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Beaverton immersive play explores 'passing' in 'Great Gatsby'
Justin Heath is all too familiar with the often necessary skill of "code-switching" after a decade in the corporate world.
Heath grew up in a predominantly Black city in South Carolina, and he describes his personality and natural way of speaking as more "urban." When he got into college, he had to learn quickly how to change the way he acted and spoke.
"I realized the more I code-switch, the more I was able to get interviews, the more I was able to land jobs and those types of things," he said, referring to shifting between his natural way of speaking and more formal speech. "So with experience, I just kind of learned how to switch off my original personality, and switch on the personality that's more accepted — that people understand more, I guess."
So when Heath took on the starring role in a Beaverton play about a Black man passing as a white man, he immediately connected with his character.
Experience Theater Project's "Great Gatsby's Daisy" resets F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, "The Great Gatsby" — you may remember reading it in high school English class — through Daisy Buchanan's eyes, challenging Nick Carraway's reliability as the narrator. The performance will be an immersive experience, where audience members will get the chance to explore the Buchanan manor, Nick's cottage, a speakeasy club and Gatsby's manor.
In this version, the mystery behind Jay Gatsby not only centers around his wealth and character, but his race. Jay Gatsby, in this version, is a Black man passing for white.
This take of the story has roots in historical accuracy, said Alisa Stewart, who wrote and directed the play.
Stewart references the book "Jay Gatsby: A Black Man in Whiteface," written by Janet Savage, who argues that "The Great Gatsby" is peppered with clues to Gatsby's racial identity, describing as examples Gatsby having "tanned skin" and "cropped hair."
Gatsby's 40 acres of land could also be a possible reference to the post-Civil War unfulfilled promise by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman that former slaves should receive 40 acres of land from Confederate landowners.
But Stewart believes the most persuasive evidence is correspondence Fitzgerald had with his publisher before the novel was published.
Fitzgerald initially intended the novel to be called "Trimalchio at West Egg," referencing the character Trimalchio in "The Satyricon," a Roman comedy about a former slave who earned his freedom and wealth from his former master, and threw lavish parties similar to Gatsby. Like Savage, Stewart believes this is a hint that Gatsby is a descendent of Black slaves.
"We decided to approach the character story in that fashion — that he is he is actually an African American person who's passing for a white man," Stewart said. "That's why he had to forget about his past. That's why he had to leave his family. That's why he had to reinvent himself. He had to come back a whole new person."
Heath said this is a version of the story he had never heard before join Stewart's project, but upon re-examining the text, he can't see it any other way.
"The more research I did going into this project and some of the nuances that were brought up, it makes sense," he said.
Pre-production of the play didn't come without its fair share of barriers and controversies, Stewart said.
Some criticism, she said, came from literary purists who "love to keep things the way they are."
Stewart, who is white, said she also received backlash from people who said a white woman shouldn't be writing and directing a play about something so embedded in the Black experience.
"When we got started, a stage manager immediately quit because she felt that we were not representing the BIPOC community in our space," Stewart said.
Stewart admitted that she was initially confused by the backlash, as her intent was to be sensitive and respectful. She said she wanted to do everything in her power to keep the production respectful and safe for Black cast members. So she enlisted help from James Dixon, who joined the project as its equity advisor.
Dixon has been involved in the Portland theater community for decades. Currently, he serves as the co-artistic director of Theatre at the Crossroads and the producing artistic director of BlaQ OUT, an incubator for Black and LGBTQ community theater.
Dixon, who said he was friends with Stewart before he first signed on to the project, acknowledged that when read the script, there were some aspects of it that made him uncomfortable.
"I like to tell people that when I'm watching a Black show on stage, if you have an all-white artistic team, I can tell," he said. "When I read it, there were definitely some parts that were a little weird for me, and mostly because they were lacking some perspective, which is something I was hoping to offer."
Dixon advised Stewart to allow some of the Black actors to be more involved in their character's stories.
"I am always in support of the actor-first always," Dixon said. "And it's because they're the ones doing the labor, and they're the ones going through it."
There is a scene in the production when the N-word is used by a white character who espouses racist views. That was cause for some discussion, Dixon said.
"Like, when can we say the N-word? Do we say it when we're in character? Can we talk about it like it's just a word that's on a piece of paper? We should be able to, but to be honest, words have power, right?" Dixon said.
Passing as a means of survival
Claire Elizabeth Grace plays Jordan Baker, who in this version of the story is a light-skinned Black woman passing for white.Like Baker in the show, Grace is also a jazz singer. She also used to play golf in her youth, which aligns more with Baker's character in the original text.
As a fair-skinned biracial woman spending time in predominantly white spaces in Portland, the racial ambiguity of Baker's character in the show resonated with Grace as well.
"A lot of people of color talk about this whole chameleon factor," she said. And while I might not have intentionally gone into a room and said, 'Okay, I need to make sure that they don't know that I'm a person of color,' we have been trained and taught to not be offensive, to not express distaste, to not be angry, to not express emotions that are unfavorable."
One of the key messages audience members should take away from "Great Gatsby's Daisy" is that passing wasn't just an opportunistic tool for Black people with paler complexions to get ahead, but a means of survival, said Eric Island, who plays Gatsby's father.
"I think there's a sentiment in the back of us that wishes we didn't have to," he said. "You know, if everything was just always equal and everything was always fair, we could be having a different conversation."
Island said he first got into acting more than a decade about a decade ago, almost by accident. He said he's worked with Stewart in past productions, including "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," where he played the sheriff.
Island will also be performing in a livestreamed stage performance called "Crossroads at Chambersburg," which tells the story of abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown. The play will stream starting Jan. 27 through Feb. 6 at www.fertilegroundpdx2022.org.
While Island's character in "Great Gatsby's Daisy" has few lines, he says the character plays a pivotal role in Gatsby's background and where he comes from.
"There were people in our community that we knew that were able to (pass) and you know, we want to applaud that, but you hope that they don't get lumped into that and forget where they come from," Island said. "But at the same time, you know, it's their response to 'how do I survive?'"
"Great Gatsby's Daisy" will premiere starting Friday, Jan. 28, and run until Sunday, Feb. 20.
Live performances will be on Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Masks and proof of COVID-19 vaccination (or proof of negative PCR test within 48 hours) are required by all attendees.
Tickets are available online at www.experiencetheatreproject.org or by calling the box office at 503-568-1765.
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