Tag Archives: Marty Hughley

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

Keith V. Goodman, Portland dancer, dies at 54

Keith V. GoodmanUpdate: Walter Jaffe at White Bird Dance has passed along this note from Keith Goodman’s friend Carla Mann: “Dear friends, I wanted to let you know that a gathering to celebrate Keith Goodman will be held this coming Thursday, July 2 from 4-6pm at the Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th. Please join family and friends in honoring this incredible man. Please also spread the word to others who knew Keith and who we may not be on our contact list. For those who are interested, contributions can be made to the Keith V. Goodman Memorial Fund through the On Point Credit Union.”

Bad news for Portland’s arts scene: Keith Goodman, a contemporary dancer, choreographer and teacher, died today shortly after a performance, apparently of a heart attack. Marty Hughley has the story on Oregon Live.

Goodman was 54. He was known as a gentleman, a graceful spirit, a good friend. He was part of the core of the contemporary dance center Conduit, and had his own company, Dance Gatherer.

Keith was a beautiful man, and not just with the physical beauty of a fine dancer, although he certainly was that: a lean, lithe, graceful, athletic man. People will remember him, I think, for a different sort of beauty — a quiet, contained wholeness that shone on his face; a sweet openness to his smile; a feeling of generosity.

We are all a little lesser today. Keith will be missed.


Michael Jackson: a trip to the moon on gossamer wings

photo: Buda Fabio MoriBy MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

Michael Jackson was a great dancer. And a very American one, heavily influenced by John Travolta and touted as such by Fred Astaire, an even greater American dancer.

It was this part of his talent that made me mourn this sad man’s passing: The strength of my response to the news of his death surprised me, I must admit.

And so I’ve been reading the coverage in The Oregonian and looking for mention of the man’s incredible ability to move. Marty Hughley’s eloquent analysis told me much I did not know, as did that emerging dancer Peter Ames Carlin‘s. But no nod to the way the man moved.

Then, to my delight, there was an account in this morning’s Oregonian of the French, frequently a class act, celebrating Jackson by moonwalking around the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris: I hope someone filmed it.

Just now, I turned online to the New York Times and read Alastair Macauley’s tribute to Jackson’s dancing talent — who knew that the British-born critic with his eagle eye for the subtleties of classical dance from Petipa to Cunningham would go to the trouble to watch a whole slew of YouTube snippets of Jackson dancing and write so perceptively about him?

For my part, I will always associate Jackson with dancing, and not just his: when my daughter was in the second grade at Glencoe Elementary School, her teacher drilled the kids in aerobic dance for exercise and they put on a fabulous performance to Beat It for the parents.

Outstanding was a boy who was quite horizontally challenged, but, man, could he move to Jackson’s beat. Nearly as well as Jackson.

— Martha Ullman West


In Ashland, it’s ‘Equivocation,’ unequivocally

Anthony Heald as Shag (center) in Equivocation. Photo: JENNY GRAHAM/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Mr. Scatter has been going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland since roughly the last Ice Age, when he was still fooling around in the cave with that nice new five-hole bone flute he’d got for his coming-of-age ceremony.

Mrs. Scatter hasn’t been taking the trek that long, but she’s a devotee (of the festival, not the flute). Their next generation, the astonishing Ms. Sarah, was practically weaned on the plays: She still sometimes speaks in Elizabethan cadence, just for the fun of it. And now the Large Smelly Boys demand their annual attendance, in not “Are we …?” but “When are we?” terms. This ends up costing quite a few clams.

For complex scheduling reasons that by this point have skipped my mind, the Scatter family travelers won’t be getting to Ashland until the beginning of September this year, which means that we’re relying a lot on hearsay and the word of friends — one of whom, Marty Hughley, actually covers the festival professionally for The Oregonian. Here’s his latest, pretty glowing report.  We check in on the Web site Ashland Link. And people come back and tell us what they thought.

Two clear-eyed friends — veteran journalist Paul Duchene, who spent a lot of years in the arts wars and is now executive editor of Keith Martin’ Sports Car Market magazine, and writer Sherry Lamoreaux, co-author of the Algonquin Round Table play Vitriol and Violets — just came back from the festival, and they’re still glowing with the pleasure of having seen the world-premiere production of Bill Cain‘s Equivocation, a play about Shakespeare (or Shag) and what happens when truth and the Official Version don’t align. Here’s what they have to say:

Paul Duchene:

In case you can wangle a way, I saw the best play at Ashland I have seen there in 25 years. It’s a world premiere and it will go to Broadway and the West End for sure. It’s already headed to LA’s Geffen Theater first.

The play is Equivocation and it’s a classic case of how to write a current thriller by setting it in past times.

The plot is that Shakespeare is hired by James I’s government to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot (Guy Fawkes etc al) and how disaster was narrowly averted by the King’s security services.

But as Shakespeare looks into it, he’s not sure any plot ever existed and suspects that people were tortured into confessing something that didn’t happen, as a means to keep the Catholics in line. And the question arises about how to ask hard questions in dangerous times and how not to answer them, because his probing is putting him and his company in danger. Equivocation was the Jesuit way of not answering a question without exactly lying. “Look through the question to see what they’re really asking and see if you can answer that honestly…”

Playwright Bill Cain got the idea when he was in the Tower of London looking at a rack and a government sign above it that said “Nobody was ever tortured on this rack for their religious beliefs.”

And Cain thought of all the names of prisoners scratched in the dungeons below, along with last messages for their wives and families.

It’s brilliant stuff. He was flying back to the States and he thought: I have to go back and research this and write it in London. And he got off the plane in New York and booked a flight back.

Best of all, it’s not a work in progress, it’s sorted.

Sherry Lamoreaux:

We got to see Equivocation … what a play.

It’s linear and easy to follow but many of the scenes progress like tapestries shaken from folded sleep (my, how earnest of me). All the stories dovetail and work. All the layers — (politics then and now), families, death, truth/lies, the Shakespearean canon and the inside workings of theatre in general — are balanced among themselves, and between poignancy and humor. The playwright is working from deep knowledge and complete mastery. An absolutely sure touch. Brilliant material, brilliantly directed and performed, set off by a set so clean and simple that when a noose comes on, it commands the stage. Perfect lighting.

Maybe the best thing I’ve ever seen at Ashland … and it is not a work-in-progress, it’s fully baked. (I’d tighten the ending by four lines, but that’s just me.)

I’ve seen nothing that indicates it was commissioned for OSF, but the play speaks to the setting and the festival as well, and the season uses it like a jewel in a crown, setting other plays referred to in it on its skirts.

Paul and Sherry also brought back good reports on Helena de Crespo‘s performance in Shirley Valentine at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland. De Crespo, the globe-trotting, Portland-based actor, stars in Willy Russell‘s one-woman play through July 13. A lot of people still remember her Portland performance a few seasons back in Alan Bennett‘s Talking Heads.

Sunday links: Art garden and a wild and crazy quote

A quick Sunday scatter of good stuff in other places:

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, "Summer," 1573, Louvre/Paris. Wikimedia Commons*************************

FEED THE BODY, FEED THE MIND: Under the headline Philbrook Museum of Art Trades Tulips for Tomatoes, artdaily.org reports that Tulsa’s Philbrook — the museum that Brian Ferriso left to become executive director of the Portland Art Museum — is replacing its 3,600-square-foot south formal garden with a vegetable garden and will give the veggies to the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma to help Oklahomans get through the economic crisis. Now, there’s a conceptual art project we can get behind. Bravo. Too often when times get tough, culture and shelter (and schools, for that matter) get tossed into an either/or funding game, turning natural allies into competing animals at a shrinking watering hole. As this project reveals, it doesn’t have to be that way.


STEVE MARTIN UNLEASHED: The Oregonian’s Marty Hughley has a good report in Sunday’s O! section on how things turned out when students from the local high school finally got to put on their production of Steve Martin‘s stage comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile. They performed it at Eastern Oregon University instead of at the high school because the school board, after receiving parental complaints about the play’s purported immorality, called the thing off.

Martin then stepped in and paid for the production himself, and in a letter to the local paper he came up with this gem, which Hughley quotes:

“I have heard that some in your community have characterized the play as ‘people drinking in bars, and treating women as sex objects.’ With apologies to William Shakespeare, this is like calling Hamlet a play about a castle.”

Yes, Xenophobia, there is an Oregon. But the good news to take from Marty’s story is that it doesn’t have to be that way.


IN SWITZERLAND, A SWING TO THE RIGHT: A few art insiders complained when Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times’ chief art critic, decamped to Europe for a year instead of paying attention to what was happening on the art scene stateside. Not me. I’ve enjoyed his Abroad reports. They’ve helped an already top-notch critic broaden his knowledge even further, and they’ve given readers a lot of good stories they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

One of the best is last week’s report from Zurich, In Quiet Switzerland, Outspoken Rapper Takes on the Far Right, about an Estonian-born Swiss rapper stage-named Stress who’s stirred up some welcome controversy by tackling directly in his lyrics chemicals tycoon Christoph Blocher, powerful head of the ultranationalist Swiss People’s Party, who is one scary dude. Like Hitler and Stalin before him, Blocher uses his own sanitized vision of cultural purity in the arts to push his ideal of the perfect, and perfectly xenophobic, homeland. Kimmelman writes:

Mr. Blocher used his own collection of works by 19th-century painters like Albert Anker and Ferdinand Hodler in shows he organized to illustrate what he has said represent wholesome Swiss ideals: women in the home, farmers milking cows, a nation historically separated from outsiders by more than just mountains.

Steve Martin, the good people of Switzerland need you. Now.


A CREATIVE WAKE-UP CALL IN PORTLAND?: Also in Sunday’s O! section of The Oregonian, visual arts critic D.K. Row files this intriguing report on how the flap over City Hall’s recent push to bulldoze Portland’s Memorial Coliseum has lit an activist fire under at least a slice of the city’s creative class. D.K. quotes architect/activist Stuart Emmons:

“We’ve just said, ‘Enough.’ We need to speak out for what we believe in and quit allowing politics to keep us from what’s right. This goes way beyond Memorial Coliseum.”

This could give a whole new meaning to the phrase “the art of politics.” Stay tuned. Let’s see where this thing heads.


ON ART AND THE CRITICS: A recent Art Scatter post about Rocco Landesman’s appointment to run the National Endowment for the Arts sparked a heady and rambunctious round of comments that went off in all sorts of directions. I hope to get back to some of those issues, notably the meaning of “local” in the arts and the role of failure in creativity: Is it a necessary element of discovery, or a cult of self-absorption that ignore the needs and rights of the audience? Then there was this note from playwright, filmmaker, novelist and teacher Charles Deemer:

“At their best, critics are mediators between the artist and the society that doesn’t quite get it yet. At their worst, critics themselves don’t get it and go on to say it’s therefore not worth trying to figure out.”

Can’t argue with that. But if you’d like to, hit that comment button.

Tuesday scatter: On Nixon, women in power, tutus and veils, alternate histories and Charlie Brown

Mia Leimkuhler in Kudelka's Hush. Photo: BLAINE TRUITT COVERT

On Saturday morning I picked up my newspaper and saw on the front page a photo of President Obama, smiling easily and looking down at, but not down on, Hugo Chavez. The American president is shaking hands with the Venezuelan president, a man who ordinarily makes great political hay from being seen and heard as a bellicose opponent of the United States and its political leaders. Chavez, too, has the sort of smile that seems genuine and not faked for the cameras (although who can say for sure in either case — these are politicians), and a semicircle of unnamed onlookers at the Western Hemisphere summit meeting in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, seems equally charmed.

Bill Christ as Nixon in Nixon/Frost. Photo: OWEN CAREYYes, charmed. And I thought, this is policymaking outside the channels of policy. Here, in Obama, is a man utterly at ease inside his own skin. That’s why people respond to him. Because he’s comfortable with himself.

My eye lingered on this photograph because the night before I’d seen Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon at Portland Center Stage, and if there ever was a leader who was uncomfortable inside his own skin, it was Richard Nixon. Actor Bill Christ, in Rose Riordan’s smooth and entertaining production, makes this as clear as can be. He offers a Nixon who is inordinately intelligent and funny in the driest possible way, but who’s so clumsy he gives even himself the heebie-jeebies. He’s not smooth, he’s not sexy, he can’t do small talk. If he were a language he’d be German, not French. Nixon was actually savvier even than JFK about the power of the television camera but he couldn’t take advantage of it because he didn’t have the goods: He could only mitigate the camera’s effect by understanding how it works. Nixon knew that in the charm game he would always be an outsider looking in, and he resented it deeply. It fed his combativeness, his sense of the Other, of us versus them, of his bitterness of the East Coast elite’s patronizing of him, of being the guy who knew all the strategies and did all the dirty work but was barely allowed in the game.

I was young when Nixon bulldozed back into power in 1968 with his “secret plan to end the war,” and I despised him with all the moral certainty that only the young can summon. It was an extension of my detestation for Lyndon Johnson: How could these men be such liars and murderers? Over the years I’ve come to think of both instead as tragic figures. Here were leaders who could have been great — indeed, who were great in certain ways — but who were destroyed by their own hubris. Over time I might change my mind about this, too, but I now think of Nixon and Johnson as tragic in a way that George W. Bush can never be, because Bush lacked the capacity for greatness: His limitations made him instead something on the order of an oversized and disastrously effective school bully.

Continue reading Tuesday scatter: On Nixon, women in power, tutus and veils, alternate histories and Charlie Brown

Late scatter: All hail the Devil and Rudolph Valentino

Tobias Andersen, Bill Geisslinger, Todd Van Voris, The Seafarer

What with arts politics and scratchy throat and other everyday interruptions I’ve avoided actually writing about any art since talking about Portland Opera’s The Turn of the Screw and the finale of the Fertile Ground new-plays festival a couple of weeks ago.

But I don’t want Artists Repertory Theatre‘s brilliant version of The Seafarer and Opera Theater Oregon‘s campy but gorgeous Camille/La Traviata to get any farther in the rear view mirror without picking up my virtual pen. Both shows have ended their runs, which turns this into something more of an afterglow than what’s sometimes known in the biz as a “money review.”

Still, darned near everything in The Seafarer was pretty much right on the money, beginning with Irishman Conor McPherson‘s multiply layered script and extending to Allen Nause’s precise yet lively direction of one of the best ensemble casts you’re likely to see in a long while.

McPherson broke on the scene in 1999 with The Weir, when he was still in his late 20s, and although he’s become a leading voice in contemporary theater he’s something of a classicist: The Seafarer, which was first produced in 2006, is an old-fashioned play in a lot of good ways.
It revels in language (the way McPherson lobs curses is much funnier and, dare I say, humanitarian than the way Mamet usually does). It’s a “well-made play,” a form that’s fallen out of fashion but has historical staying power. It plays with checks and balances and dramatic weight, encouraging you to shift your view now and again about who the “central” character in this cosmic-showdown drama really is. It’s — hold your breath here — entertaining, a basic value that all too often gets lost in the name of cultural relevance and Art.

Continue reading Late scatter: All hail the Devil and Rudolph Valentino