Complaining weekly about the whiteness of Portland (and Oregon), I have nowhere to go with this thorn in my perfect little life here. All week I've been handing out postcards about a local theatre production of "Radio Golf," the last of August Wilson's ten-play chronicle of black life in mid 20th century Pittsbugh.
Every man, woman, and child over 15 ought to be required to troop on over to the Portland Playhouse (small church converted to a performance space). Sit down on a couch or chair, open up to Wilson's picture of the pain and pleasure African Americans have always known in their own settings. People keep asking if we miss New York. No, we mostly miss living in a colored world. Asians running ethnic restaurants, Hispanics cooking in most eating places--but not living in my West Hills neighborhood. What's with all these white people? How did they conspire to be so cut apart from the America I've known--Baltimore, St. Louis, Oberlin, New Orleans, Louisville, New York of course.
But I get in the way of celebrating last Sunday in Albina, an historically black residential neighborhood.** Decided to wear this pretty little hat bought from its maker at a local Saturday market many years ago. "Oh, it's Easter," did not occur to me until we were halfway there. Influenced by the dominant culture here or feeling my hair continues to whiten so consider again little caps to hold back my fading from view?
We arrived early for the play and sat in the car in front of a house with a wreath, "Happy Every Day." As I knit, a woman drove into the driveway, got out of her car. Her shoes were bright pink. We exchanged hellos and I held up my mauve gloves, "These match your shoes!" She nodded and chuckled on her way inside.
Five minutes later a man came out of the house, got into a car parked in front of us. Soon the woman reappeared, wearing black shoes now, opened the passenger door and asked, "You hear from Johnny?" Her voice had a cadence Ron and I know so well. We never hear it in Portland--the way a voice sounds in a question from one black person to another. You had to be there--and be us to--understand our pleasure and sadness.
The Oregonian went all out to promote "Radio Golf" on the cover of its entertainment section. There is an excellent slide show of the set and scenes from the play. Also, the story of the two young white Weaver brothers (Michael at right in photo) started Portland Playhouse only last year. The "campaign poster" in the photo is of Harmond Wilks, played by Lawrence Street, a real estate developer planning to run for Mayor of Pittsburgh.Notable too was that this is a co-production with BaseRoots Theatre company, also a recent addition to Portland's performance scene with a mission is to "showcase the unique African-American experience."
We enjoyed the play--especially the outstanding acting. Two of the five actors are members of BaseRoots. Kevin E. Jones who plays the oldest character, Elder Joseph Barlow, and Victor Mack as the fast-talking neighborhood deal-maker, Sterling Johnson, struck us as the men August Wilson felt closest to in this play. As a black man on his way up and ready to change the old rundown Hill District neighborhood, Bobby Bermas is Roosevelt Hicks. He swings his golf clubs with bravado and determination that had us believing that playing the white man's game would bring him success. The Willamette Week review reflects my own reservations about the play while also calling it "...the best show in town."
At the last minute I'd changed our tickets when I learned there'd be talk-backs at Sunday performances. Most of the audience stayed, asked questions, and listened to the actors' describe differences they'd experienced as black performers in Portland compared with other places. We missed more of an African American presence among us and I think they did too. Kimberly Howard (far right) from the Oregon Cultural Trust, one of the sponsors, moderated and told of Portland Playhouse efforts to bring in more black audiences, particularly from public schools.
Other Wilson plays have been have been more powerful for me ("Joe Turner's Come and Gone" for one) but none of them--in Baltimore or New York--have gifted me with as pleasurable a total experience as this one... at the right place and in the right time.
UPDATE: "Radio Golf" run extended to May 16
**Nothing useful in Wikipedia, but so much in this research paper pdf from the University of Oregon.