BWW Review: SOUL'D: THE ECONOMICS OF OUR BLACK BODY at Vanport Mosaic
When the lights go up on SOUL'D: THE ECONOMICS OF OUR BLACK BODY, five actors are standing, eyes closed, swaying, against a background on which a tree is projected. It's just the first of many moments that evoke an audible gasp.
SOUL'D, which is part of Vanport Mosaic, is a new piece devised by director Damaris Webb and a group of local African American theatre artists known as "The Project" (see below for the full list of contributors). The show is a series of vignettes, from comedy sketches to personal storytelling to poetry, that thoughtfully examine the myriad ways systemic racism has denied black Americans a chance at the American Dream.
Writing from a white perspective, I believe this show is important, especially in the current political climate, because white people have an impressive knack for denying that systemic racism exists. After last year's Vanport Mosaic Festival, I told someone about Left Hook (also directed by Webb), a play about the serial displacement of the African American community in Portland's Albina neighborhood. Their response was, "Well, they had to put the highway somewhere." This illustrates the common, and entirely false, belief that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 instantly made systemic inequality vanish. (I doubt the I-5 planning committee ever seriously considered running it through Irvington.)
SOUL'D draws a line from slavery to today, touching on redlining, gentrification, property seizure, mass incarceration, and many other practices that have kept the legacy of slavery alive and kept African Americans from amassing the generational wealth that many white people take for granted. The performance ends with a screening of Root Shocked, a short documentary about artist Cleo Davis's fight to save a historic house and start a conversation about the wealth his family lost when the city of Portland forced the demolition of a small apartment building his grandmother had invested in.
One of the things I admire most about this production was the way it both educates and engages the audience, which is due both to the quality of the material and the skill of the actors. Without ever becoming pedantic, it presents sketches about how our country got so rich, alongside personal stories of what it's like to be black in America. My favorite bit was a sketch in the style of a pharmaceutical commercial, which uses smiling happy people going about the activities of daily life while talking about the scourge of mass incarceration to demonstrate the disconnect between reality and the messages we're fed. The most powerful moment was a collective recitation of the Langston Hughes poem "Let America Be America Again," which emphasizes the fact that the American Dream has never been universally unattainable.
SOUL'D runs at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center through November 24. I highly recommend it. More details and tickets here.
The Project is LaTevin Alexander, Catherine Braxton, Tyharra Cozier, Chantal DeGroat, Kenneth Dembo, James Dixon, Auntais Faulkner, Sydney Jackson, Shareen Jacobs, Phil Johnson, Shalanda Sims, Wanda Walden, and Damaris Webb. Additional Design: Lara Klingeman.
Photo credit: Salim Sanchez