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Weekend Wrap: Portland Playhouse

Kevin Jones and Victor Mack in the 2010 Portland Playhouse production of August Wilson’s “Radio Golf.”

Courtesy of Portland Playhouse

On Thursday we were reminded that the arts that provoke, amuse, inspire and inform us are hanging by threads. Only our support, sometimes specific and direct support, preserves them. And so this week, instead of approaching the art scene as a sort of supermarket — a little great music on Aisle 5 and a Shakespeare from Aisle 7 — I want to talk a little about what happened on the cusp of the weekend, mostly because I found it so encouraging.

Maybe you already know what I’m talking about, though it didn’t receive a lot of attention in the media. On Thursday, Portland Playhouse appealed a ruling by the City that would have forced the theater company out of its home in a little church building built in 1904 on Northeast Prescott Street.

It’s a small, young and fragile company, though it has already distinguished itself in several ways, both in its choice of plays and in the way it has tried to engage its specific community, the King neighborhood, but also the older and larger Albina section of the city. And whether it could have survived a transplant somewhere else and then thrived in the new location is an open question.

Albina was founded in 1874 as a separate town that grew to encompass much of what is now inner Northeast and North Portland until it joined the cities of Portland and East Portland into one “super” city in 1891. Gradually, old Albina became the home of much of the city’s African-American population (accelerated by the dislocation caused by the Vanport flood in 1948), when the city was largely segregated, and starting in the late 1950s, it absorbed a series of body blows to its viability as a neighborhood.

The southern tip closest to the river was demolished to make way for Memorial Coliseum. The plans for I-5 took out hundreds of homes down its center, and Emmanuel Hospital knocked out many more blocks. Coincidentally, as the city became culturally less segregated, the African-American population began to spread out, though redlining by banks in the neighborhood made it hard to build a business or buy a home there.

Albina became poorer and poorer and once busy streets became more and more deserted. When the crack cocaine epidemic hit Portland in the 1980s, it hit Albina the hardest, and gang territories were violently established and violently defended, depopulating the area even further.

Gradually, things started to change in Albina in the 1990s. Younger, whiter residents started to move there, taking advantage of low rents and low property values. But then those rents and property values started going up, which put more pressure on the black community that remained in Albina. For those of us who have been in the city a while, the transformation of Mississippi Avenue, the Williams corridor and Alberta Street still makes us rub our eyes. And if you are black and watched all of this happen, especially if you still live in the neighborhood but even if you left it, it can all seem so unfair.

And that one critical point of tension makes the transformation seem something less than “miraculous” — ultimately it came at the expense of what was, once upon a time, a thriving African-American neighborhood. The friction between new residents of Albina and old flashes into flames sometimes as proposed changes, most recently the idea to expand the bike lanes on North Williams, take us further from that “once upon a time.”

So, why the historical detour? Because Portland Playhouse, situated in Albina, has made a point of reaching out to its neighborhood during the past four years, and encountering the current tension, it has attempted to do some repairing, some healing, of the area at the same time that it made the best theater it could, which happens to be very good theater indeed.

Part of it was simple outreach — inviting neighbors and schools into the church for their meetings and talent shows, and offering classes of various sorts. And part of it was programming, because the company, led by artistic director Brian Weaver and his brother Michael, decided to make the great history cycle of August Wilson a focal point of its work. They started with Radio Golf, maybe the most pertinent to Albina’s situation today, because it deals with the “re-development,” and then moved to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, maybe the most popular of Wilson’s 10 plays set in the black section of Pittsburgh.

These shows attracted large numbers of African Americans to the theater, which isn’t unprecedented in Portland but is still pretty rare. And when they met their white neighbors there, conversations began. At the appeal on Thursday, one of the citizens offering public testimony said he heard the best exchanges he’s ever heard about race and the city after a performance of Radio Golf.

That made the City’s decision — basically that the theater was a commercial use of the church and therefore not allowed on a street zoned for residential use — impossible to swallow, especially since it meant that this season’s Wilson production, Gem of the Ocean, had to be staged in the World Trade Center Theater at great expense to Portland Playhouse and across the river (figuratively and literally) from the neighborhood that should have held it.

The appeal before City Council on Thursday was the last chance for the company to get its church back, at least that’s the way I thought of it going into the hearing. But then, as eighth graders from a school in the community, theater fans black and white, actors and directors black and white, and the neighborhood associations for King and Sabin came to the microphone to testify in favor of the appeal, I started to get it: It was also the last chance for the neighborhood to get its theater back.

The tone of this column would be entirely different if it wasn’t also immediately apparent that City Council was going to overturn the decision. The employees who had made the original decision didn’t even like it — their hands were bound by the zoning ordinance itself, which specifically cited “theater” as a commercial use instead of a “community service,” which would have avoided the whole mess to begin with. As one of the council members said after Council had voted 5-0 to keep Portland Playhouse in its church, “This is the most sympathetic denial I’ve ever read in a Hearings Office report.”

So, yes, the good guys won. And what did they win? The opportunity to continue to work very hard for very little (and sometimes no) money to make the city a little better. As I said at the top, only our support keeps Portland Playhouse (and every other theater, dance company, museum, gallery, music group in town) in business. And that “business,” when it works, isn’t about commerce at all. In Portland Playhouse’s case, it’s about healing and going forward together.

In my post about the hearing on Oregon ArtsWatch I quoted the testimony of Kevin Jones, a director and actor, at length, because I thought it was so germane to that way forward. Jones is currently directing Profile Theatre‘s show, A Lesson Before Dying. He closed with a series of questions that I’ve been thinking about ever since he said them. Maybe you’ll find them important, too:

“The questions for me which are most salient and relevant are:

  • Portland has a legacy around race.  Are we willing to contradict that legacy by making hard or controversial decisions?
  • What are the consequences of shutting down efforts that are making progress in the areas of equity and diversity?
  • Where does our equity strategy begin if not with organizations that are already making great strides and can be role models for the community?
  •  Where does social entrepreneurialism fit in our city’s development?
  • What are your individual and collective commitments to creating a city that is a role model for other cities across the county—as we have with other environmental issues?”

That last one made me gulp, and it also made me want to prove something.

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