Quiara Alegría Hudes

Profiles & Conversations 2017

From poets to painters to dancers to actors to musicians, 21 tales from ArtsWatch on the people who make the art and why they do it

Art is a whole lot of things, but at its core it’s about people, and how they see life, and how they make a life, and how they get along or struggle with the mysteries of existence. That includes, of course, the artists themselves, whose stories and skills are central to the premise. In 2017 ArtsWatch’s writers have sat down with a lot of artists – painters, actors, dancers and choreographers, poets, music-makers – and listened as they spun out their tales.

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Here are 21 stories from 2017 about Oregon artists and artists who’ve come here to do their work:

 


 

Erik Skinner. Photo: Michael Shay

Eric Skinner’s happy landing

Jan. 18: “On the afternoon that Snowpocalypse struck Portland, Eric Skinner walked into the lobby at BodyVox Dance Center after a morning in the studio and settled easily onto one of the long couches in the corner. As always he looked trim and taut: small but strong and tough, with a body fat index down somewhere around absolute zero. If anyone looks like a dancer, Skinner does. Even in repose he seems all about movement: you get the sense he might spring up suddenly like a Jumping Jack on those long lean muscles and bounce somewhere, anywhere, just for the sake of bouncing.” In January, after 30 years on Portland stages, Skinner was getting ready to retire from BodyVox – but not from dance, he told Bob Hicks.

 


 

Les Watanabe in ‘Sojourn’ by Donald McKayle, Inner City Repertory Company. Photographed by Martha Swope in New York. 1972. Photo courtesy of Les Watanabe

Les Watanabe on Alvin Ailey, Lar Lubovich, Donald McKayle and his life in dance

Jan. 20: In a wide-ranging Q&A interview, Jamuna Chiarini hears a lot of modern-dance history from Watanabe, who was in the thick of it and now teaches at Western Oregon University:

“During Alvin Ailey’s CBS rehearsals, Lar Lubovitch was teaching in the next studio. I ran into him at the drinking fountain. While living in L.A., I had read articles about him in Dance Magazine. So while he was stooped over drinking, I exclaimed, ‘Lar Lubovitch! I’ve read all about you!’

“At that point he stood up facing me wiping his mouth and looking incredulous like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I then asked, ‘Do you ever have auditions? I would love to dance with you.’

“’Are you dancing now?’ he asked.

“’Yes, with Alvin Ailey next door, but it is only for five weeks.’

“’Where do you take class?’ Lar asked. ‘At Maggie Black’s,’ I answered. ‘Good. Let’s meet at her first class. Then you can rush back to rehearsal. See you next week.’”

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Spotlight on Anthony Lam

One actor, one character, three plays: fellow actor Bobby Bermea profiles the star of Quiara Alegría Hudes' war trilogy at Profile Theatre

Anthony Lam has an infectious and generous spirit, and a high motor both as a person and a performer: everything he does, he does with an intense energy. A relatively new actor to the Portland theater scene, he’s a family man – he and his wife, Kimberly, have three kids; Nolan, 7, and the twins, Lilah and Alice, 4. He loves the stage (“That’s what I trained for. I trained on stage. I always knew upon graduation that I was always going to look for work on the stage.”) but the majority of his work, how he pays his bills and supports his family, is in TV and film.

It makes sense. He was born and bred in southern California and he’s TV/movie handsome, the product of Nicaraguan, Chinese and Spanish genes. Though he lost touch with his father, his grandfather was a central figure in his life, and Anthony kept the name Lam to honor him.

Anthony Lam, relaxing offstage. Photo: Bobby Bermea

I met Lam only recently, because he is the lead (along with Crystal Ann Muñoz) of the show I’m currently working on, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize winning Water by the Spoonful, which is running through Nov. 19 in rotating repertory with The Happiest Song Plays Last at Profile Theatre. Water is the middle play in a trilogy – Elliott: A Soldier’s Fugue, Water by the Spoonful and Happiest Song – that follows a Puerto Rican family from north Philadelphia whose fate and fortunes are inextricably tied up in the U.S. military. The men of the family fight the wars. The women protest them and heal the wounds that are the result. Hudes weaves a beautiful, tragic, angry, and funny tapestry of lives, through which the one continuous thread is the character of Elliott Ortiz, who is played by Anthony Lam.

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Profile doubles the impact

Richly rewarding productions of Quiara Alegría Hudes' "Water by the Spoonful" and "The Happiest Song Plays Last" open in rep

“The songs are pretty, but make no mistake. Each song is a revolutionary song. Each song is a protest. An affirmation of what is truly ours. ‘We are Puerto Rican. Period.’ Today, ‘Somos Americanos. Punto.’ “

— Agustín, The Happiest Song Plays Last

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To conclude its 20th season, with Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegría Hudes as the season’s playwright, the ambitious Profile Theatre has taken on the daunting task of putting on two plays – Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last – in rotating repertory, with a single cast of nine actors, four of whom are in both plays.

These plays are contemporary – Hudes won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful, and The Happiest Song Plays Last premiered in Chicago in 2013 – and they feel even more so in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the devastation it has wreaked on Puerto Rico, which – as Agustin so eloquently says in the quote above – is part of America: “Somos Americanos. Punto.”

These two plays centered on Puerto Rican American cousins Elliot (played with passion and youthful energy here by Anthony Lam) and Yaz (given life and warmth by Crystal Ann Muñoz) feel both intimately realist and larger than life under the direction of Josh Hecht, Profile’s artistic director. Elliot and Yaz are from North Philly, but they travel (separately or together) to Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, Arizona, Jordan, and Egypt over the course of the two plays (and two other characters in Spoonful travel to Japan).

Duffy Epstein, Julana Torres and Akari Anderson in “Water by the Spoonful.” Photo: David Kinder

Water by the Spoonful is about two seemingly disconnected storylines: addicts in a chatroom, and Elliot and Yaz’s connecting over their respective struggles: the emotional and physical toll his time as a Marine in Iraq took on him and her “failure” in the form of divorce and not knowing what she wants in life. Lam and Muñoz have the type of stage chemistry actors long for. Their banter is natural, in the way of real family members, and you will love each of them through each other’s eyes.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Sweet Lou

A Lou Harrison celebration, invasion of the theater hatchers, Jewish museum's new home, shrinking Bach Fest, more

It’s been a busy seven days in Portland and Oregon, with all sorts of notable cultural events going on. The Astoria Music Festival, after an opening recital Sunday by Metropolitan Opera star and Northwest favorite (she grew up in Centralia, Wash.) Angela Meade, is in full swing. Portland Opera continues its latest foray into musical-theater waters with Man of La Mancha (two more performances, Thursday and Saturday in Keller Auditorium).

Among the past week’s many other highlights:

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Detail from Russian artist Grisha Bruskin’s tapestry series “ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory,” opening exhibit of the Oregon Jewish Museum in its new home. Photo: Oregon ArtsWatch

JEWISH MUSEUM’S BIG MOVE. The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education opened its doors in its new, much bigger, home in a prime gallery row location, the former space of the late lamented Museum of Contemporary Craft. Its new home opens up fresh possibilities for OJMCHE. You can read our take: A bigger, bolder Jewish Museum.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: and all that jazz

Portland Jazz Festival joins the parade of arts festivals in town; a new "Swan Lake" flies at Oregon Ballet

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Festival Town. (And Valentine’s Day. Don’t forget Valentine’s Day.) Three film celebrations – the Portland Black Film Festival, the Cascadia Festival of African Films, and the big-kahuna 40th annual Portland International Film Festival – are still spooling out stories on screens around town.

And on Thursday the PDX Jazz Festival 2017 roars into action with a packed program through February 26 arranged loosely around an homage to jazz centurions Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Buddy Rich, each born in 1917. Things kick off Thursday with a blast of Branford Marsalis, a thump of bass virtuoso Thundercat, and more, and the festival continues with the likes of the fabulous Heath Brothers, The Yellowjackets, and more. It’s not all old-style and it’s not all new, but a healthy-looking blend of tradition and exploration.

ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell offers tips for this week’s shows, beginning with Thursday’s Marsalis quartet appearance “with the great jazz singer Kurt Elling, Maria Schneider’s orchestra and Ralph Peterson’s trio in separate shows Friday, the hip jazz-rock fusion band Kneebody and the old-school all-star band The Cookers on Saturday. On Sunday, you have a choice of pop jazzers the Yellowjackets with Mike Stern, avant jazz guitar deity James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, or rising piano star Aminca Claudine Myers (or see all three!).”

2017 PDX Jazz Fest honoree Dizzy Gillespie, at Deauville, France, July 1991. Photo: Roland Godefroy/Wikimedia Commons

In his preview PDX Jazz Festival: Signs of Life, Campbell sets the table more completely, talking about the state of jazz in Portland and internationally. Here’s just a taste of what he has to say:

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‘Elliot’: a fertile seed, growing

"A Soldier's Fugue," The opening salvo in Profile Theatre's season of plays by Quiara Alegria Hudes, plants the promise of bigger things

One of the most striking bits of information you’ll encounter if you go to see Profile Theatre’s production of Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue is dropped offhandedly into a program note by artistic director Josh Hecht, who mentions that “there are currently 21.8 million veterans in the United States.” That’s around seven percent of us, as if we’d sent the whole state of Florida, say, off to war — or the entire Northwest plus a chunk of Northern California. Or, to put it in terms that might hit home to 19-year-old Elliot Ortiz, serving in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division, that’s three and a half times the population of greater Philadelphia.

In any case, it’s quite a figure for a nation that thinks of itself as peace-loving, or at least peace-keeping; a peaceful nation ever at war.

Cristi Miles, Anthony Lam (in fatigues), Jimmy Garcia, Anthony Green (far right) in “Elliot.” Photo: David Kinder

The bulk of those veterans still around served in either Iraq, Vietnam or Korea: places — or do we think of them merely as conflicts — that serve as the generational benchmarks for Quiara Alegria Hudes’ play, which was first produced (in a slightly different version) at Portland’s Miracle Theatre in 2005. Inspired by the Iraq War experiences of her own cousin, Hudes presents three generations of men in the same family, examining what they made of their time at war and what that time made of them.

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… and oddly, as a pitched political battle sweeps the nation, life goes on. How will the arts world respond to the extraordinary events of the day? How, if at all, will this most divisive and pugilistic of administrations respond to the world of art? Shoes could drop at any moment: the administration has already stated its intent to kill the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, and to end federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While Nero threatens to cut off the fiddles, here are a few highlights of what’s going on in and around town.

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IT’S FIRST THURSDAY this week, when many galleries open their new monthly shows, so visual art is on our minds. The Portland Art Museum has opened Rodin: The Human Experience, a major show of 52 bronzes, and Constructing Identity, an important overview of historical and contemporary work by African American artists.

Louis Bunce, “Apple”, 1968. Oil on canvas. 41” x 48”//Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

And the invaluable Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem has opened Louis Bunce: Dialogue with Modernism, a retrospective on the late Oregon artist, who Paul Sutinen, in his ArtsWatch review of the show, identifies as a key figure in the city’s cultural life, the catalyst for making Portland a city of modern art. “It is an important show,” Sutinen declares. “It is a great show. It is accompanied by a monograph on Bunce by Roger Hull. It is important. It is great.” And then he explains why. See the sort of thing that the Savonarolas of the federal purse are eager to upend.

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