On a cool Saturday evening, theater lovers slowly make their way inside the Portland Playhouse. The mostly BIPOC audience packs the seats of the small but inviting stage, all eagerly anticipating what will be a special night for everyone.
Before the lights dim, front house manager La’Tevin Alexander stands center stage and introduces everyone to the performance of the evening: the play “Barbecue” by Robert O’Hara.
“This is a space for us to be together. We know that in a place like Portland, we don’t get that too often to be in a space where we’re in the majority and not the minority,” he says to the audience. “Take a look around and see who you’re with because you might not see this much often in Portland!”
This is a new event series from Portland Playhouse — called BIPOC Affinity nights. It’s the theater’s way of welcoming new audiences of people who identify as Black, Indigenous and/or People of Color.
Portland Playhouse operates out of the former Mt. Sinai Baptist Church building in Northeast Portland’s King neighborhood — a historically Black community in the Albina area.
The King neighborhood and the surrounding area was once the home to the majority of Portland’s African-American population from the 1940s to the 1970s.
However, through discriminatory real estate policies and predatory lending practices, and urban development projects that pushed many families out, the city designated the neighborhood as ‘blighted’ in the 1980s.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the neighborhood saw rapid gentrification, but by then, some longtime residents say that the area had completely changed.
Poet and playwright Valerie Yvette Peterson, who attended this recent BIPOC Affinity Night, grew up in the King neighborhood and recalled the changes that she saw as a child.
“I grew up in the early 1970s and you’d go down the street, it’d be blocks that you could walk and always see a black face,” says Peterson. “But now you walk that same distance and it would take a moment before you do see another black face.”
She also remembered countless efforts by realtors to get her and her neighbors to move out of the area.
“You’d see pamphlets or flyers posters on the windshield of our cars or you’d see them see a flyer of some sort on our screen door. And they were just an attempt at an outreach to call the person that had the information about selling our home,” she says.
Despite the changes to the neighborhood over the years, Peterson and her family have remained in the same home for five decades, and considers the King neighborhood a part of her identity.
“This is where my family home is. This is where I grew up. My kids have grown up in this neighborhood,” she says.
In 2008, Portland Playhouse took over the Mt. Sinai Baptist Church building, which operated from the mid-1960s to 2005. Since then, Portland Playhouse has produced shows from some of theater’s most prominent BIPOC writers including August Wilson’s “Fences” and Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline.”
In 2018, Playhouse members completed revamping the building’s interior into a more blackbox theater style, including a stage, new seating arrangements and new lights, but kept the exterior intact.
Producing artistic director and co-founder Brian Weaver says that Portland Playhouse’s mission is to not only do a wide variety of diverse plays, but to also break down the perceived notion that theater is only for a select few.
“Theater is the art of the people. Everybody should see themselves reflected on the stage and it’s a way of having a civic dialogue that connects us to ourselves, to each other and also across differences,” he says.
Portland Playhouse is one of the many local theaters taking a look at how best to make their productions more inclusive and accessible, an issue that has long plagued the theater community.
Associate producer Charles Grant recalled an incident where a BIPOC audience member described why they didn’t feel comfortable at the playhouse.
“They were seeing a show and a white audience member shushed them. And I think that’s such a prime example of like, there are these people who have, for whatever reason, they feel that they get to set the rules of what theater is, how you should dress, how you should respond,” he says.
Community programs and associate artistic director Ramona Lisa Alexander said that the work toward inclusivity starts with speaking to the broader community.
“We learned that the BIPOC affinity space was really important and needed just because of the harm that had been done in the King community, the gentrification, the displacement,” she says.
Through those conversations, the BIPOC Affinity Nights event series was created. Grant said that the Playhouse is also making efforts to center their work on the performances and the audiences who come to see them.
“The question I always like to ask is ‘Why this play now?’ Yes, we want to do theater that is exciting, but also what is it saying? The more we started to diversify our stage in that way, the more I noticed our audience starting to diversify in that way,” he said.
Another barrier to entry for most people is ticket price. But on a BIPOC Affinity night, Grant says that audiences can pay what they want.
“This is one way to say yes we want to welcome you to the theater as a black indigenous person of color. And also we’re not going to charge you $50 to do so.”
Other theater companies have also taken steps to examine how they are addressing diversity, equity and inclusion.
Marisa Wolf is the artistic director of the Portland Center Stage (PCS).
“If you are a theater who is happy to continue on your merry way of serving only white audiences,” explains Wolf, “then I would say you are on your way towards, if not already being obsolete.”
PCS will also offer its first sensory-friendly show with a performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.”
Wolf says that it will be a more relaxed performance that benefits people on the autism spectrum or who have sensory processing issues.
“What will be different is simply that some of the louder moments will be turned down and some of the flashing lights will be turned off. It’s just a slightly gentler experience of the show,” she says.
Both Portland Center Stage and Portland Playhouse acknowledge that the work that still needs to be done to continue diversifying audiences is long and difficult.
But for theater-goers like long-time King resident Valerie Peterson, the effort plays an important role in preserving the story of this historically-Black neighborhood.
“It gives families that may have been pushed out for various reasons, a reason to come back. And maybe they aren’t living here specifically, but they’re coming back for activities. They’re coming back for comradery. They’re coming back for a neighborhood connection.”
Despite the challenges, Portland Playhouse’s Charles Grant says the theater community remains committed to serving everyone.
“We can’t just say we want to be diverse. We actually have to do the work and listen to know what support is needed so that people can bring their full selves and not feel like they have to come sit in their chair, fold their hands and be quiet.”