What is it like to walk through a day in Portland as a person of color? Lived Experiences, the first original devised piece of the Theater Ensemble of Color, offers revealing insights into everyday racism and discrimination. After workshop productions this past weekend at Mayo Street Arts, TEoC will perform Lived Experiences in Congress Square Park the evenings of July 5 and 6.
The first iteration of the script that became Lived Experiences began in May 2015, when playwright and actor Meredythe Dehne Lindsey felt moved to write a theater piece addressing racism for an upcoming race-themed installment of the new-play incubator The Crowbait Club. But Lindsey felt conflicted about authorship. “I knew, being a white person and coming from that place of privilege,” they say, “that it wasn't my place, or appropriate, or even remotely okay, for me to write a moving, informative, and challenging piece about something of which I knew nothing and of which I have never experienced.”
So Lindsey reached out to friends Rosalba Breazeale, René Johnson, and Bridgette Kelly — all women of color — to talk about it. “The conversations turned into me just asking them what a day in their life was like, and how racism affected them every day,” Lindsey says. Lindsey took their words verbatim, organized them, added stage directions, and then sent it back to Johnson and Kelly for feedback. A revised version was performed at Crowbait in June, by three white female actors, and it came in second for Best Play. “I think the piece was well received, in that it seemed to make everyone in the audience very uncomfortable (the entire audience being white),” says Lindsey, “but also very moved.”
That fall, TEoC began working with the script, with a series of revisions made by Johnson and fellow TEoC ensemble members Jenny Michaud, Nicole Mokeme, and Christina Richardson, and then by the entire ensemble, to make it truer to the experiences of the group. As Michaud describes the process, ensemble members wrote scenes and monologues about moments when “we felt like we were an other, something other than normal.” Johnson and TEoC member Ella Mock synthesized the new scenes into script form, and after more run-throughs and edits, Lived Experiences was ready for its first public workshop performance.
The script moves between devastating, bizarre, and humiliating moments of discrimination. A couple reacts to the news of Philando Castile’s death. A black hospital aid recalls how an old woman with dementia looked at him and then a biohazard symbol, then says she’s seen “Aunt Jemima.” A black actress tells of auditioning for the role of a black woman, receiving a standing ovation, and later being told that “her voice is too good” for the production — and that a white woman has been cast in the role instead. “This playwriting/devising for me has been a journey through the process of embarrassments around revealing truth,” says Michaud. “It's been about constantly telling myself that my experience and my process matter.”
Performing in an open public space in the heart of downtown will allow TEoC to bring this conversation front and center in Portland. “What excites me about Congress Square Park is the availability of what we are about to do,” says Michaud. “Anybody walking by can come and sit for one of the pieces, or three or four or five, or the whole thing. I'm excited to bring theater to a public place where we may have some unexpected call-outs, comments, audience participation that we’re not expecting. It's what we're all about.”
What should audiences expect from TEoC’s Lived Experiences? “Get ready to see us perform as marginalized people, allies, co-conspirators, and straight-up prejudiced humans with miles to go,” says Michaud. “Also, if you don't see your experience anywhere on this stage, let us know, or better yet, come join us! As one of our beginning members said, you can't tell the whole story if you don't have everyone.”
Indeed, further revisions and expansions are likely, says Johnson, the more Lived Experiences is performed. “This project won’t be finished this year, is my best guess,” she says. “We have so much more to say.”
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