I don’t belong here.
This is the voice in the back of my head as I walk into the lobby of the Hilton Portland Downtown. Never mind that I can’t afford to stay at a Hilton; this thought, I don’t belong here, has been with me since I started preparing for this conference with my cohort from TCG’s Rising Leaders of Color program. To be honest, it’s been with me since I was accepted into the program.
I’m not a “theatre person”; I’m a critic. Barely. I fell into it about two years ago through luck. And I’m not even a practicing critic right now, as I took a break from reviewing, always meaning to get back into it but always getting distracted, until a friend urged me to apply to the RLC program, which nurtures early-career theatre workers of color (this year there are six of us from Oregon). For the last few days I’ve been introduced to many people as “the first critic in the RLC program.” It’s an honor, for sure—I know, because honors carry weight, and I feel like I’m holding onto something heavy. Something I’m not sure I’m strong enough to hold. Something I’m afraid I might drop.
My first real conference event is the Intergenerational Leaders of Color Meeting. As I walk into the huge, light-filled room at the top of the Hilton I see a room full of people of color. It occurs to me that this has never happened to me in the eight years I’ve lived in Portland. There are some speeches, I am asked to stand briefly, and it’s noted that I’m the first critic in the RLC program. I am flush with embarrassment.
We break into small groups to talk about issues facing people of color in the theatre. My chest gets tight. I don’t know what I have to offer. I don’t belong here. But I’m not expected to offer anything; the group delves right into a discussion about colorism within POC communities. I listen. Just as the conversation really gets going, the time is up.
Lidia Yuknavitch is the speaker at the evening plenary session. She’s a local writer; I know her work. She introduces herself as a theatre outsider, like me, and reads an essay about her work teaching at a community college in east Portland. It’s heartbreaking and honest and humanizing, and it’s what I want all these people who aren’t from Portland to hear right now. It’s what I want my own city to hear. I want them to all hear about the frayed edges of our city. Of all our cities. And it’s what I need to hear: that art might save us.
I’m still reeling from the killings on the Max a few weeks ago and the pro-Trump “Free Speech” rally that followed last weekend. It feels like the edges are fraying all way into the center.
The conference makes its way to Portland Center Stage for the opening night gala. The lobby is a mass of people, the wait to get liquor is 20 minutes long—the biggest theatre in Portland can barely contain a national conference. The Unipiper rolls out into the lobby and is paraded around for our amusement. And I think: Back to “quirky” Portland, how quaint. But I don’t feel like don’t belong, I’m buzzed, and there is dancing. I step away for a moment and when I come back the DJ is playing “Cupid Shuffle,” the entire dance floor is doing a synchronized dance. I’ve become a background character in a musical. It’s hypnotic. Maybe because “Cupid Shuffle” is apparently 20 minutes long.
The speaker at the morning plenary is Jeff Chang, who impressed me with his research and analysis of race in Portland and his assertion that Portland really isn’t any different from the rest of the country.
For my first actual conference session I consider “Theaters as Civic Institutions, Arts Advocates, and Agents of Change”; it seems to make the most sense for a critic as a way to understand the importance of what theatres can do in the nation. Then I scan through the conference listings one more time and stop at the title “Stories Will Save Us All: The Craft of Personal Narrative.” I won’t learn as much there about the field I’m wading back into, but I imagine it will be more fun, so I head upstairs. The session is run by Amanda Delheimer Dimond from 2nd Story in Chicago; we do some exercises to get to know each other and generate ideas, though time runs out before we get to the actual stories we’re going to tell. That will have wait for the afternoon installment.
I grab a sack lunch and head to a session called “Queer Movement-Building.” The session gets off to a little rocky start, as the blunt instrument of language still lags behind the people who are always pushing its boundaries. But there is a moment when the group breaks into generations, and we see how the struggle for our rights, and our very lives, stretches out through time—how it constantly has had to redefine itself, how much work has been done, and how much more there is to do. I think, There is so much we need learn from each other.
I meet another theatre critic after lunch. She came to the TCG conference on her own from the East Coast because she felt that critics need to be a part of the conference. I think she’s right. Every time I introduce myself to someone and tell them I’m a critic they say, “It’s so great you’re here.” If it’s a person of color, they usually add, “We need you.”
In the second part of “Stories Will Save Us All,” we pick a single moment from our lives, then try to tell it in shorter and shorter time frames to new people. First in two minutes, then in 90 seconds, then in 45 seconds. I pick a painful story, one that has followed me around for years, a story I have never been able to make sense of. As the time frames shrink our stories get tighter, more urgent. It’s not just that we want to finish these narratives; these are the stories that define us. When it comes down to it, we all have a desperate need to be understood. There’s just never enough time.
There is never enough time might be a great summation of my experience at the conference as a whole. My fellow RLC members are always debating among us about which sessions to attend, and every time I get into an interesting conversation about race we have to “put a pin in it.” Every time I meet someone and feel like I made a human connection with them, one of us has to go somewhere else.
I end the day in a panel with the title, “Allyship? Moving beyond diversity and inclusion towards curating affirming and reflective spaces that transcend gender!” The session is co-facilitated by two-spirit performance artist Ty Defoe and Lourdes Hunter, executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective. We immediately are set to the task of discussing how shallow concepts like “diversity,” “allyship,” and “inclusion” actually are as used by most institutions. But where this kind of conversation could easily devolve into a feeling of helplessness and resentment, a coddling of feelings, Lourdes pushes onward, moving us toward action and empathy, toward creating theatres (and a society) that reflects and affirms trans lives. The session is only 60 minutes long, but I leave feeling shaken and invigorated.
After the session I end up in a conversation with a few other gay men of color, a bit about the conference but also just about our lives. I realize this is what Hunter was talking about: This circle we’ve formed reflects and affirms my own existence in a way that almost never happens to me in my life.
This is my first conference of any kind. I find networking both easier and harder than I imagined it would be. Easier because we all have something in common; we’re all concerned with the makings of theatre. Harder because talking to people all day and being “on” is exhausting. I fortuitously stumble into some arts editors in Portland—the exact people I should be meeting, people I don’t have a reason to stumble into. “Let’s talk,” they say.
I watch Amarillo, created and performed by the Mexican company Teatro Línea de Sombra, at Portland Center Stage that evening. I enjoy the visuals and the cyclical nature of the show. America spends so much time talking about immigrants but never enough time listening to them, hearing their stories. Amarillo attempts to take the stories of all these people who try to make it to America and make it one story.
I wish there were more theatre to see at a theatre conference.
There’s a late night party at Artists Repertory. It’s crowded, there are drinks, the networking continues. Networking feels a lot like flirting when you’ve had a few drinks. A white person tells me they don’t “get” why the conference is so caught up in talking about race. I stay up way too late.
Instead of going to any morning sessions I sleep in. It feels glorious.
The morning plenary session features a talk from author Anand Giridharadas. He relates the story of his book The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, about a Bangladeshi immigrant who fights to keep the state of Texas from executing the man who tried to kill him. He talks about the two Americas, and how we need to heal the divide between them. I wonder if I would be as merciful and forgiving as Raisuddin Bhuiyan, the immigrant who almost died from a gunshot wound. While I certainly am not going to engage with the people who would actively oppress me (not that Giridharadas says that I should), I wonder if there are other actions I can take. Maybe I could try and feel more empathy, instead of the anger and sadness I have been feeling these last weeks.
When the plenary is out I gather with the other Rising Leaders of Color, Leadership U, and Fox Fellows to be interviewed for a video segment. The interviewer asks how I think receiving a TCG grant will change my life, and it’s like I can feel it changing right now, though the words that come out of my mouth are not quite as profound. There are no more panels that interest me, so I spend the rest of the day networking—i.e., sitting on the floor of the plaza talking to anyone who passes by.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what the role of a critic is. Everyone I meet gives me different answers: to record the ephemeral nature of theatre, to create dialogue in the theatre community, to create dialogue in the local community, to hold artists accountable, to provide free marketing, to challenge white supremacy. Others say critics have no purpose, or it depends on what kind of play they’re reviewing, or it depends on the city, or it depends who you write for.
At the closing plenary Chay Yew interviews Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp from the theatre ensemble Universes. The group started out as poets and musicians, then evolved into something more, something unlike anything I had seen before, something organic and alive that lifts people up. Lifts everyone up.
Conference attendees gather one last time at the top of Hilton, sharing overpriced drinks as we say goodbye. The days of the conference, which felt so long, have suddenly collapsed into themselves. I’m hugging people goodbye that I met just days ago.
I was a theatre person in high school (I was a terrible actor), but it wasn’t being in the plays that I loved; it was the people. It was the space offstage. It’s the space where people believe that art can be transformative. I gave up on acting and became a writer, but I never left that space—I just found a different part of it. I care about what art can do. I care about stories. I care about what stories we’re holding up and who is holding them up.
And I think to myself: Maybe I do belong here.
TJ Acena is a writer of prose and criticism based in Portland.
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