This week on State of Wonder, we’re going to spend the hour exploring how the region’s artists are using their work to process the hurricane of emotions that erupted after last week’s deadly shootings of two African-American men in Louisiana and Minnesota, and five policemen in Dallas — although as several of our guests point out, it’s nothing new.
“What’s Race Got To Do With It?”
We begin the show at a recent event organized by a group called the Color of Now on Monday night, where more than 150 people crowded into Imago Theatre.
“Considering what’s happened again, with the recent gun deaths, I thought we needed a place for everybody to process,” said actress Chantal DeGroat, the artistic director the Color of Now. “So that means we all get to have our emotions, and some of them are exploding.”
DeGroat founded the Color of Now to talk through just such exploding emotions, using music and performance to bring everyone together. The night began with a performance by actor Joseph Gibson from “Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments,” a series of seven monologues by black playwrights that the August Wilson Red Door Project has staged around town (you can still catch two performances at Wieden + Kennedy on July 16).
Gibson’s monologue took the form of a video message to an unborn son that begins innocently, before taking a very serious turn. “So that uncomfortablness that you feel for five seconds here in a dark theater, we’re trying to let you know that’s how we move through the world on a daily basis,” said Gibson. “I think processing this stuff through art is a healthier way because after that we can talk about what we just saw, and why we’re scared of this.”
Next, DeGroat dug into a wide-ranging conversation about race and social justice with the director of Red Door and “Hands Up,” the local theater veteran Kevin Jones, moving from Jones’s stories about seeing Malcolm X as a child and struggling with early affirmative action at IBM to Oregon’s troubled history with race.
The Red Curtain And The Thin Blue Line - 13:28
One of the people to see “Hands Up” in recent weeks was Portland Police Captain Mike Crebs. Unlike community meetings and other events, he says the show was unique because he had to sit silently and simply listen to the voices of African-American men and women talking about how they move through the world and what it’s like to be on the other side of a police officer’s gun. Crebs was so moved he met up with one of the actors a couple days later to talk it through.
Hip hop has been one of the most important vehicles for the African-American community to talk about grief, anger, and next steps forward. We caught up with two artists this week who have been writing about justice issues for years: Mic Capes and Rasheed Jamal. With a big voice and a lyric sensibility to match, Capes has one of the largest megaphones on the St Johns scene, and Jamal’s been on Portland stages for five years, with a style that’s picked up speed and intensity. The two talk about whether music has moved the needle on race and police shootings and Capes’ cover of N.W.A.’s “F*** The Police.”
Listen to the extended interview and check out both of their upcoming shows.
Music For Mourning - 29:47
Portland Police sergeant and classically trained pianist Jim Quackenbush plays the third movement from Samuel Barber’s piano sonata. He calls it a song of mourning. “You can hear the desolation, the desperation, the destruction,” he says. “Music is what we use when we don’t have words. In moments like this last week, I have no words.”
When you see Pacific Northwest College of Art Professor Emeritus Arvie Smith’s vivid, explosive paintings at the Portland Art Museum later this month, you might think they were created last week. Perhaps the most striking image in the show is one titled “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” It’s an intensely colorful portrait of a beaming Aunt Jemima, two plates of pancakes raised high above her head and a movie camera focused on her. But to know Smith’s decades-spanning work is to realize that there’s nothing new about what happened in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge this month. He tells us about his art and life, which is book-ended on one end by the Jim Crow South and on the other by smart phone videos capturing the shooting of black Americans by police.
In a world where we think we’ve seen everything, the videos of the shootings of Alton Sterling and, especially, Philando Castile were shocking because of the intimacy they offered. Anyone who watched Diamond Reynolds calmly addressing the police officer who shot her boyfriend, Castile, as he lay dying beside her, will never forget it.
Across the country, people took to the streets and to the internet. People mourned and raged on social media. And a number of prominent local writers shared an essay by a young writer that caught our eye: “I Don’t Want to Be Beautiful” by Melanie Alldritt in “Nailed Magazine.” We invited her in to read for us and discuss how writing lets her work through experiences that are too horrible to talk about.
Alldritt is currently working on an essay about the grief of being a black woman that she’ll read at the Grief Rites reading series on August 8 at the American Legion Post 143.