kevin jones

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.”

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Theater review: Jackie Sibblies Drury and the pain of history

Jackie Sibblies Drury's play starts off with some light-hearted misdirection and concludes with a stinger

The full title of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play, which opened Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, is both informative and a little joke. In its entirety, it will fill up the rest of this paragraph: We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.

So, a play that says it’s a presentation, which is not quite true. And though it contains a presentation, the play also includes the collaborative process that generated the presentation. In fact, it goes back and forth between the two: a presentation that tries to stick to the Wikipedia facts of the history of German colonialism in Southwest Africa and includes projected images of the time in question, and a process that six actors conduct to make sense of those facts.

Those little misdirections aren’t the only ones embedded in that long title. The title claims the presentation is about the Herero, for example, but it relies mostly on German sources. The Herero, the dominant tribe in the region before they were nearly wiped out by the Germans, are mostly imagined. And before long the imaginations of the six actors cease to operate on the facts on the ground in Africa and start to incorporate images and history from American culture.

Chantal DeGroat presents a section of "We Are Proud to Present" at Artists Repertory Theatre/Photo by Owen Carey

Chantal DeGroat presents a section of “We Are Proud to Present” at Artists Repertory Theatre/Photo by Owen Carey

I’m getting ahead of things here, though, mainly because the misdirections themselves are a clue to the kind of theater Drury’s play represents. That nature is indicated immediately by the informal introduction delivered by one of the actors, known as Black Woman, who also functions as “kind of an artistic director of our ensemble.” And then in an early scene of the collaborative process the actors are pursuing, when things have broken down into multiple onstage conversations.

One of the actors, Actor 4/Another Black Man, says, “I don’t know if it’s theatre just because it’s in a theatre.” At this point, we start to think, “It’s going to be that kind of a night at the theater.” You know, a fluid couple of hours that’s going to play with theater conventions in an amusing way and possibly hint at some racial tension—half of the cast is African American and the other half is white, after all.

And sure enough, the first several scenes of We Are Proud to Present are in that vein, humorous in a lightly mocking sort of way. Actors! They are SO weird!

But We Are Proud to Present is a scorpion of a play, and its tail packs a serious punch made all the more deadly by the light tone of the beginning.

I left thinking that the cast (Chantal DeGroat, Joshua J. Weinstein, Vin Shambry, Chris Harder, Joseph Gibson and Rebecca Ridenour) and director Kevin Jones had accepted the challenge of Drury’s demanding script with the courage it takes to make that courageous script work. And that anything less would have been a disaster.

If you like your theatre-in-a-theatre risky, its probing of meta-theater and meta-history elements combined with its lancing of our culture’s racist overlay of anything having to do with race no matter where it happened may resonate for you. There isn’t a traditional narrative or the development of characters in the traditional sense, but Drury will leave you with some stunning theatrical images in your mind, and with some thoughts you may need to consider after you’ve left the theater. It even includes some singing, some rhythmic drumming and some truly awful jokes. I don’t think you’ll forget it very quickly.

*****

Drury, who is in her mid-30s now, started thinking about We Are Proud to Present when she lived in Chicago and started doing internet research on a play that was going to be about a black German actor who could only get roles as African Americans, which he spoke in heavily German-accented English. (That sounds like a cool play, actually.) Google led her to the history of Sudwestafrika, a German colony, and the country’s largest tribe, the Herero, which the Germans proceeded to attempt to exterminate. And she started researching the topic at the University of Chicago, where her husband, an anthropologist, was going to graduate school.

She took that research to Brown University, where she earned her MFA in playwriting, and used it to create her master’s thesis, incorporating her experiences at Brown with both the collaborative playmaking process she favors and with the students and classes. At Artists Rep, the introduction that Actor 6/Black Woman (DeGroat) reads at the beginning of the play isn’t part of the supplied script, for example.

Vin Shambry, center, and the cast of Jackie Sibblies Drury's "We Are Proud to Present" at Artists Rep/Photo by Owen Carey

Vin Shambry, center, and the cast of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “We Are Proud to Present” at Artists Rep/Photo by Owen Carey

The history of the Herero delivered in the Presentation sections are informal—it’s less than the Wikipedia entry delivers. But the actors in the play aren’t historians; they are attempting to devise a play or a presentation, and so they begin to search for characters. They don’t have much to go on, just a stack of letters written by German soldiers to their loved ones back home. The letters help sketch the Germans, but they never mention the Herero. So, while the white actors plunge into the creation of characters, the black actors are left out.

Actor 2/Black Man (Shambry), who is on his way to some serious problems with the whole enterprise, snaps: “This is some Out-of-Africa-African-Queen-bullshit y’all are pulling right here, OK? If we are in Africa, I want to see some black people.” And then we plunge into some thinking about who tells the stories preserved by “history,” and also a cautionary scene that illustrates the problem with imagining history that hasn’t been recorded, a grotesquely funny speech by Actor 4/Another Black Man (Gibson) that involves the killing of tigers and sex with many wives, “as dark and fertile as African jungle soil.” The fact that Southwest Africa/Namibia isn’t remotely jungle-like is a small part of the joke.

The history and the play is going to get increasingly tragic, just read Wikipedia: The Germans killed 65,000 of the 80,000 Herero estimated to live in Namibia to make way for German farmers. And as we start to get re-enactments of that history in the play, they exacerbate the racial divide in the cast. This is foreshadowing, but that’s all I’ll say.

*****

I am usually uncomfortable around talk about the Dominant Paradigm, Dominant Discourse, Dominant Ideology, Dominant History—whatever you want to call the conceptual and cultural sea in which we swim. Part of it is just that in real life it all seems more heterogenous, complex, contradictory than something easily labeled “Ideology,” with a capital I, indicates. If I truly spoke the Dominant Discourse wouldn’t things be easier for me than they are? That’s a joke, maybe…

Still, the terms can be useful when we’re talking about art and culture, contradictions and all. We are all stuck with cultural material, approaches and apparatus that shape us and our thinking. Art participates in this, and it has helped create the Dominant Ideology. Some contemporary art unfolds unobjectionably inside its parameters. That’s not what We Are Proud to Present does, though.

Joseph Gibson and Rebecca James Ridenour in "We Are Proud to Present" at Artists Rep/Photo by Owen Carey

Joseph Gibson and Rebecca James Ridenour in “We Are Proud to Present” at Artists Rep/Photo by Owen Carey

More often, contemporary art examines life inside the Dominant Ideology with a critical eye, representing it and the tensions inside it, even selecting for that tension. And as the late culture critic Raymond Williams suggests, some art presents an alternative discourse or history or ideology, and occasionally art expresses direct opposition to that ideology.

We Are Proud to Present suggests the difficulties of creating an alternate history, of operating in an alternative culture. What do we make it from, after all? The existing cultural material? But then isn’t it an extension of that culture? The imaginary fertile Herero wives already exist in the culture, after all. So does the angry black man, the sympathetic but self-absorbed white actor, the “artistic director” who has to fall back on her own personal story for authority and direction. And that overlay fits neatly over the exterminating Germans and the Herero, too: The reality of the past disappears except as an expression of the reality of the present.

At the same time Drury’s play critiques, among other things, our lack of historical knowledge (yes, part of the Dominant History is its incompleteness and its ability to select what it needs to remain dominant) and the ease with which we inhabit certain roles, even ones we hate: The oppressor, for example.

This is how Drury talks about the last scene of the play, the one with the stinger. Don’t worry, it’s not a description/spoiler:

“I think that it’s a hard scene for everyone. It’s hard for everyone in different ways and it’s hard in racially specific ways. Which makes it hard to rehearse, I think. It’s also hard because it’s asking the white actors to be incredibly ugly, and ugly in a way that no one I have worked with has felt comfortable being.”

And right now, I’m wondering whether the catharsis at the end of We Are Proud to Present—a catharsis that left me gasping for breath—whether that catharsis constitutes an outright opposition to the Dominant Ideology, because if our culture contains this as a default, it shouldn’t be Dominant—it should be on the way out. Then again, maybe a play like We Are Proud to Present is just an example of the adjustment that our Dominant Ideology makes to stay in control. The culture is tricky that way.

*****

After you read this, perhaps you’ll dial up your cable news outlet of choice or find a link to a clip on social media somewhere, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about in a political rally. How quickly the old cultural material gets brushed off, reorganized and aimed at the Other. How close to the surface our violence really is, our violence and our fear.

Vin Shambry, Chantal DeGroat and Joshua Weinstein in "We Are Proud to Present"/Photo by Owen Carey

Vin Shambry, Chantal DeGroat and Joshua Weinstein in “We Are Proud to Present”/Photo by Owen Carey

And it’s not just Trump rallies, either. Here’s Drury again:

“I was in grad school at a really great school where really educated undergraduates would be asked to describe really difficult things. But whenever they touched on cultural studies, or race, or other things that make us uncomfortable, these students’ presentations would either become really ironic and removed and silly, or would latch on to a dry, super-earnest and politically correct script of how we’ve been taught to talk about it. That means that no one ever says anything new; and we have no personal connection to what we’re saying.”

The genius of We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 is that it gives its audience a “personal connection” to their conversations about race, and maybe it encourages them to find something new to think and say about it.

Piano, playing a discordant tune

Portland Playhouse's volatile and rhythmic 'Piano Lesson' continues the city's potent string of August Wilson revivals

Boy Willie is a motormouth. Words flow out in torrents from actor Bryant Bentley in The Piano Lesson, a high-octane flood of language and braggadocio that fills the little Portland Playhouse stage and rebounds around the room.

His sister Bernice bites her tongue. There’s a torrent inside her, all right, but in Chantal DeGroat’s fine performance, she’s all dammed up and about to explode. When Bernice does talk it’s in a clipped sharp staccato, an exasperated seething, a denial that is also, in August Wilson’s brilliant theatrical universe, an affirmation of something that’s left mostly unspoken but is the most important thing in the room: the vital role of tradition – personal, cultural, and political – to a sense of self-identity and self-worth.

In the cards: from left, Seth Rue, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Bryant Bentley, "ranney"

From left: Seth Rue, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Bryant Bentley, “ranney.” Photo: Brud Giles

Directed with a pulsating sense of the play’s rhythmic structure by the talented Kevin Jones, the Playhouse’s new Piano Lesson continues a deep and satisfying run of Wilson revivals in Portland in recent seasons. It won’t be long before Wilson’s entire ten-play cycle of African-American life in the 20th century will have been performed in town (the Playhouse itself has produced six), and that amounts to a gift to the city. Wilson was the last of the century’s great traditional American playwrights – Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill – and the only one to approach the subject of America from the perspective of its black history and culture. That makes him fundamentally, radically different from the others.

Like so many of Wilson’s plays, The Piano Lesson – which debuted in 1990 and is set in the Pittsburgh of 1936 – is steeped in music, in this case the blues and stomps and hollers of the agricultural South. Like almost all of Wilson’s plays it revels in a meandering, storytelling narrative style, getting at things allusively and stating themes and variations like a musical composition. And like Gem of the Ocean and others, it has a vivid supernatural streak, the past gathering itself like a reanimated character given the breath of life: In The Piano Lesson, a ghost shakes the house.

One of the deep pleasures of Wilson’s plays is the sense of community, of intensely close family whether squabbling or not, that he sets up. Characters have long and winding interconnections; mutual histories; habits and rituals and transgressions that make up the atmosphere of the tales. Watching a Wilson play is like dropping in on a microculture and slowly figuring out how the whole thing works. The fissures in the plays’ structures may drive the characters, but the characters drive the action, and that makes casting crucial.

Jones has done the job well. Bentley is a barely containable effusion of energy as Boy Willie, who’s come north to Pittsburgh determined to sell the family piano so he can buy a plot of land on the old plantation where the family once were slaves. He’s as stubborn as a mule with twice the kick, but maybe not as much as DeGroat’s Bernice, who’s determined to keep the piano, even though she refuses to play it anymore, because it represents the family’s history and soul. Around these two swirl a vibrant supporting cast that includes Mujahid Abdul-Rashid as Doaker, the even-tempered uncle who has a solid job with the railroad and owns the house where Bernice lives; Mila Faer as Bernice’s young daughter; Seth Rue as easygoing Lymon, Boy Willie’s sidekick who arrives with him in a broken-down truck loaded with watermelons to sell in the city; Ronald Scott as Avery, a minister who is patiently courting the reluctant Bernice; a big-spirited actor called “ranney” as Wining Boy, Doaker’s older brother and a onetime pianist who bounces around the country in faded finery, entertaining friends and family and softly sponging as he spins yarns of yesterday; and Carmen Brantley-Payne as Grace, an outsider who catches the eye of Boy Willie and Lyman alike. Plus, of course, the invisible but very present ghost of Sutter, heir to the old family slave owner, who has recently taken a mysterious and fatal tumble down a well. All in all, it’s a fascinating group to spend an evening with, volatile and balanced in texture and timbre, like a good blues band.

Family spat: Bryant Bentley and Chantal DeGroat. Photo: Brud Giles

Family spat: Bryant Bentley and Chantal DeGroat. Photo: Brud Giles

The piano is the play’s bone of contention, and yes, it’s a Metaphor, with a capital “M”: materialism versus spirituality. Carved with the faces of ancestors, imbued with the history of the family and its slavery past, it’s an emblem of the bloodline and the culture. Doaker and Bernice, like so many others, have abandoned the South and moved north in search of better lives, but she’s kept the piano with her as a reminder of what was, a repository of cultural memory. Boy Willie has stayed country and is determined to farm the land as a free man that his family once farmed as slaves. The way to do that, he’s decided, is to sell the piano and use the money to buy the land: in essence, trade in tradition to build a new, better, tradition. He makes his utilitarian case well, with a persuasive pragmatism, and yet the air’s heavy with the nagging suspicion that somehow he’s wrong.

The disagreement is about much more than a piano, of course, although Wilson’s choice of a musical instrument as a stand-in for African-American collective memory seems apt. The tale has similarities to the Biblical story of Esau, the hairy hunter who sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a mess of pottage: It seems foolish in hindsight, but Esau was a practical man, and he was famished, and on a purely physical level, buying a meal was the practical thing to do. These are the questions, it seems, that The Piano Lesson poses. How do African Americans (or anyone, for that matter) move forward without also holding onto their past? Without their shared culture, how can they know who they are? Of what use is the past? If we don’t use it, what have we lost? What tradeoffs are necessary or inevitable to move ahead?

In The Piano Lesson, the answers blow through the house like a stalking ghost. And the wonder is, it provides a rollicking good time.

 *

It’s a good season for black theater in Portland. Portland Center Stage is basking in the glow of a fine production of the musical Dreamgirls, which has some intriguing parallels to The Piano Lesson: did the Supremes and their Motown sound sacrifice too much of traditional black music in their reach for crossover success? Staged! musical theater’s Parade, set in Atlanta during the early 1900s, addresses the cultural and political corruptions of the slowly emerging South and, although it has Jewish protagonists, it includes four good African American roles. Roberta Hunte and Bonnie Ratner’s My Walk Has Never Been Average, about black women working in the construction trades, keeps popping up. And Artists Rep has rolled into the new season with Lynne Nottage’s fine and probing Intimate Apparel. If this is Portland’s new normal, three cheers.

*

The Piano Lesson plays through Nov. 2 at Portland Playhouse, 602 N.E. Prescott Street. Schedule and ticket information is here.

Note: This review was made possible in part thanks to support from our partners at Artslandia!

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Today, I am deliberately ignoring nature’s various shenanigans outside my office window. It’s seriously disturbing! Instead, I’m moving on to theater and performance, because the Risk/Reward Festival’s fifth incarnation is this weekend and Artists Rep announced a couple of the directors for its 2012-13 season, and that got us dreaming…

Queen Shmooquan

I have some insider info on this year’s Risk/Reward Festivalbecause Hand2Mouth, which produces this annual adventure in experimental performance, invited me to serve on its selection panel. So I spent most of a day reading proposals and watching video with the other panelists, an interesting group from Seattle and Portland. Want some names? Let’s see: PICA’s Erin Boberg Doughton, Sean Ryan, the regional programs director of On The Boards in Seattle, White Bird’s Walter Jaffe, Portland Actors Conservatory’s Philip Cuomo and several more, including members of Hand2Mouth and other artists.

We disagreed. A lot. A couple of my very favorites did not make the cut. On the other hand, that was probably true for everyone on the panel. My main problem was just this: I didn’t know the performers well enough to be able to predict how inclusion in the festival might affect their trajectories as artists. Was this the kind of thing that would accelerate their growth somehow, maybe from the recognition or maybe because it would give them a chance to bring together ideas they’ve been playing with for a while into something they perform for an audience?

So sometimes I was drawn to work that was highly proficient technically and sometimes my voting was affected by the stories of the artists that some of the other panelists knew.

Continues…

 
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