Art as Social Justice

A cheer for Ashland plays and racial progress

Darleen Ortega | 8/16/2016, 3:51 p.m.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Elizabethan stage features plays this summer and fall that are all are worth seeing.
[LEFT] Horatio (Christiana Clark), Osric (Benjamin Bonenfant) and Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) watch as Hamlet (Danforth Comins) and Laertes (Tramell Tillman) engage in a fencing match. [RIGHT] Tinman (Rodney Gardiner) and Scarecrow (J. Cameron Barnett) bid farewell to Dorothy (Ashley D. Kelley) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of ‘The Wiz.’ Dale Robinette and Jenny Graham of Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Elizabethan stage features plays this summer and fall that are all are worth seeing, and together they advance the Ashland festival's work in practicing art as social justice.

The angst and seething undercurrents of "Hamlet" are conveyed not only through a fine performance by Danforth Comins in the title role, but also through music and smart casting. Not strictly tied to one time period, the production uses live rock guitar music (via an onstage heavy metal musician) to gird its moods and questions; the music broods over contact with the dead and also the accumulation of unaddressed mistakes and questions that undo all the characters in the end.

Meanwhile, Hamlet's blindness to his privileged social location is underscored by casting three fine African American actors -- Derrick Lee Weeden, Jennie Greenberry, and Tramell Tillman -- as Polonius (who has long served Hamlet's family), Polonius' daughter Ophelia (the sometime love whom Hamlet casts off so coldly), and her brother Laertes (Hamlet's friend and rival). The dynamic between this trio and their troubled relationships with Hamlet and his family resonates strongly with typical experiences of people of color, including the contrasting vantage points of different generations, and deepens this production's tragic sensibility.

"The Winter's Tale" is staged from the lens of Asian and Asian American experience, affording a too-rare opportunity to see folks from a variety of Asian cultures represent the range of humanity on stage. There are so many cultures left out of the way we are used to seeing Shakespeare; it is a joy to watch this production play with melding the beauty and relative rigidity of ancient traditions as embodied in the first act with a lighthearted mix of cultures washed up on a single shore in the second act.

Among this production's best assets are its strongly-embodied female characters: Amy Kim Waschke is a memorably noble and tragic Hermione; Miriam Laube (who herself played Hermione in OSF's last production of this play) as Paulina embodies courage and female power wresting transformation from folly; and Cindy Im floats and sings like an earthy angel as Perdita, easily inspiring love in all who encounter her.

My favorite of the outdoor shows this season is a rare opportunity to see "The Wiz." White audience members likely don't appreciate either the significance of "The Wiz" to African American audience members or the challenges of mounting a production in Oregon. So much of mainstream theater is written by white people, produced by white people, and tells stories from a white perspective.

As originally conceived in the 1970s, "The Wiz" took an icon of American musicals and reset it to be sung and played by and for African Americans. Its creators found a way to embody the hopes and humor and yearnings of African Americans in a setting that everyone could recognize, and to add a funky edge that celebrated the cultural riches found among members of that community. They accomplished something almost unthinkable in 1975, building an audience for something new to Broadway, and garnering seven Tony Awards in the process.