BWW Review: LEFT HOOK Looks at the Human Impact of Portland's Decades of Urban Renewal, at The Vanport Mosaic
Last month, the Portland Community Reinvestment Initiative (PCRI) announced an effort to bring African American families back to North and Northeast Portland. Their plan is to build 1,000 affordable residences in neighborhoods that have seen home prices escalate rapidly as a result of a recent urban renewal project, which the PCRI estimates has displaced more than 16,000 people since 2000.
It's against this backdrop that The Vanport Mosaic is premiering Rich Rubin's LEFT HOOK, a play about a previous displacement of Portland's African American community. In the 1970s, the Albina neighborhood was devastated when nearly 300 homes and businesses were torn down to make way for an expansion of the Legacy Emanuel Hospital -- an expansion that never happened. Some of the homes and businesses belonged to African Americans who had already been forced to move to accommodate the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and then again for the I-5. LEFT HOOK was inspired by the Knott Street Boxing Club, which was part of the vibrant Albina neighborhood.
LEFT HOOK provides a glimpse into the lives of a community dealing with uncertainty. The gym is a place where people gather to socialize and to figure out what they're going to do when they receive the letter telling them it's time to move.
They all have different opinions, based on their past experience. Cal (played by Kenneth Dembo), who's older and knows people who have been displaced twice already, has strong opinions about the idea of urban renewal -- namely that while the African American community is the "urban" part, it's the white developers who are benefiting from the "renewal." Meanwhile, Ty (Jasper Howard), who owns the boxing club, sees an opportunity to start a new construction business rebuilding the areas that are being demolished. Bo (Anthony P. Armstrong) finds hope in the budding Black Panther Party, while Donnie (James Bowen II) is focused on training for his next fight. By highlighting the implications City Hall's decisions have for real people, Rubin's play moves the discussion of urban renewal from the abstract to the personal.
The actors all do a fine job portraying the struggles of everyday life with the added layer of anxiety over their community being torn apart. I particularly enjoyed Jasper Howard as Ty, a character who is adrift both personally and professionally. He perfectly captures the special type of ambivalence about the future that's reserved for people whose past is full of regrets.
Aside from the play itself, one of the most impressive aspects of this production is the very real boxing environment created by director and NYC Golden Gloves boxer Damaris Webb. Not only is there a full boxing ring, but Howard and Bowen get quite the workout!
I first saw LEFT HOOK as a staged reading during the 2017 Fertile Ground Festival. It was an impactful play then. Now, with Portland's continuing gentrification, its impact is even greater. This is an important play. I highly recommend you see it.
LEFT HOOK runs at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center through June 10. Details and tickets here.