Past shapes future for performing artist
After her mother died, Damaris Webb longed to leave New York where she and her husband had lived for the past 26 years, and return home to her family in Portland, especially to be close to her 87-year-old father.
Coming back to the old neighborhood things looked different. “Portland has changed so much since the 1980s,” said the former Jefferson high school student who moved east not long after she graduated and has just moved back.
Recently earning her Masters of Fine Arts in contemporary performance at the Buddhist-founded Noropa University in Boulder, Colo., Webb has perfected an original play that she is excited and deeply proud to share with the public.
In the production, Webb traces her childhood memories growing up in a mixed race family in Portland during the pre-Huxtable era of the Jefferson’s TV characters, in a solo performance entitled, The Box Marked Black: Tales from a Halfrican-American growing up Mulatto. The play is now showing though Sunday, Feb. 24 at the Ethos Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center in north Portland.
With just herself and a giant steamer trunk for props on stage, Webb uses her body and spoken word to create a life narrative as a child raised by a white mother and a black father.
A story about race wasn’t Webb’s original intention when she began developing the piece from a previous grad school project.
“This story is my story growing up in a family, and within that, there is the theme of race, identity and cultural differences,” she said.
Webb says the show is an investigation of memories and events in her past that have shaped who she is. Research required asking others, close family members, to unveil her mother and father’s journey as well as her own.
Webb’s mother, of Finnish origin and born in Minnesota, moved to Portland in the 1950s. Her father, born in eastern Tennessee to Baptist missionaries moved to Portland’s Montavilla neighborhood in the 1930s.
As a little girl, Webb moved with her family from Portland to Africa, where her father worked in Tanzania and Bostwana as a U.S. aid worker for the newly independent governments. It was in Africa that Webb started to become more aware of race, noticing differences, and asking questions.
“Race is not static,” said Webb. She compares her experiences in both cultures to a chameleon, passing back and forth between identities of color. Webb pulls layers of her story into her theatrical narrative.
Using sock puppets, Webb references influential childhood icons as diverse as the Little House on the Prairie series, author Laura Ingalls Wilder, to the television mini-series Roots based on Alex Haley’s novel about the an 18th century African sold to into U.S. slavery and his family’s descendants.
She hopes her show will help build new associations with images and stereotypes people have about race and identity.
For example, in our culture, people box race into categories, like the “ethnic” hair product section in Fred Meyer or the “Mexican” food cart down the street. Webb says to people who have concerns about having a more diverse culture, diversity is not about boxing “other” races into colors or ethnicity.
The truer diversity, she says, is between people, outside of color.
Sharing her story, she said, is an opportunity for other people to do a little unpacking and breathing around their own varied identity.
“I feel that if we have more of a chance to articulate and tell our stories and take the time to listen to other people,” Webb said, “That’s going to go a lot further in our evolution of being a more inclusive, supportive, celebrating, diverse culture.”
The Box Marked Black: Tales from a Halfrican-American growing up Mulatto, shows Friday, Feb. 15 at7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 16 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 22 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 23 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. Tickets are available at the door or in advance at brownpapertickets.com. Ethos/IFCC is located at 5340 N Interstate Ave.