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Playwright Tanya Barfield's Homecoming Season


The coffee shop at Powells, which Tanya Barfield points out was "a destination spot", and a haven for kids like her during the '80s.

The coffee shop at Powells, which Tanya Barfield points out was “a destination spot”, and a haven for kids like her during the ‘80s.

Nick Fisher/OPB

This episode first broadcast in October 2016. Since then, a lot has happened for Tanya Barfield and the artists who performed her plays in Oregon.

Barfield has continued to build on her success writing for television. She signed on as executive story editor for a season of Alan Ball’s HBO drama “Here and Now” — filmed on location than Portland — and wrote episodes for VH-1’s “The Breaks” and the CBS series “Instinct.” She’s also working on a commissioned project for Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its American Revolutions project, bringing key moments in American history to life onstage.

Profile Theatre, for its part, has gone on to stage works by playwrights Lisa Kron and Anna Deveare Smith. Their next production, “The Secretaries,” which Kron wrote in concert with four other women, runs June 14-July 1.

Tanya Barfield grew up in Portland and first caught the theater bug from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But even though her plays have been performed around the country and got her nominated for a Pulitzer, they have never been staged in Portland.

That is, until 2016.

Profile Theatre programmed an entire season of her plays, ending with “Bright Half Life” from Oct. 27–Nov. 13.

We’re going to spend this hour getting to know Barfield’s work and exploring some ideas she’s turned us onto. So grab your bus pass, it begins on the 77.

Tanya Barfield


Tanya Barfield aboard the Trimet 77 line.

Tanya Barfield aboard the Trimet 77 line.

Oregon Public Broadcasting

Tanya Barfield’s Portland — 1:52

We begin by talking with Barfield about growing up in Irvington.

“When I went to Irvington [Elementary School], a lot of African American students were bused in from neighboring neighborhoods to a school that was predominantly white, and there was tension between the groups,” she said. “I’m a person with a white mother and black father, so I felt in some ways I was at the apex of that tension.”

Barfield found solace at Powell’s City of Books, where she got a job at the cafe, as well as on the bus, to and fro, where one particular encounter transformed the way she’d view theater.


Tanya Barfield makes a class visit to the Metropolitan Learning Center in March 2016.

Tanya Barfield makes a class visit to the Metropolitan Learning Center in March 2016.

Nick Fisher/OPB

A Fifth-Grade Macbeth? — 6:28

Barfield didn’t grow up around theater. In fact, she didn’t see her first play until she was a sophomore in high school, and actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival visited a neighboring school.

“They performed the play ‘Macbeth,’” she said, “and it’s no understatement that it changed my life.”

Her own school, the Metropolitan Learning Center, didn’t have a theater program, so she decided to put on a play herself, and, only knowing one play, staged “Macbeth,” with a fifth-grader cast as the tragic protagonist.

MLC still doesn’t have an in house theater program, but coincidentally, Profile Theatre runs a teaching artist program. Over the course of a school term, the students put together and perform a show based on that season’s playwright. We stop by to find out how it’s going.


Bright Half Life premiered in February of 2015. Barfield says, "When we think about our lives, I don’t think about the long strokes. I think about moments."

Bright Half Life premiered in February of 2015. Barfield says, “When we think about our lives, I don’t think about the long strokes. I think about moments.”

Courtesy of Profile Theatre

Love Is Not A Linear Thing — 15:30

This month, Profile Theatre stages Barfield’s “Bright Half Life,” a chronicle of an interracial lesbian couple’s 45-year relationship, with a wildly inventive approach. Erica and Vicky’s relationship is presented as a series of short vignettes, out of chronological order. Barfield tells us, as she wrote the play, she thought about how memory rarely offers up a life in sequence. She also explains how this structure allowed her to explore how themes recur throughout a relationship, bringing people together or driving them apart. We listen in on actors Chantal DeGroat and Maureen Porter rehearsing. The show is onstage Oct. 27–Nov. 13.


At home with Nikki Weaver and the girls.

At home with Nikki Weaver and the girls.

April Baer/OPB

The Ultimate Balancing Act —23:52

Playwriting, like many other kinds of theatrical work, supports very few people on a full-time basis. We explore how Tanya Barfield made it happen, while supporting a family. She also asked us to reach out to other parents working in theater to hear how they did it. On set at Milagro Theater’s production of “Into The Beautiful North”, we met veteran actress Bunnie Rivera (mother of six) — who launched a career acting with Milagro Theater since the company’s beginning, and also recent Oregon transplant Anthony Lam (father of three). Brian & Nikki Weaver of Portland Playhouse told us about their crazy days and hard bargains, as they raise two small daughters. We also talk to Barfield about what she wants her children to know about theater. (Portland Playhouse has a particularly interesting production of August Wilson show onstage now.)


Victor Mack, in the role of Louis for "Blue Door" at Profile Theater in April 2016.

Victor Mack, in the role of Louis for “Blue Door” at Profile Theater in April 2016.

Courtesy of Profile Theater

Opening The Door On Identity — 36:06

Profile’s season has offered audiences a unique view into Tanya Barfield’s perspective on race. Plays like “Blue Door” have been her laboratory for thinking through dissonance in black and white experiences, and possibilities for black identity. We talk with Bobby Bermea, who directed Profile’s production of Blue Door last spring (and who just co-founded a new company to stage the stories of women and people of color), and listen to actor Victor Mack, as the math professor whose marital crisis opens the door for a deeper awakening. (See Victor onstage now in “How I Learned What I Learned.”)


What They Found: Bias And Women Playwrights — 42:00

“We all assume,” Tanya Barfield told us, “that it’s harder for women, but at the same time you wonder, Am I imagining this?” She clued us in to some research that paints a devastating picture of the problem of bias in play selection. Emily Glassberg Sands joins us to share her research in three ground breaking studies. Together, with the playwright Julia Jordan, Sands showed how decision-makers reacted to work by male and female writers.


What’s Next For Tanya Barfield — 48:19

The staging of Tanya Barfield’s plays in her hometown was just the beginning. She’s one of several artists commissioned by the the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to produce new work about pivotal moments in American history.

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