Performance investigates narrative of economic dream for Black Americans
An all-Black cast and a collectively devised performance, “Soul’d: The Economics of Our Black Body” made for an engaging investigation of the Black American experience—a production that challenged the white-centered expectations of the Portland theater scene.
The Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center hosted the second of eight performances of “Soul’d” on Nov. 15, produced by Damaris Webb and “the project,” a collective of local Black performers and designers.
At the beginning of the performance, the audience was asked a simple question by the collective: “Is it possible to tell this story without a white actor?” “Yes,” answers a member of the cast. “Is it possible to tell this story without the white gaze?” asks another cast member. “No,” answers a fourth person. This simple exchange brought into focus the role of the mostly white audience attending this particular night of the production and openly engaged with the rarity of an all-Black cast and collective ensemble.
The performance mixed exchanges like this with personal monologues, short skits and readings of poetry by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The combination of mediums worked to investigate, as the director’s note states: “the narrative of the American economic dream for Black Americans…[from] the macrocosms of slavery to the present day post-Obama backlash.”
Despite the recognition of the inevitability of the white gaze in the narrative, the performance piece centered on the variety of the Black experience.
A skit about the Green Book—a travel guide for mid-twentieth century Black motorists navigating around Jim Crow laws—opens with an archival audio clip of the Green Book’s author’s statement, outlining the process of selecting safe hotels and gas stations for Black motorists in the South. Three of the performers—all women—dance in a robotic, almost vaudevillian style along to the audio clip. The skit ends with a reference to a 2018 incident at the Portland Doubletree hotel, where a Black guest was escorted off the property by police for making a phone call in the lobby.
Another skit based off the phrase “Cotton is king,” a motto of slave-based agricultural production in the pre-Civil War South, features the actors dressed in 1860s-era costumes sowing cotton fields, but instead of seeds, they plant representations of Black and brown babies. Other actors recount the South’s economic reliance on slavery and the enormous value a slave created for their white owners. The skit finishes by noting that the dollar bill is made of 75% cotton, with one of the actors saying, “Cotton is still king.”
“It was great to be able to ensure having our own representation and to be able to create with other Black people” said performer and co-creator Shareen Jacobs.
“It’s rare to have control over your own script,” she said about the opportunity to help develop the performance. Director Damaris Webb took contributions from each performer to create a collective-style piece, blending individual experience into an expansive narrative.
Several of the actors gave personal monologues recounting their own role in the Black experience. Salim Sanchez shared the story of his single mom uprooting his family out of a dangerous low-income neighborhood, earning her G.E.D., bachelor’s and master’s in speech pathology and becoming an inspiration to her community.
La’Tevin Alexander argued that reparations should be paid to the Black community in the form of free DNA ancestry tests to allow members of the African diaspora to reclaim their lineage. Other actors shared their experience growing up in Black households in the Portland area.
The performance ended with a screening of “Root Shocked,” a 15-minute short film about the effort by local artist Cleo Davis Jr. to save a historic Portland building, the Mayo House, and how the house is representative of the larger struggle of the Black community in Portland in the face of gentrification. The film summarized the history of three generations of the Davis family, starting with Davis Jr.’s grandmother, whose apartment building was demolished against her will. Her son Cleo Davis Sr., a major figure in the documentary, speaks frankly about the hopelessness and trauma that the incident inflicted on his family. “This house has a similar experience to our community,” Davis Jr. said. “Kinda moved around…root shocked.”
The production made a clear point by ending with the screening of the documentary. These issues are not in the past and haven’t been adequately addressed in the present.
“Soul’d” runs through Nov. 24. Thursday through Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m.