BWW Reviews: Portland Playhouse Tries to Figure Out HOW TO END POVERTY IN 90 MINUTES (WITH 99 PEOPLE YOU MAY OR MAY NOT KNOW)

By: Feb. 09, 2015

Just after Thanksgiving the year I turned twelve, I went to my parents and suggested we not give each other Christmas gifts anymore. We were all spectacularly bad at picking out presents for each other; my father chose things he liked, my mother always gave clothes, and I would pick out books that I ended up reading myself. My parents agreed, and for the rest of their lives we never exchanged presents again. We decorated the house, we enjoyed the season, but we never had anything to open on Christmas morning, and we didn't miss it.

I've told that story for many years now around the holidays, usually when I hear people complaining about how much shopping they have to do, and I usually get rueful laughter in response. What I don't tell is the real reason I brought the subject up to my parents in the first place. Even at twelve, I knew my father's work was inconsistent, I heard the arguments over every penny that was spent, and I was aware that we were dangerously close to losing our house. My parents were both Depression babies, and they were frugal to a fault, but the holidays tended to bring out their generous nature. And although we never talked about it, I'm sure my parents knew that I knew what was going on. The relief that year was palpable.

I tell you this to explain my response to Portland Playhouse's newest offering, How to End Poverty in 90 Days (With 99 People You May or May Not Know). I don't know how to describe the piece. It combines discussion, drama, lecture, dance, statistics, testimonials, and several game show elements to get you thinking about poverty in the Portland area. The premise seems simple: At the end of the evening, one thousand dollars of the ticket receipts will be given to a charity that practices one of five approaches to helping those in need: daily needs, education, system change, making opportunities, or direct aid. (The specific charities that will be helped rotate from night to night, and are not named until the very end of the evening, though a list of the possible recipients is available on the Portland Playhouse website and on a brochure available at the theater.)

You cannot be uninvolved in this presentation. As you enter, you will be seated in a particular section of the theater (presumably at random). Two of the twelve performers will be your guides through the evening. The performers will present information about poverty. Statistics will be presented on video screens. People who work with different groups will speak to the audience. The performers will speak about their own experiences, and will act out various scenarios about people trying to escape poverty. There will even be song and dance.

But you will make the ultimate decision. You will be drawn into conversation with the people around you, and you will discover your neighbors' reaction to the material presented. Your questions and discussion may even be presented to the audience at large. And you will, at the end of the evening, be holding a ten-dollar bill that will become your ballot as you vote for one of the five approaches.

No, this isn't going to change the world. But it's an amazing approach - entertainment with a point, group discussion that never turns nasty, positive discourse about a topic that everyone thinks about, or should. Even if you have never been hungry or homeless, you've been approached by people on the street, or you've seen people wandering around your neighborhood who look lost. We're all touched by poverty in one way or another, and we all have opinions on how to fix the problem.

I can tell you that I went to this event dreading it. I don't like shows that ask me to participate in the entertainment. Even though I have a background in performance, I like to see a line drawn between performers and audience. But on this night there was no such line. Everyone was part of the conversation. The performers (many of them familiar faces from other Portland Playhouse shows) were electric, managing to make statistical information and tales of people struggling to pay their bills as fascinating and moving as any drama you'll ever see.

I applaud Portland Playhouse for bringing this event to our city, and I cannot urge you strongly enough to go and participate in the discussion. You will learn things, you will share things, and you will find yourself moved to take action as you leave the theater. Here is the most surprising fact of all: At the end of the show, you are allowed to stay and continue the conversation. Almost everyone in that audience chose to do so. That gives me hope that one day we will find a solution to the problems of poverty and homelessness. It also gives me great hope for the future of theater in a world that doesn't seem to appreciate it much. Let's hope our elected officials are paying attention.

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