"THERE WAS A TIME when, if you were a black actor, you always knew you'd be working in February. Somebody, somewhere, is gonna be doing Raisin in the Sun."
I'm on the phone with local actor Bobby Bermea, and we're talking about BaseRoots—the new African American theater company that opened its first show, Rocket Man, last weekend. One reason for the company's creation, Bermea explains, is so that black actors don't have to wait for Black History Month to get work, or for some other company to stage an "African American version of Streetcar Named Desire." With BaseRoots, a group of local actors are creating their own opportunities.
Bermea tells the story of a boy who stopped going to the movies because there were no black people in them. "Why can't Spider-Man be black?" he remembers the boy asking. "Well, he can be, but you have to write that movie," Bermea explains. "There was a time when if you said 'black,' the stories that would come to mind came from a really limited spectrum. Nowadays the African American experience is really different than it used to be. We have a lot of the same issues that have existed in the past, but we're more than just our issues—we're professional athletes, entertainment magnates, and presidents.
"There was a time when I felt like to be an African American we had to live in spite of our country, or even our city," Bermea continues. "And now I feel like we are much more active participants—we shape the culture around us. Now we are fully participating in Portland, Oregon, and we are trying to make this city something different, something better than what it was before. We want to be part of what takes Portland into the next millennium. We want to expand people's horizons, we want kids to come to our play and say, 'Here's my play, about Spider-Man, who's black.'"
Which brings us, necessarily, to the play itself.
Rocket Man undeniably feels like a first effort. Bermea wrote the script, and he also stars, giving the whole production the faint whiff of a vanity project. (It doesn't help that in the play his beautiful, besotted wife frequently enumerates the charms of Bermea's character.)
The story, in brief: It's the future. A man has a dangerous space-job that requires him to travel the universe, while his woman pines for him on Earth; the man is unwilling to give up his job, because "being a rocket man is not a choice I make, it's a choice that makes me." Meanwhile, their daughter can't contain her fascination with her dad's job, though she knows her mother would be appalled to lose another family member to the cosmos.
The conceit is strange enough to be appealing, and Torie Van Horne's set (including futuristic multi-purpose furniture and a pretty, starry backdrop) is visually quite charming. As the story unfolds, though, the script's weaknesses quickly emerge: namely, a formulaic plot, overwrought dialogue that forces the actors to strain for emotional intensity, and a general lack of narrative tension.
The standout performance here, surprisingly, comes from 12-year-old Lauren Steele, who commands the stage with a self-awareness and poise rare in such a young actor. Here, then, is where BaseRoots' debut production succeeds: In providing an opportunity for a talented young actress of color, the likes of which is rarely found on Portland stages.