Over the Memorial Day weekend, I did my share of puttering around and grilling, once the Weber was awakened from its winter hibernation, not to mention marveling at a flash thunderstorm and shaking my head at the annual Rose Festival destruction of Tom McCall Waterfront Park by whatever they’re calling the Fun Center this year. That would have been plenty, except then I would have missed out on the little set of arts events I set my mind to this weekend.
That would have been a shame, because what a sweet set it was.
Joe Sacco, Mercy Corps Action Center: Mr. Sacco is a long-form journalist whose medium is the cartoon. He’s not an old-style political cartoonist; he’s a reporter, a foreign correspondent, just as he dreamed about being when he was editing the school paper at Sunset High School back in the late ‘70s. Except that instead of sending back written dispatches, he collects observations, stories and interviews and brings them back to Portland and illustrates them. His books about the Bosnian War and various stages of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have won lots of awards, including the Eisner Award for Safe Area Goražde for Best Original Graphic Novel in 2001.
Sacco is a pioneer in graphic journalism, giving the new form shape and depth like no one else, allowing it the freedom to be something more than memoir. More importantly, as Mercy Corps’ Jeremy Barnicle said in his introduction to the Sacco event hosted by the Action Center, his combination of words and pictures manages to convey the human element of crisis situations in a particularly profound way.
Barnicle, Mercy Corps’ Chief Development and Communications Officer, interviewed Sacco for more than an hour, before delivering him to his fans, who kept him another hour of chatting and signing books. The interview delved into biographical details, mostly, and then the Q&A period got more technical. So, for example, we learned that one pretty dense page of Footnotes in Gaza took Sacco two-and-a-half days to draw. (For confirmation, I turned to a prominent Portland painter seated next to me, and he whispered, “A hard two-and-a-half days.”) And the whole book, more than 400 pages, took him seven years to complete, time spent researching, organizing his notes, writing the script and then illustrating it.
We heard about how Sacco drifted into comics journalism, after he found it difficult to find meaningful work in journalism and decided to combine his love for cartooning with his love for reporting. And my favorite part was Sacco’s discussion of that page, which was projected on a screen so we could all see it, so full of information no page of text could ever quite communicate.
But really the most interesting thing about the evening was the response from the crowd, their affirmation of how right Sacco had gotten it (one Bosnian woman testified at length in a Steve Duin column about the evening in The Oregonian) and how he had moved them.
Sacco has a couple of books coming out in the next few months, one a collection of shorter journalism pieces, and another, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a collaboration with journalist Chris Hedges on American poverty as reflected in the history of Camden, New Jersey. And these are at the top of my reading list. (I should mention that my wife works for Mercy Corps.)
It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, Portland Center Stage: The musical revue show has become a staple of American theater in recent years, often couched as cultural education. Randal Myler, who co-created and directed this production, is an ardent proponent of the form, having worked on shows devoted to Janis Joplin, The Mamas and the Papas, Hank Williams and John Denver, among others.
This show takes a casual run at giving us a history of the blues (the historical photographs projected on a couple of onstage screens do most of the heavy lifting on this, actually), but mostly it gives seven actor/singers a chance to belt out some great old blues (and blues-inflected) songs, from the old St. Louis Blues to The Thrill Is Gone. Sure, there’s some stage patter and comic asides, but mostly it’s all about the singing.
Fortunately, the Center Stage cast delivers the mail, song after song: Mississippi Charles Bevel, Eloise Laws, Sally Mayes, Sugaray Rayford, Chic Street Man, Jennifer Leigh Warren and Trevor Wheetman, each has a particular approach and personality to a song (the rough and tumble of Rayford, the hauteur of Laws, the insinuations of Chic Street Man, the sweet high notes of Bevel, etc.). Even better for me, they blend beautifully singing together in the choruses, and they had the audience on its feet and singing along on opening night.
Jamb, TopShakeDance, Conduit: I really like Jim McGinn’s company of dancers in TopShakeDance. Like McGinn himself, they work hard on the dance floor, pushing themselves through the athletic choreography that McGinn creates for them (and himself), the twists and turns, heavy shoulder rotations that turn into arm whips, the almost martial bearing that disintegrates into supplication, the leg extensions and swift traveling. And for the most part, they keep it “alive” second to second, finding an amplification or syncopation in a movement phrase, a stretch that lasts a quarter-beat more than it seems it should and then rushes to catch up. They (Dana Detweiler, Chase Hamilton, Pamela James, Amanda Morse) are fun to watch.
Although I’d read about the show before I went (here’s Bob Hicks account for Oregon ArtsWatch, my own home base) and knew it was connected to McGinn’s experience working in a mine one summer, revived in his mind by the Chilean mining accident a couple of years ago, it never seemed that literal to me, despite Loren Chasse’s subterranean score and the general gloom in which it all took place.
But that’s OK, I think. That was McGinn’s inspiration, what colored his choices and shaped his approach, maybe the way he talked with his collaborators and dancers. But onstage, the dancing had to tell its own “story,” which it did, body to body, making us feel its pivots and its weight in our own bones.
- Oregon Book Awards: Graphic Literature Arts & Life