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First Black History Festival

Theater group puts focus on culture, identy

Dana Lynn Barbar | 2/6/2018, 4:28 p.m.
World Stage Theatre, a multi-cultural local organization committed to performances that inspire social reflection, hosts its first annual Black History ...

World Stage Theatre, a multi-cultural local organization committed to performances that inspire social reflection, hosts its first annual Black History Festival NW this month.

The main event is a stage performance centered on identity, culture, and the lived experiences of African Americans, entitled, “Who I Am Celebrating Me.” The play is written by Shalanda Sims of Portland, the festival’s founder and artistic director.

Who I Am is now in its 12 season, and the festival is an expansion of World Stage Theater’s work in engaging the community with black history.

“We’ve always known we wanted to do something bigger than the play to engage the broader community, but we didn’t have the funds in the beginning,” Sims said.

A $25,000 place making grant, however, from Metro was awarded to the group recently allowing it to expand their mission of reaching a larger audience, and thus creating Black History Festival NW.

Sims wanted to take advantage of the entire month to focus on black history. In addition to the play, scheduled Feb. 11-12 at the World Trade Center, downtown, and at local schools, the festival features various events centered on African American history and culture throughout the month in different areas of Portland.

The events include a scavenger hunt for the entire month, a book fair with the Black Parent Initiative on Saturday, Feb. 10 at Barnes and Noble in Clackamas, a game night at Jefferson High School on Feb 17, and a Black History Unity Gala at Self Enhancement, Inc., featuring ESPN correspondent Jemele Hill as the keynote speaker, on Feb. 24.

Recognizing black history and culture in Oregon is important to Sims for many reasons, a main one being a response to the state’s own history of excluding African Americans.

Laws that explicitly forbade the black population from residing in Oregon since its founding in 1859 were not repealed until the mid 1920’s. During the World War II era, a large number of African Americans lived in housing built for building war ships in Portland and Vancouver, including the city of Vanport, the town on the banks of the Columbia Slough. It flooded in 1948, displacing the community to mostly north and northeast Portland.

Later, a combination of urban renewal projects, gentrification, and soaring housing costs contributed to the black community needing to find other options, and now African Americans are deeply spread out across the Portland metro area.

Sims herself moved east from north Portland to Troutdale in 2002. In a predominately white neighborhood, she felt distanced and isolated, and wanted her children to have a sense of kinship like she did growing up.

Having studied and practiced theater throughout her education, she decided to create a production of her own in the hopes of building community. That is how Who I Am was born.

In addition to performing every February, the actors and crew bring the play into Portland metro schools as a way to teach black history in an unbiased manner.

Sims herself is a professional artist, but she is proud of the fact that the majority of the cast are not professional. “They are community members who want to make art and perform, and we give them that opportunity,” she added.