, music, ideas that interest us and interest you. In other words, we’re local: What’s going on here and now that’s worth seeing and thinking about?

Still, local means a very different thing in 2016 than it did in 1816 or 1416, when travel was difficult and the idea of place was much more isolated. Today, ideas and influences arrive from everywhere. We’re hooked into a global culture whether we like it or not. Portland is an open city. It might have a bubble, but it doesn’t have a wall. Culturally, that means that much of what we think of as local – what we read and see and hear and even eat – is arriving from somewhere else, influencing the ways we live and think and sometimes, in turn, being influenced by what it encounters here. “Local” is an extremely fluid, and often arbitrary, concept.

A Japanese snow monkey in the widescreen visual poem "Baraka."

A Japanese snow monkey in the widescreen visual poem “Baraka.”

So this week, let’s go to the movies.

Actually, we go to quite a few of these vivid interlopers from the “outside” world, and we’ve been writing about them, insightfully and entertainingly, as a vital part of our local culture. Our expanded film coverage, under the expert eye of critic and editor Marc Mohan, includes reviews, interviews, and now, a weekly film newsletter, FilmWatch Weekly, in which Mohan spotlights a few fresh films (in his first letter, it was the made-in-Portland Green Room, starring the legendary Patrick Stewart) and keeps you up-to-date on all the movies we think you’ll find of interest: not the mainstream blockbusters, usually, but the genuinely interesting, challenging, and sometimes risky stuff.


Talkin’ August Wilson: the monologue tales

Thanks to the Red Door Project, Portland's love affair with the great playwright spreads to a national competition for young actors

Artists Rep's "Seven Guitars" last year was one in a series  of popular revivals of August Wilson plays in Portland. From left: Michael J. Asberry, Ramona Lisa Alexander, Lance McQueen, Gayle Samuels. Photo: Owen Carey

Artists Rep’s “Seven Guitars” last year was one in a series of popular revivals of August Wilson plays in Portland. From left: Michael J. Asberry, Ramona Lisa Alexander, Lance McQueen, Gayle Samuels. Photo: Owen Carey

“They never made Emancipation what they say it was. People say, – Jesus turn the water into wine what you look like telling him it was the wrong kind? Hell, maybe it is the wrong kind! If you gonna do it … do it right! They wave the law on one end and hit you with a Billy club on the other. I told myself I can’t just sit around and collect dog shit while the people drowning. The people drowning in sorrow and grief. That’s a mighty big ocean. They got the law tied to their toe. Every time they try and swim the law pull them under. It’s dangerous out here. People walking around hunting each other. If you ain’t careful you could lose your eye or your arm. I seen that. I seen a man grab hold to a fellow and cut off his arm. Cut it off at the shoulder. The man looked down saw his arm gone and started crying. After that he more dangerous with that one arm than the other man is with two. He got less to lose. There’s a lot of one-arm men walking around.”

– Solly Two Shoes
– “Gem of the Ocean,” August Wilson


What is August Wilson’s legacy?

So much of the language that black people hear, the actor and director Kevin Jones commented Monday evening, belongs to someone else. But “the language of August Wilson is specific to our culture.”

It’s in the music, the cadence, the repetitions, the parables, the storytelling – a language that is English but a distinct kind of English, grown from a distinct cultural soil. And it’s the sound of the language, coupled with the stories being told – the grit and rhythm and singing of the thing – that makes Wilson’s ten-play cycle of dramas about African American life in the 20th century one of the great theatrical achievements of the century. In such rich and startling dramas as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” Wilson established himself as a literary giant to join the likes of James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Bennett, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, and Lorraine Hansberry. “He provided a gateway for many African American actors to thrive,” Jones noted.

AWMC-logo-final-color-291x300Jones, one of the founders of the August Wilson Red Door Project, was speaking in the little theater at Self Enhancement Inc., the North Portland center for African American kids and young adults, about the August Wilson Monologue Competition. It’s an innovative national program, begun in 2007 by Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company and director Kenny Leon, that concludes each year with national finals at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway. Portland is the eighth city to join the competition, following Atlanta and Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.

The Portland regional – open basically to anyone close enough to get to the workshops and preliminary competitions, mostly at SEI – are for 10th, 11th, and 12th graders of all races. Red Door hopes to add 9th graders next year. Fifteen regional finalists will be chosen from an expected 40 or more applicants, and they’ll undergo rigorous group and individual training before three are chosen at the regional finals next March to go on to nationals in May 2014. All contestants will choose from a list of monologues, several from each of Wilson’s plays, compiled by the national organization. Solly Two Kings’ ramble above from “Gem of the Ocean” about the one-arm man is just one example.

For Portland teens, the timing seems ideal. Wilson’s plays have been enjoying a renaissance in town, at Portland Playhouse, Artists Rep and elsewhere, and the Red Door Project – begun by Jones and his partner Lesli Mones – has been using the Wilson productions as a focus for its activist approach to the city’s racial ecology. SEI, with its focus on young black Portlanders, seems an ideal partner. And Monday’s meeting was with educational leaders and activists who can help spread the word about the competition and maybe get it and Wilson’s plays linked into school curricula. Not all of the students who take part are going to end up with acting careers – most probably won’t – but all are likely to gain leadership skills, and a few will join a theater world that always needs fresh talent.

Actor Victor Mack, who’ll be working with contestants in a series of workshops, told the gathering about getting an audition to take over a role in Wilson’s best-known play, “Fences,” on Broadway. He was fresh out of college and had just moved to New York, with $50 in his pocket – enough to buy a little food, but not enough to get a ticket to a show. He didn’t know the play, didn’t know the character, didn’t get the role. “I really should’ve gone to see the play,” he recalled wryly. Afterwards, a friend gave him enough money to see the show, and his education began. Kids who do the monologue competition will have a head start.

You can learn more about America by reading or seeing and really thinking about Wilson’s plays than by taking a years’ worth of standard high school history classes. And in Portland, where arts education has been cut to the bone – never mind the recently passed but widely maligned arts-education tax, which may end up having little impact in the classrooms – programs like the Wilson monologue competition help fill a gaping hole. It’s a small step. But it could be just the start of something big.


Students and parents can find details about applications, requirements, and schedules for the competition here. Initial applications are due by November 4. You can download application forms and copies of the selected monologues.


Read more from Bob Hicks >>

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives