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Exploring Life at the Margins

Darleen Ortega | 2/25/2020, 3:17 p.m.
Theater in Portland this past weekend saw the opening of two terrific co-productions by important American women playwrights exploring questions ...
Michael Mendelson, left, in the heart-opening play “Indecent" and La’Tevin Alexander and Reggie Lee Wilson illuminate aspects of the school-to-prison pipeline in “Pipeline.” Photos courtesy Profile Theater and Portland Playhouse

Theater in Portland turned especially and resourcefully rich this past weekend, with the opening of two terrific co-productions by important American women playwrights exploring questions of identity and life at the margins. I recommend making time to see both.

Dominique Morisseau is a name to watch; a 2018 recipient of a MacArthur "Genius Grant," the Detroit native's plays (including a new musical about The Temptations, "Ain't Too Proud") draw from her background as a spoken-word poet to illuminate aspects of life in African American urban communities. Her 2017 play "Pipeline," co-produced by Portland Playhouse and Confrontation Theater, explores life inside the so-called school-to-prison pipeline as experienced by one black family.

Nya (Ramona Lisa Alexander) knows education; she teaches in an inner-city high school and dedicates herself to elevating the consciousness of her students inside what they and their teachers often experience as a war zone. Her own son, Omari (La' Tevin Alexander), isn't a student there, however, she and her ex-husband have sought to improve his prospects by enrolling him in a private prep school. At the opening of the play, Omari has been suspended for striking a teacher, throwing mother and son into a tailspin. What pressures are closing in on Omari, even inside his more privileged context? The play illuminates how the stresses and trauma that black families experience are not entirely economic, at least not in the ways we would think of, so much as cultural and even spiritual--how one is confined by what others expect to see. The pipeline isn't only to prison; it's to an imprisoned identity.

This sensitive production is buoyed by strong performances, especially by its two leads. La’Tevin Alexander embodies Omari's sense of confinement; the options his parents have attempted to give him thrust him into a world where he is tokenized, where he is expected to receive opportunities with gratitude and subservience. In many ways, his good mind intensifies the pressure; the anger and inquisitiveness of a young black man is met not with space and understanding but with an impulse to break him.

Ramona Lisa Alexander conveys the anguish of a good woman attempting to use the tools at her disposal, as is her prosperous ex-husband Xavier (Reggie Lee Wilson). With all the best intentions, these two have attempted to do everything right, to protect their son from the pressures that are supposed to be the "problem" for black children. Yet despite their efforts, their son is still in trouble, and they are alienated from each other and, to some degree, from him. This thoughtful production of Morisseau's insightful play, beautifully directed by Damaris Webb, illuminates Audre Lorde's observation that the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. What Omari needs--and what his parents need--require more than resources and education; this play opens space for love and curiosity about that something more.

Profile Theater, in partnership with Artists Repertory Theater, continues its exploration of the work of Paula Vogel with a production of "Indecent." This beautiful play, originally commissioned as part of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's American Revolutions project, also grapples with questions of identity and pressures to attain respectability at the expense of authenticity.