Tag Archives: Fertile Ground

Fertile Ground for a fresh look at civil rights

_LaVern Green, Paige Jones and Susan Banyas in "The Hillsboro Story." Photo: Julie Keefe

Most of you know at least a little bit about Fertile Ground, Portland’s festival of new performance works, which has been playing on stages big and small around the city and continues to do so through Feb. 2. Marty Hughley and friends have covered a lot of the action, including Marty’s middle-of-the-action roundup, for The Oregonian. In its second year, the festival has expanded from its theater roots to include other sorts of performance, too, especially dance.

I’ve seen a bit of it, including White Bird’s premiere of dances by Tere Mathern and Minh Tran, and Polaris Dance Theatre’s iChange. Third Angle New Music Ensemble’s Hearing Voices wasn’t officially part of the festival but dovetailed nicely with it: Two of its four compositions were premieres, another had a fresh arrangement, and all four were story-pieces with narration — musical dramas.

On Sunday I saw The Hillsboro Story, Susan Banyas’s memory piece about a little-known but fascinating piece of American civil rights history that was not so long ago and not so far away, although life has barreled ahead so much in the past 55 years that for an astonishing number of Americans the civil rights years might as well be hung forgotten in the cloakroom alongside the colonial era’s three-corner hats.

For that reason alone — the short communal memory of a culture that consistently shortchanges its own past and often misinterprets it even when it does pay attention — The Hillsboro Story is worth telling, and seeing. I hope the play has a healthy future in schools and youth theaters — not that it isn’t a good piece of theater for adults (it is), but because still-developing hearts and minds in particular need to understand this vital part of their heritage.

Structurally, The Hillsboro Story is a little like The Laramie Project, the story of the Wyoming torture/murder of gay student Matthew Shepard and its aftermath. The difference is that Banyas, the teller of this tale, was there: She was a third-grader in the southern Ohio town of Hillsboro when, on the night of July 5, 1954, someone scattered gasoline around the ramshackle public elementary school in the black part of town and lit a match to it.

As it turns out, the firebug was Philip Partridge, the county engineer, who was fed up with fighting the town’s white power structure over school segregation and the rundown quality of the school for black kids. He figured, if the school burned down, the town would have to integrate its schools: After all, the Supreme Court had just ruled against school segregation in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

There are heroes aplenty in this story besides Partridge, whose act of civil disobedience might well be branded terrorism today (the play doesn’t delve deeply into the ethical issues of this sort of protest; but then, Partridge acted at a time when black men were still being lynched in America and nobody much did anything about it).

None are more heroic than the group of African American mothers who pressed their case unceasingly against the town fathers who patted them on the back and assured them that something would be done “later.” Nor is any image in the show quite so startling as black performer LaVerne Green’s fervid delivery of Mississippi Senator James Eastland’s fervid, vile speech asserting the right of white Southerners to kill their black neighbors.

What makes The Hillsboro Story more than just another formulaic tale of triumph over adversity is that we see it consistently through the eyes of Banyas as a third-grader, only dimly aware of the titanic social struggle playing out around her. Banyas’s memory pieces have always been personal, and they’ve always been fractured: not straight narratives but interweavings of thought and reminiscence, small intimate moments insisting on their place alongside the big things.

That helps emphasize that this isn’t strictly a story of good guys versus bad guys, a tale that makes it easy to point a finger and say, “Weren’t they awful.” By inserting herself as an unformed observer, trying to figure out why her world is changing, Banyas puts us all in the center of the thing, and reminds us that things that seem crystal clear now could seem cloudy then. This is a story of a time when things were different, when people thought in different ways, when an entire culture was just beginning to take a deep look at itself and think about what words like “freedom” and “equality” truly mean.

The Hillsboro school battle was the first case in the North to test the teeth in Brown v. Board of Education. The Hillsboro school board thought it could slide through despite the court ruling and just do what it wanted. It was wrong. And if this story has been largely forgotten, it’s because Hillsboro pretty much preferred to keep it buried. Banyas’s determination to disinter the tale does the town an honor: She tells the story with grace, and humility, and understanding, and love.

With Banyas’s fine interwoven script, choreography and direction by Gregg Bielemeier, music by David Ornette Cherry and good performances by Green, Banyas, Paige Jones and Jennifer Lanier in multiple roles, The Hillsboro Story shows why Fertile Ground is such an exciting development for Portland. Good stories are out there, just waiting for a chance to be told.


Pictured: LaVern Green, Paige Jones and Susan Banyas in “The Hillsboro Story.” Photo: Julie Keefe

Portland onstage: of ghosts and vampires

The Turn of the Screw/Portland Opera“This score is my bible,” David Schiff, the Portland composer of the chamber opera Gimpel the Fool and a lot of other good music, said with a big smile.

It was Friday night, and I’d run into Schiff as I was leaving the opening performance of Benjamin Britten‘s The Turn of the Screw at Portland Opera. Schiff loves Britten for several reasons, but in this case he was thinking of Britten as a shining example of how to orchestrate an opera for only a dozen instruments and have it sound full and brilliant and just right. He didn’t use the word “busy” about Britten’s score, but he talked about its muscularity, the way Britten used his limited number of instruments to maximum effect, stretching their sound and matching the dramatic texture of Myfanwy Piper‘s libretto, which is based on Henry James‘s mystifyingly open-ended ghost novella.

I’d been thinking about the opera’s orchestration because the topic came up in the pre-performance talk by Bob Kingston,
who also writes the interesting blog dramma per musica. That got me to listening particularly closely to the orchestra, which was conducted with admirable precision by Christopher Larkin, and to noticing how well Britten combined tautness and lushness to bring out the strange, screw-tightening tensions of James’s tale.

Continue reading Portland onstage: of ghosts and vampires

From Lar to PAW: a Monday link and scatter

Lar Lubovich Dance Company. Photo: ROSEThings have been busy here at Scatter Central the last few days; so busy that we haven’t had a chance to post since we left poor Jean-Paul Belmondo in the clutches of all
those nasty French critics
Never mind, Jean-Paul. As far as we’re concerned here on our far side of the puddle, you’ll always throw a mean left hook.

So, time for a little update.

Lar Lubovitch, a genuine. living and working part of American dance history, shows up Wednesday night at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland, and the White Bird dance series reports it still has good tickets available. The Lubovitch company hasn’t toured in 10 years, and it’s been a good deal longer than that since it’s been in Portland, so this is a good opportunity. The program looks intriguing, and all of the dances are relatively recent: last year’s Jangle, Four Hungarian Dances, set to Bela Bartok’s Rhapsodies #1 and #2 for Violin and Piano; 2000’s Men’s Stories, A Concerto in Ruins, with audio collage and original score by Scott Marshall; and 2007’s Dvorak Serenade, set to Antonin Dvorak’s Serenade in E Major. Plus, Lubovitch will be on hand for a question and answer session after the show.

White Bird has some deals on tickets, including 30-buck Level 3 seats, in addition to its usual student/senior rush tickets two hours before the 7:30 curtain. Details here.

mandy_greer_dare_alla_luce_05Over at his alternate-universe home, Portland Arts Watch (or PAW, as we like to call it), Scatter impresario Barry Johnson has been following the proposed merger between two Portland art stalwarts: the financially struggling Museum of Contemporary Craft and the recently vigorous Pacific Northwest College of Art. Good idea? Bad idea? Necessary idea? In his Monday column in The Oregonian and on Oregon Live, Barry comes down with a case of cautious optimism. Read it here.

And speaking of synchronicity (we were, weren’t we?) my review of the craft museum’s two newest exhibits, by installation artist Mandy Greer and textile artist Darrel Morris, will run on Friday, Jan. 30, in The Oregonian’s A&E section and on Oregon Live. Look for it then.

Did we say alternate-universe homes? We’re embarrassed to reveal that only recently have we discovered the second virtual home of one of our best online friends, the ubiquitous and perspicacious Mighty Toy Cannon of the invaluable Portland arts and culture site Culture Shock. Seems MTC also maintains a fascinating, if less regular, music site called, appropriately, Mighty Toy Cannon. From Nick Lowe and Richard Fontaine to Ruth Brown and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, MTC takes a welcome and refreshing curatorial approach to the wonders of the YouTube musical world. Give it a look, and a listen.

Henry James, by John Singer Sargent, 1913Meanwhile, who’d have guessed that the path to understanding Henry James runs through William Shakespeare’s most infamous stage direction? (That’s “exuent, pursued by a bear,” from The Winter’s Tale, by the way.) The grapevine that slithers through our mutual abode tells us that Part Five of Laura Grimes’ running riff on all things Jamesean, coming Sunday, Feb. 1, in The Oregonian’s books pages and on Oregon Live, is going to be a doozy, complete with Shakespearean bear. In yesterday’s Part Four, Grimes — Friend and Supporter of Art Scatter First Class — gets caught up in a neighborhood book group and unveils a Henry James contest, complete with a prize. Read it here.

Portland’s stages have been simply aburst with fresh new work, thanks to the citywide Fertile Ground festival of new plays. At The Oregonian, Scatter friend Marty Hughley kept up with some of the most recent action in Monday’s paper: Read it here.

Scatter’s been hitting the festival, too. We’ve already run our report on Apollo and Vitriol and Violets. And my review of Northwest Children’s Theater and School‘s new jazz version of Alice in Wonderland also ran in Monday’s Oregonian; read it here.

reGeneration: 50 photographers of Tomorrow
, a traveling exhibit that’s just landed in the Hoffman Gallery at Lewis & Clark College, is a chilly but pretty darned fascinating look at 50 young photographers worldwide whose work, the shows’s curators believe, will still be vital and important in the year 2025. My review ran in brief in Monday’s Oregonian; for the much more complete version, see it on Oregon Live here.

Finally, we’ve been amused and bemused by the misadventures of operatic tenor Jon Villars,
who walked off the stage during a dress rehearsal of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, reportedly because he didn’t like the conductor’s tempo. Here at Art Scatter, we confess to skipping out on a show early a time or two over the years, too. But not when we were part of the cast.

‘Apollo’ and ‘Vitriol’: New plays, old obsessions on stage

The big buzz this week on Portland’s art scene is Friday’s official kickoff of Fertile Ground, a citywide festival of new plays big, small and in between. The sheer ambition of this thing is impressive and endearing and a little scary: How ever will we manage to get to all this stuff?

Well, we won’t.

But we did get a head start over the weekend, taking in last Friday’s opening night of Nancy Keystone’s gigantic Apollo at Portland Center Stage and, on Saturday night, a preview performance of the new and improved Vitriol and Violets, this time with songs and lyrics by the astute and clever jazz composer and pianist Dave Frishberg.

In the theater world “new” plays almost always emerge out of a long process, and both of these have, well, a little history behind them, in a couple of senses. Keystone’s been playing with Apollo for eight years, and its first two acts have been produced before, in Los Angeles. Act Three, funded in part by Center Stage, now joins them for the first time in this new production, creating the complete play. V&V, the Algonquin Round Table play written by Shelly Lipkin, Louanne Moldovan and Sherry Lamoreaux, has also been around the block with a couple of previous work-in-progress productions. This one is the first with Frishberg’s witty songs, and it’s also undergone a lot of streamlining (a few characters have been banished to the wings) and some welcome shaping, making it feel more like a finished play — although the authors say they’re still making adjustments.

More to the point, both plays are about the American character, as measured through real historical characters and events, and both deal with the gap between the buoyant public perception and the tougher reality of the historic episodes they choose to portray.

Oddly, they go about their similar tasks from almost opposite directions.

Keystone’s Apollo is epic theater — “total theater,” this sort of thing is sometimes called — with a grandiosity that splashes wide, wide, wide and occasionally focuses down to the human particular. It comes at you in waves of choreographed sight and sound. And out of its cold sweep of history, a few vivid personalities eventually emerge.

Vitriol and Violets is far more traditional in its theatricality, reeling you in with the particular human comedy of outsize characters such as Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker and letting the history tumble out almost unannounced. Having seduced you with laughter, it doesn’t announce its more serious attentions: It quietly lowers the boom.

Continue reading ‘Apollo’ and ‘Vitriol’: New plays, old obsessions on stage