BaseRoots was founded on Juneteenth, 2009, and its mission statement says that it’s “a group of professional theater artists organized to build bridges between communities by presenting classical and contemporary theatre that showcases the unique African-American experience.”
I interviewed Bermea this week, just in advance of a BaseRoots production of Derek Walcott’s Pantomime, running at the lovely Blackfish Gallery at 8 pm tonight and tomorrow night. Tix are $8 cash or check only at the door (Blackfish is at 420 NW 9th; here’s a map).
So tell me about BaseRoots and how it came about.
OK. Well, it started out as an idea by a group of artists or actually, an actress who wanted to do a play. We talked about who other actors would be [in that play], and it was difficult for a while.
You know, all of these actors want to work, and that’s where our similarities ended, outside of race. We were talking about putting on a show — or do we want to become a company? Then what kind of company do we want to be? A lot of actors didn’t want to be involved with a company identified as a black theater company because they didn’t feel like they wanted to be put in a box. Others didn’t see it that way, didn’t see it as being put in a box. These would be intense discussions, you know, and it’s one of those things, it’s what being black in America always brings.
Other artists never have to deal with these questions. Theatre Vertigo, an all-white theatre company — it’s not like their mission or something; probably 99 percent of every theater company in Portland is all-white and don’t think twice about it.
A lot of the [original actors] were in their 30s, 40s, 50s. Starting a theater company with a bunch of 20-year-olds is one thing. With older people, it’s tougher to get them to do stuff for free. They’re less likely to put up fliers, strike the set. With a 20-year-old actor, you can tell them, “You have to help with marketing, build the set, look for props.” And with a 40-year-old actor, it’s like, “Am I getting paid for all of this?”
So how did you all resolve this, or turn into BaseRoots?
Mistakes were made, and it became apparent that somebody needed to take the lead, and I felt like I did that without actually knowing what that meant. It’s nobody else’s problem — I’ve been in theater for a long time, and it’s on me. So I decided I need to take that responsibility and make it look like I want it to look like.
The actual people have evolved. Some have come, some have gone, some have stayed in some capacities. We actually had a really difficult, pretty successful first season. We did two mainstage shows, we co-produced three or four different projects, worked with Classic Greek Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Jewish Theatre Collaborative, and we’re about to start working with Readers Theatre Repertory.
What’s the next big step?
Our next big mainstage show is going to depend on us making inroads in the community.
The Portland community as a whole, or the African-American community specifically?
The African-American community in particular. Our next big piece, which will be in Fertile Ground next year, will be Warrior Soul: The History of the Knott Street Boxing Club*. There was this black boxing club in Portland …
Really? In Portland? Wow!
I know! In the ’50s-‘70s, it was successful on a national scale, so we’ve done some research and we’re trying to hunt these guys down and interview them and create text out of their words, then add boxing and traditional West African dance. We’re very excited about it.
We decided that our focal point was going to be more history, and what we want to avoid is, like when a mainstream theater company does a black show or a Hispanic show, it feels like that’s where the dramaturgical imagination ends.
I’m leery of theater companies doing another production of Raisin in the Sun or even August Wilson, or doing an all-black version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Put a bunch of black actors up there, and that’s where the imagination will stop, like, “We’ve done everything we need to do to make it interesting.”
We wanted to develop our own aesthetic, use history to inform that aesthetic. Black people in this country, we are more aware of history on a day-to-day basis because we have to deal with it specifically on a day-to-day basis. We want to make it a part of our aesthetic.
Can you give me an example?
I’m not entirely sure what that means just yet, but I feel like if we keep doing the work, it will start to tell us. Especially with some of the young people that are getting involved, we’ll be pushing like to achieve our own aesthetic and a tradition of excellence. I look around and see Portland Playhouse, Third Rail, Theatre Vertigo, I see these companies that are really focused on creating great work, and that’s where we’re trying to get to. And we want to develop new artists, develop new writers, on all fronts.
Will that new work come from Oregon, or all over the country?
Initially because of Warrior Soul, I’ve become intrigued with, like, black history in Oregon, but because of the nature of being an African American in the 21st century, it’s changed. Now, I mean, my nephew is 12 years old, and when I was 12, a black president was science fiction. And now it’s a reality. It just is. [In 2008], I was working with these little kids, and this was the first election that they’d ever seen, and a black president won. That was not the case when I was a kid, and so I feel like what being a black American means now is significantly different than what it used to be, and Oregon in a lot of ways is a really interesting place to measure that difference.
Do you think that Portland, with its demographics — 7 percent African American, so much different from the rest of Oregon but also still not a huge percentage compared to, say, where I grew up, in Kansas City — do you think that there’s something for the African American artists in town, like, you can’t be an artist, you have to be an African-American artist?
There’s a discussion about what does it mean to be a black artist in Portland in the 21st century, and should it mean anything? It’s wildly different, and I think Portland is like Seattle was in 1990 — a small city/big town, with the amenities of living in a bigger city, but a safe place to raise your kids, so everybody’s moving here. More and more minorities are going to be coming here. We see the same things everybody else sees — a safe place to raise your kids, etc. Change is going to happen. […]
I guess to me, I don’t have any reservations about being called a black artist. It’s like William Faulkner being called a Southern writer. If to somebody else that automatically makes me seem like less of an actor, well I’m not going to change their minds anyway, and we do run into that, here in Portland. A friend of mine said he wanted to be considered a member of this other theater company and was told by the AD that they only did English and Irish plays. My dad was in the military, and I actually lived in England, and I met lots of black people there, so I wasn’t sure why that would be a barrier.
Tell me about the Derek Walcott play you’re doing this weekend.
It’s actually an older play, a play I really love: Pantomime. It’s written by the poet laureate of Trinidad, the Nobel Prize winner for literature. I find it interesting in terms of our world today. It was written in the 1970s, when racial attitudes were a lot more on the skin, so to speak. It’s set in Tobago, and it’s about a white man, an Englishman, a hotel manager who used to be an actor, who wants to create a little entertainment for his guests, wants to do an interpretation of Robinson Crusoe. He wants the guy who works for him to play Friday, and this black man is not interested in doing that, in perpetuating this [idea of servitude]. So they get the idea of reversing it.
That gets scary for the Englishman because it forces him to recognize what exactly the process of assimilation and imperialism and cultural oppression, what exactly that is, what that means if Crusoe’s a black man and Friday’s a white man. But you know what? It’s a comedy.
It’s a framework of humor. The beautiful thing is that the two men, in between all of the discussions of race, master/servant, oppressed/oppressor, these two guys who work for a living just trying to find a common ground they can communicate on because they have to support themselves.
Part of the way we’ve been able to sustain ourselves has been working with other companies, and this is Readers Rep, it’s a small piece, there’s only two guys in it (note from interviewer: including Bermea).
What are some of your dreams for BaseRoots?
Oh … Warrior Soul will be such a big hit that everyone’s going to be dying to work with us, give us their money and help us create black art.
We’re hoping to redefine plays, open them up and explore them, do an acting workshop to find young actors and develop young talent.
I want them to have a physical aesthetic — movement, dance, a whole different vocabulary that has to do with being African American. We want to do a deconstruction of Raisin in the Sun, and a play called The Overwhelming about the genocide in Rwanda. We really want to explore what life has been like for Africans in the Americas, South America, the West Indies, [the U.S.]. We want to do plays that will explore that history.
In May we want to do 300 years of black poetry in choral form, and then a biography, like a series, three plays of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That piece, I want it to be EPIC, you know, it’s going to be three different plays, and that would probably be a whole season.
And then after that, well, I did a play years ago, and I was introduced to this guy whom I’d never heard of, William Sheppard, the first black missionary to the Congo. He was one of the ones who exposed some of the atrocities going on over there with Belgium. I would love to find a theater company in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to partner with and create a piece out of his life. He’s a very interesting guy. His Americanism turned out to be like a curse that wound up destroying a lot of the stuff that he actually cared about.
That is epic. Big dreams!
[Laughs] I have these big ideas, and then the budget person and the designer are like, this is what you can do.
I will say that Portland wants us to win, in my experience. Most people I know want us to succeed. We’ve gotten a lot of help from Portland Playhouse, Miracle Theater, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Center Stage, everybody has pitched in a little bit here and there to help us succeed. I’m really excited about the possibilities.
* corrected! I originally thought Bermea said “NINTH Street Boxing Club.” Thanks for the correx, Bobby! – Suzi