This coming February, World Stage Theatre will host the state's first black history festival of its kind.
The Black History Festival NW will center on its 12th annual performance of Who I Am Celebrating Me, a production that celebrates African-American culture, past, present and future.
“Instead of being invited to the table, we created our own table and chairs,” said Shalanda Sims, founder and artistic director of World Stage Theatre.
The festival will also run several other events, including a game show, pop-up museums across the region, and a conference with journalist and ESPN host Jemele Hill as the keynote speaker.
The Pacific Northwest is known for its elaborate cultural celebrations, notes Shalanda Sims, the founder and artistic director of World Stage Theatre. But few events celebrate African-Americans.
The Black History Festival NW “celebrates who we are, our soul, our brilliance, our contributions and allows us to benefit economically as a community, not one organization or person,” Sim said. “We want this celebration to really expand across generations and we want to be able to share our history with not only African-Americans but everyone.”
In July, Metro awarded World Stage Theatre a $25,000 placemaking grant to produce the festival. The theater group is one of six placemaking grant recipients this year.
Creating space for African-Americans
World Stage Theatre is on a mission to help break down barriers for African-Americans.
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The program's next award cycle opens Jan. 5. Up to $160,000 available. Learn more.
Sims studied theater at Jefferson High School and the University of Portland. Despite her theater training, Sims struggled to find roles that weren't stereotypical of African-American women.
“There were so many politics of who was allowed to perform and who wasn’t,” Sims said. “And I wanted something more than that, and I also wanted something more for my children.”
Sims founded World Stage Theatre out of a desire for a place where African-American actors could thrive in a wide variety of roles and share their community’s story to a broader audience.
“Instead of being invited to the table, we created our own table and chairs,” Sims said. “We want to be able to control the narrative where we’re not always depicted in a negative way. We just really want to celebrate who we are and bring everybody together.”
Oregon’s racist past
To celebrate African-American history in Oregon also means to recognize the state’s racist legacy.
The state’s early founders excluded African-Americans by law from living in Oregon. Those laws were not repealed until 1922.
The legacy of this legislation is stark: according to the 2015 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, only 1.9 percent of state residents, and only 3.2 percent of residents in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties are African-American.
Thousands of African-Americans lived in Vanport, a World War II community along the banks of the Columbia River. Vanport flooded in 1948, and the displaced residents moved into North and Northeast Portland.
Then urban renewal projects and the construction of Interstate 5 displaced many community members. Today, rising housing costs continue to price out many black people from the urban core.
“In order for our children, my grandchild, for this [history] not to become extinct, it’s a matter of survival in terms of what we want to be remembered for and what we want our children to know," said Velynn Brown, a partner at World Stage Theatre.
As a result, members of Portland’s African-American community spread out all across the region.
Bringing together the community through a month-long black history festival couldn’t be a timelier endeavor for World Stage Theatre.
“We are the children of Vanport; we are the children of the original black community,” said Velynn Brown, a partner at World Stage Theatre.
“We saw aunties and parents dressing up and going out for the night on the town or going to gospel musicals and brunches,” Brown recalls of growing up in Northeast Portland in the 1980s. “In order for our children, my grandchild, for this [history] not to become extinct, it’s a matter of survival in terms of what we want to be remembered for and what we want our children to know.”
“The African American community is resilient, doing phenomenal work,” Sims added. “And, although it looks different than before, we are finally beginning to see black-owned businesses again and the building up of our community by our community.”
World Stage Theatre has touched the lives of many in Portland’s African-American community.
“In the beginning, I was super shy and never saw acting as a career for me, never wanted to be in front of a bunch of people,” said 20-year-old Kyra Orr. “Shalanda pushed that out of me, and now I want to be at the front of the stage.”
Orr plans to pursue a career in acting. She was accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles. She attributes her college admission to Sims for encouraging her to perform.
Orr started out in a drama ministry at their church and then continued acting at World Stage Theatre.
“For a fact, I would not be in theater or want to be in theater,” Orr said.
“During senior year, we did The Wiz,” said Kristin Warren, one of Sims’ classmates at Jefferson. “Shalanda was Dorothy, and I was the Lion and Aunt Em.”
Years later, after moving away and returning to Portland, Warren ran into Sims, who encouraged her to return to the stage.
“It was like riding a bike,” Warren said about returning to acting. “I realized a part of me was missing.”
Now she uses Who I Am Celebrating Me as a chance to support something she loves, cultivate a better understanding of African-American history, and bring this knowledge to an audience.
“Every year, I try to go a little deeper and do more research and see what I can bring to the character and educate the community,” Warren said.
Bridging ties through placemaking
Sims said The Black History Festival NW will play an important role in bridging ties between the places where African-Americans use to live and where they live today.
“What we grew up knowing, the culture that we grew up having, the community, the village that we grew up having – we are referencing that and also taking the new places that we’ve been pushed out to and trying to bridge those together,” Sims said.
“My children can’t see that because it’s not visible now, but no one can take our story or our memories,” Brown said.
The Black History Festival NW is committed to protect and document these stories and memories.
“The rest, as they say, is black history,” Sims said.
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