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Exploring Race Relations in Portland Through the Arts

Updated on December 4, 2017
His Eye is on the Sparrow  Maiesha McQueen as Ethel Waters with Pianist and Music Director Darius Smith in "His Eye is on the Sparrow" at The Armory.
His Eye is on the Sparrow Maiesha McQueen as Ethel Waters with Pianist and Music Director Darius Smith in "His Eye is on the Sparrow" at The Armory. | Source

Despite Portland's liberal hipster veneer, this city has the reputation of being the whitest city in America. IFC's Portlandia may have introduced audiences to a range of subcultures that keep Portland weird and wild, but they failed to present the stories of those who did not fit into the white progressive stereotypes parodied on this show.

This recent Progressive Spirit podcast features African American leaders who share their experiences living in Portland as a person of color, and their ongoing work for racial justice. Those intrigued by their accounts should check out these offerings by local arts groups that can help spur on a much needed conversation about race in America.

His Eye is on the Sparrow, a one-woman musical biography of groundbreaking artist Ethel Waters, presented by Portland Center Stage (PCS), affords viewers the opportunity to immerse themselves into the world of a world class talent trying to survive in Jim Crow America. Maiesha McQueen presents a stirring and at times soul crushing portrait of a woman fighting the demons of misogyny and racism in a quest to express herself through her voice. Through her eyes, we can see how these two devils remain present in post-Trump Americana. Also, through her singing her truth to power, the audience feels the stirrings that perhaps we can indeed overcome our current malaise. This show closes on March 26th, so catch the show this week if you can. Show times are Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm and Thursday matinees at noon.

Also, continue the conversation on March 26th from 5pm to 7pm when PCS hosts a community conversation on immigration. This conversation is part of PCS' participation in the national #Ghostlight project. On January 19th, over 500 theaters across the country including three Portland-based theaters (PCS, Artists Repertory Theatre and the Oregon Children's Theater) made a pledge that theaters would continue to be a safe space for productive civic conversation.

Following this community event, continue the conversation by sampling these other artistic offerings.

Artists Repertory Theatre

On April 21 - 23, 2017, Roger Guenveur Smith takes his one-man performance Rodney King to Portland. Smith brings to life this flawed man whose treatment at the hands of four LAPD officers opened non-white eyes to the ongoing issue of racial injustice in the United States. Post show conversations will be moderated after each evening performance by the Color of NOW. Also, after the Sunday matinee, stay for a movement-based “Move Back” conversation with Chisao Hata.


Portland Abbey Arts

Once a month through July 2017, Karen Ward, an African American church pioneer and founder of Portland Abbey Arts, curates The Round. This arts experience brings together three musicians and a slam poet who present rounds of music and poetry. A visual artist paints their experience of these shared offerings, as the audience soaks in these collective energies. Be sure to catch the April Round (April 11th) for a special themed "Blues" Round.

After co-founding Fremont Abbey Arts with Nathan Marion where he launched the first Round in 2005, Ward moved to Portland. Here she founded Portland Abbey Arts (PAA) in North Portland. As part of PAA's programming, she restarted the Round in Portland and brought to it a new focus by aligning it with the organization's "intentional, intercultural direction and aims of bringing people together across differences to grow cross cultural competence, increase cross cultural understanding of, and appreciation for difference, and to promote an equitable and just society." Also, check out PAA's 'Diverse Oregon Project' which aims to bring Oregonians together across differences of race, class, ethnicity, economic means, religion, age, sexually orientation and gender identity through arts, and culture sharing, communal learning experiences, and localized civic engagement towards societal transformation.

The Round, Portland Abbey Arts
The Round, Portland Abbey Arts | Source

The Northwest Film Center and Portland Art Museum

From April 1 to June 11, 2017, the Northwest Film Center (NWFF) presents "Constructing Identity: Black Cinema Then and Now." This is a collaborative, retrospective series of films that explore the paradigm of resistance against the dominant culture and define the African-American narrative through the artistry of Black filmmakers. Among those artists featured in this series include Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Kathleen Collins, and Spencer Williams. This series will screen at the Portland Art Museum (PAM) alongside the museums's exhibit "Constructing Identity." This exhibit on display until June 18, 2017 features a retrospective features work from of over 80 artists of color including works by 11 artists whose artwork is also held in the collection of the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Collective Identity, Portland Art Museum
Collective Identity, Portland Art Museum | Source


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