Bonnie Ratner has always been "intrigued, frustrated and saddened by the causes and conditions of injustice," and had a nagging sense that something wasn't right and needed to change.
These concerns led her to write "Blind," the semi-autobiographical play making its premiere at Milwaukie's Chapel Theatre on Jan. 17.
The play is part of the 11th annual Fertile Ground Festival, a metro-area program giving local artists and playwrights a platform for new works.
"My work has been in the Fertile Ground Festival in readings and full productions since 2013, and it's a fabulous opportunity for the theater community in Portland to develop new work and support each other," Ratner said.
"Blind" is directed by William Earl Ray and runs through Feb. 9 at Chapel Theatre, 4107 S.E. Harrison St., Milwaukie.
Set in a Brooklyn neighborhood in the late 1960s, "Blind" asks the socio-economic question, "Who owns the neighborhood?" and the philosophical question, "Is this our fault?"
In the play, Harold Stein travels from his home on Long Island to his small shoe store in a predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood. Fearful of being robbed, or worse, he operates his store behind a locked door, letting customers in one at a time.
At the same time, his wife, Sylvia, remains trapped at home by her own demons and a culture that denies her dreams.
Millie True, a black woman who lives in the neighborhood with her son, Jimmy, sees a friend of Jimmy's trying unsuccessfully to buy a pair of shoes from Stein and confronts the shop owner.
"The people in 'Blind' are fearful. They are lonely. They are angry," Ratner said, noting that her own father operated a similar shoe store and "never let a black male in by himself."
She added that the characters in the play are also "filled with love and laughter and the potential for connection. They're just people. And all of them, just like all of us, have the power to make change."
Playing Harold Stein
Jason Glick plays Stein and said Stein's willingness to change is one of the things he likes best about his character.
He is "completely devoted to his work and providing for his family. The pride he takes in his store and his work often keeps him away from his wife and daughter, and that is not without ramifications," Glick said.
Even though Stein's capacity for change happens slowly and gradually, he does have the ability to consider other perspectives.
He "goes from being stuck in routine so much that he is blind to what is happening around him, especially to the people he loves the most, to finding his way to reach a deeper understanding of how to be a compassionate human being," Glick said.
What he appreciates the most about "Blind," is "how unbelievably relevant the tensions of the civil rights era are to today's society, and the universal relatability of all the characters in the play."
Also, he said, "The sense of ensemble and camaraderie with this cast and crew is wonderful. Everyone is so devoted to this wonderful script by Bonnie Ratner and to telling her story. It's a real joy to be a part of."
Susan and Millie
Isabella Buckner plays Susan, Stein's daughter in the play; she is a hippie who lives in a commune and has just left her abusive husband.
"It's an honor to play the character based on a representation of the playwright," she said.
"She's a poet and not afraid to speak her mind. She wants to wake up the older generation to new times."
Buckner added that she is trained as a Shakespearean actor and does not usually perform modern theater pieces, so it has been a challenge to make "modern text my own." But she said it has been a joy to work with "such incredibly talented people."
Millie True, Andrea White's character, "has hope that integration will work; she is not bitter, but she is dedicated to making sure that Stein sees the humanity of all people."
White added that her character is a teacher; she has a 17-year-old son and her husband was killed in Vietnam.
True is an activist and a supporter of Martin Luther King Jr., and her platform is "we are all humans and none of us deserves to be vilified," White said.
Ratner, a Portland resident, loves writing for the theater because it is "a collaborative art," she said.
"I get the biggest thrill in rehearsals watching talented artists take what I have started in solitude, just me and my muse, and explore it, build upon it, color it with layers of emotion and thought," she said.
And then in the end, the actors don't just present the play to an audience, "but bring the audience along as another actor" in the process, Ratner said.
She also loves the "sounds in the audience when they find something funny, or mourn a loss or make a connection. I look forward to these moments from the first words I put on a page because I have a deep and abiding love for live theater."
Ratner noted that she wrote "Blind" partly to apologize for her father's "ghetto merchant" behavior, as well as for her own role in various forms of oppression.
She hopes that audiences see the play and leave with something they didn't have before — "a thought, a feeling, a memory, some crazy notion of possibility and equanimity that moves you forward," she said.
"The director, William Earl Ray, and the entire cast are extremely talented theater artists. They have brought this considerable talent to the piece from the first day. I'm grateful and honored to be part of this production."
What: Chapel Theatre presents "Blind," in partnership with the Fertile Ground Festival
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17-Feb. 9
Where: Chapel Theatre, 4107 S.E. Harrison St., Milwaukie
Details: The play is directed by William Earl Ray and features Actor's Equity Association actors Jason Glick and Anthony Green Caloca, along with Jill Westerby, Andrea White, Blake Stone and Isabella Buckner.
Fertile Ground Festival: Visit fertilegroundpdx.org
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