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Socially aware theater company finds crowd hungry to be challenged by race and rage

SUBMITTED PHOTO - For the final 'HANDS UP' monologue, LaTevin Alexander had the audience members hold their hands up during his entire  performance.“Hands Up” Director Kevin Jones asked audiences at Pacific University over the weekend to “stay open.”

“We can only move forward and heal as a culture when we can hear, listen and be moved by all perspectives,” he said. “Please just stay open.”

It appeared many audience members took his advice — and were moved. Many cried during both the play and the talkback afterward as they shared personal stories and listened to others.

“Hands Up” is a 90-minute play featuring seven monologues by seven different playwrights and performed by black actors, six men and one woman. The monologues are reflections from the black community emerging from police shootings and racial tension in America.

The show is already reverberating throughout the area. After showings in Portland and discussions that followed, the “Hands Up” team will be continuing the conversation by conducting workshops with the Portland Police Bureau at their request.

The show “was really powerful, personal, vulnerable and strong,” said Kernan Willis, who traveled out to see the show from Portland.

Attendees of many different colors expressed a variety of emotions in the talkback sessions, everything from anger to sadness to fear to frustration.

Willis said she wished there were more safe spaces where people could express their rage like the actors did on stage.

“Rage is what happens when you are constantly ignored,” said an African American woman in the audience.

One monologue featured an actor portraying a black man who was raised by middle class white parents and hadn’t experienced the racial profiling to the extent of his black friends. In his monologue, the actor recounted walking along the street with a friend, who was angry because he saw a white woman speeding up and walking away from them in what appeared to be fear. The friend assumed it was because they were black men. The actor said he couldn’t be sure that was true.

“What were real were his feelings,” the actor said. So what should he have told his friend? “Although I couldn’t relate to what you were feeling, I heard you and I’m sorry.”

This was a big theme derived from the talkback — that dismissing someone’s concern, anger and frustration is detrimental to ending racism and feeling compassion for those affected by it.

“Conversations like these are essential,” said one woman. “We need to stop being dismissive.”

“I was really moved,” said one white woman. “You cannot escape it and I’m sorry this is happening to you.”

“I couldn’t stop crying,” a white audience member said. “We just need to go in our hearts and feel.”

An estimated 600 people attended three showings over the weekend. Although all three shows were sold out, some people who reserved tickets didn’t show up, which left empty seats.

“I heard people expressing real emotion,” said Forest Grove resident Eric Canon, who approached Pacific University’s Director of the Center for Peace and Spirituality Chuck Currie about bringing the play to Forest Grove after he saw it in Portland. “Racism and injustice is happening every day under our noses. I always come home from this play with new insights.”

Forest Grove Police Chief Janie Schutz, who attended the Saturday afternoon performance, said her heart was pounding when she stood up to participate in the discussion. She agreed most with the notion addressed in the play that we have to humanize people who are often ignored and marginalized. “It begins with conversations, understanding and relationships,” she said. “I believe in those relationships.” Schutz has an unusually relevant background. Before coming to Forest Grove, she was the first female police chief in a predominantly black North Carolina town, where she struggled with a network of “good old boys” while also conducting unprecedented outreach to the African American community — regular, friendly visits to the housing projects, chatting with neighbor-

hood old-timers, mentoring youth.

Jones thanked the chief for coming. “She’s showing up,” said Jones, who encouraged audience members to talk with Schutz.

Forest Grove United Church of Christ Pastor Jennifer Yocum said she was glad to see community leaders like Schutz and Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax at the showing. “We need to bring that perspective to where we are.”

Yocum sometimes doesn’t speak up against subtle prejudice because she’s afraid of being rude, she said, but left the play more committed than ever to confront it when she witnesses it.

“It’s an issue that’s important and we can’t let it get away from us,” said Truax. “You really get a sense of the frustration, exasperation and anger.”

Truax thought the opportunity to express such anger and fears in a calmer space — as opposed to a protest or town hall meeting — was advantageous. “We have to keep listening,” he said.

The Forest Grove Police Department Facebook page gave this response to HANDS UP: “Disturbing, insightful, impacting. Raw emotion made for some difficult conversations afterwards but the important thing is that we listened to each other and a dialogue was able to take place. Attending this event and now looking forward to the conversations we must have in our community align with our agency’s core values, our training and the high expectations we have of our officers. Police agencies must set the example and be the model for other police departments across this nation. This is what we strive to do here at FGPD while also being transparent, humble and open to how we can always be better.”

Currie said the Saturday evening audience was filled with vocal Pacific students who spoke up during the discussion after the show. Many expressed fear not so much for themselves as for their minority friends. Others described their own personal experiences with racism.

Currie hopes attendees will talk about the show with their friends and families, encouraging needed conversations. “If things don’t get better in our country, they can only get worse.”

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