In Ashland, turning rage into action

Actor Christiana Clark was confronted by a racist while walking her dog on June 24 in Ashland, Ore. She later told her story at the local Juneteenth rally. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Ashland is a hamlet, built on Hamlet.

This hallowed burg in Southern Oregon is home to the 81-year-old Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the oldest of its kind in the nation. Everywhere you look is a nod to the 400-year-old playwright’s importance to the economic health of this unlikely cultural jewel located five hours south of Portland: Oberon’s Tavern. Puck’s Donuts. The unlikely but busy theatre scalper who holds daily court outside the festival’s three stages.

The OSF draws 390,000 patrons a year for its year-long slate of 11 new and classic plays and musicals. Its estimated impact on the Oregon economy is $252 million a year – in a town of just 20,000 residents.

A Bill Rauch quote OSFWhere other communities have panhandlers collecting change on every street corner, here you encounter players on every block strumming cellos, violins and guitars – along with the occasional tie-dyed hipster in long braids busking to get his dog out of the local pound.

In many ways, Ashland seems to be an idyllic, modern-day Brigadoon – an insulated, harmonious bubble immune to outside social realities. But on June 24, that bubble burst when an African-American company member had an ugly encounter with a white supremacist. And in the incident’s wake, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, residents of Ashland and now performing arts organizations around the country are asking difficult questions about race in America – and in American theatres. “This is a much bigger problem than one incident in Oregon,” OSF actor Christiana Clark said in an interview with the DCPA NewsCenter. 

More local and national theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

While many arts organizations are scrambling to rectify decades of diversity neglect, the OSF seems positively post-racial. For the first time in company history, more than half of the 90-strong acting company are artists of color. The 2016 season includes the world-premieres of Vietgone (Qui Nguyen’s comedy following three young Vietnamese immigrants in the war-torn, free-love 1970s), The River Bride (Marisela Treviño Orta’s Brazilian fairy tale); the OSF’s first-ever Shakespeare play told through an Asian-American lens (The Winter’s Tale); and The Wiz.

Actors of color – and their stories – are welcome in Ashland. The OSF estimates 87 percent of its audiences travel more than 125 miles just to see its productions. Those numbers are all the more remarkable given that Ashland is 90 percent white. On the current official government census, next to “African-American,” there is merely an X.

Clark, an African-American and four-year company member, was out walking her dog on June 24 jamming to the second act of Hamilton with her headphones on – “as I am prone to do,” she said – when a man on a bicycle started circling her.

“I took out my headphones to hear him say, ‘It’s still an Oregon law that I can kill a (black person) and be out of jail in a day and a half. Look it up. The KKK is alive here,’ ” she reported him as saying. 

And to make certain he was heard, Clark said, the man repeated the threat before speeding off. For the record, there is no such law, and Clark is quick to point out that a nearby white couple immediately came to her aid.

Clark would like to believe this was an isolated incident. It certainly does not reflect the general affection she has felt from OSF audiences over the past four Christiana Clark quote OSFyears. “I have never felt unsafe before now,” she told the DCPA NewsCenter. But she also remembers being called the n-word by a random driver at a stoplight. “So this is not a one-time thing.”

Not long after the incident, Clark decided to tell her story on Facebook, she said, because of the larger implications of the random confrontation. 

“I have never had such a frightening and sickening encounter,” Clark says in her video. “I feel sick and upset. You all need to know that this isn’t a theory. To be a black person walking around Ashland isn’t as safe as we want to dream it to be.” 

In the past eight days, Clark’s video has been viewed nearly 200,000 times. Clark took to social media, she told the DCPA, “because we have company members who are here in Ashland for their first year. They come from Alabama and Mississippi and New York, and they have already felt uncomfortable coming into this very, very white populace. They needed to know, for their own safety, that they are not crazy or paranoid. It’s founded.”

Our photo gallery from Ashland:

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016

To see more photos, click the forward arrow in the image above. Ashland Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. Production photos by Photo by Jenny Graham for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Clark understood that her employer might have taken a dim view of her immediately broadcasting her story on social media, “because it is a business with an interest to protect,” she said. But before Artistic Director Bill Rauch even finished watching the video, he was on the phone with Clark offering his support. “He told me, “Whatever you need from us, you have it. We will stand with you and support you. Thank you so much for sharing this,’ ” she said.

Rauch immediately decided to shine a light on the incident, rather than safely sweep it under the rug. He and OSF Executive Director Cynthia Rider issued a statement the next day calling the incident a hateful, racist verbal attack.

“We must respond to this ugly incident as a company and as part of the larger community,” they said in a letter to company members. “As far too many of our company members have experienced, this is not an isolated incident – it is happening daily in Ashland, and all over our country. It’s more important than ever that we show up at events where we witness, raise our voices and proclaim our solidarity as a company and our absolute unwillingness to sit silently as toxic incidents like this take place in our own community.”

The pair encouraged all employees “to make a stand for love, justice and the power of our voices.”

The OSF quickly planned and carried out several gatherings, including a company meeting and an already scheduled annual Juneteenth rally, which was attended by several hundred members of the Ashland community on Monday. Counseling was made available to all 600 OSF employees, many of whom participated in a march to the place where the incident took place to reclaim it from hate. On Saturday (July 2), the OSF, in partnership with the city of Ashland, Southern Oregon University and others, hosted a two-hour panel to discuss racism in Ashland and Southern Oregon.

Even the Ashland Police Department took to Facebook offering support for Clark before she even filed her report. Police now believe they are close to identifying the perpetrator. “But I also know of friends who have been stopped by Ashland police for ‘driving while black,’ and I know of officers of color within the Ashland Police Department who have had a hard time here,” Clark said. “So I found their response to be … surprising but hopeful.”

The incident has thrown this largely progressive community into deep throes of self-examination. And Clark, at present, is being treated as nothing less than a rock star around town. “There has been such an outpouring of love and support,” she said. “And I thank you for your rage, because I believe rage can be converted into action.”

But that action, she said, must go beyond the community talkingJordan Barbour quote OSF about their feelings. It must include forums and town halls, but also practical steps such as increasing security, creating phone trees, knowing which local businesses to support in any given city, and raising scholarship money for students of color.

Professional acting is an inherently itinerant trade. Actors with DCPA ties performing at the OSF this season include Jamie Ann Romero (The Legend of Georgia McBride), Kate Hurster (The Miracle Worker), Carlo Alban (Lydia), Benjamin Bonenfant (Benediction) and Julian Remulla (Appoggiatura).

Jordan Barbour, who plays the title role in The Wiz, performed in the DCPA Theatre Company’s recent productions of The 12 and All the Way. He was encouraged by the OSF’s quick and specific response to the incident, and that the community was both enraged and engaged because of it.

“What happened to Christiana was intense and it was visceral, but what surprised me most is that it surprised anyone,” Barbour, who has spent his entire professional life traveling from city to city, told the NewsCenter. “What bothers me is when something like this happens and someone says, ‘This sort of thing doesn’t happen here.’ Yes it does. It just did. It happens everywhere.”

More local and national theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Clark hopes the incident encourages all performing-arts organizations that hire visiting artists of color to re-examine their responsibilities beyond hiring an actor to perform. Rauch agreed that it is incumbent upon the OSF “to provide a safe space for company members to share and be together.”

Clark suggested that in addition to telling a visiting artist where to buy gas and groceries, perhaps they should also spend time informing them about the racial history of the community. “They need to know the climate they are coming into,” Clark said of visiting artists. Barbour suggested that regional theatre companies hire a person who might essentially serve as a ‘diversity liaison’ – someone a visiting actor can talk to about what it’s like being a person of color in a new city. But in the end, he said, “part of my job is to know where I am going.”

Monday’s Juneteenth celebration, planned by OSF company members to  commemorate the end of slavery in the United States, was themed, “That was then … and then is now.” Clark believes her encounter with the white supremacist only underscores that point. But she is determined to channel the incident into positive change. Clark, who describes herself as “6 feet of talent and strength,” is playing, ironically enough, the Cowardly Lion in The Wiz, as well as Horatio in Hamlet at OSF this season.

Addressing the Juneteenth crowd, she said: “In the words of one not-so-cowardly lion: Say what you want to say … but I am here to stay.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

A brief history of Oregon race laws

  • 1844: The “Lash Law” required that all blacks in Oregon – “be they free or slave – be whipped twice a year until he or she shall leave the territory.”
  • 1848: Oregon’s Provisional Government passes an Exclusion Law making it unlawful for any Negro or Mulatto to reside in Oregon Territory. (This was not repealed until 1926.)
  • 1855: Oregon passes a law preventing mixed-race males from becoming Oregon citizens.
  • 1862: Oregon passes a law requiring all blacks, Chinese, Hawaiians and mulattos residing in Oregon to pay an annual tax of $5. If they could not pay this tax, the law empowered the state to press them into service maintaining state roads for 50 cents a day.
  • 1862: Interracial marriages are banned in Oregon. It was against the law for whites to marry anyone one-quarter or more black.
  • 1866: Oregon’s citizens do not pass the 14th Amendment, granting citizenship to blacks. Exclusion Laws were still in effect, making it illegal for blacks to live in Oregon. (Oregon passed the 14th Amendment in 1868.)
  • 1867: The total black population in Oregon numbers 128. 
  • 1870: The 15th Amendment, granting black men the right to vote, is added to the U.S. Constitution, despite failing to pass in Oregon.  (The Oregon State Constitution is not amended to remove its clause denying blacks the right to vote until 1927.)
  • 1948: Oregon Realtors proclaim that ”a realtor shall never introduce into a neighborhood members of any race or nationality whose presence will be detrimental to property values.”

SOURCE: Oregon Department of Education. FULL REPORT