The Portland Pheonix

November 18th, 2005

In January of 2004, the anxieties of the post-9/11 world were manifested here in Portland. When the Border Patrol conducted its now infamous sweep of bus stations, homeless shelters, and the more obviously ethnic local businesses, some Portlanders were rattled, some were outraged, and many didn’t come out of their homes for eight weeks. The sweep was ordered in the name of the handy euphemism "homeland security." Rolling as trippingly as it does off so many tongues, it bears thinking about exactly what it means, and to whom. Last weekend’s home land security at the Center for Cultural Exchange explored just these questions.

"This is not a play, or a concert," the show began with sentences spoken in turn, phrase by phrase. "It’s more like a snap-shot or a scavenger hunt to discover Portland, Maine, 2005." Commissioned by the CCE in 2004, home land security was created by Obie-winning playwright Marty Pottenger to explore how Portlanders feel about home, land, and security.

Over the last year, Pottenger conducted extensive interviews, civic dialogues, and story circles with over 80 Maine residents. Using the sweep as launching point, she listened to stories and concerns from a broad cross-section of Maine residents from widely different educational backgrounds and ethnic communities, with a strata that spanned from street people to the governor. From this wealth of sources, Pottenger winnowed a cast down to five core members, four community cameos, and three musicians. She then worked their raw stories down to the series of monologues that made up the script of home land security.

The assembled cast are brilliantly diverse, studded with our neighbors both highly visible and under the radar, all intimately invested in the Maine community. The Latina Reverend Virginia Marie Rincon is an Episcopal minister in the city, and Oliver Albino is known as "Uncle" throughout the Portland Sudanese community. Poet and performer Billy Woolverton has been living on Portland’s streets and in its woods for seven years, while the affable old codger Lucien Matthieu comes from French-Canadian stock. Young Micmac native Heather Augustine is involved in a number of Native American associations, and Jill Duson is - well, in addition to singing with the Maine Mass Gospel Choir - the Mayor.

These five core members rooted into their psyches, and, with astonishing candor, talked about home, land, and security, in three corresponding acts. In "home," many focused on the feeling of being welcome. However, Lucien recalled that in 1920, Maine had both the largest KKK and the smallest population of African-Americans. For Heather, any talk of home comes down to history, which haunts her daily: "All of you, I don’t care who you are, are living off my people’s genocide." Land came to mean not just nation to the group, but also, variously, environment, heritage, and property. Before Jill moved to Maine, for example, she defined land as belonging to someone else. Now she seeks out public land. And the ironies of "security," of course, were rich. The Reverend told a chilling anecdote of being chastised by a young boy: "Where’s your flag? You need to put a flag on your car so you can be safe!"

Though this show wasn’t just about anxiety (many monologues stressed the comfort of Portland’s community and the beauty of Maine land. Lucien, among others, provided big-hearted comic relief), it certainly didn't shrink from its participants’ fears and outrage, or from providing a truly balanced survey of community. Among the community cameos (which included State Senate President Beth Edmonds, Portland NAACP chair Rachel Talbot Ross, and local actor/director Tavia Gilbert) was Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne, one of Maine’s First Responders (a newly formed DHS Terrorism Preparedness Task Force) who gave his own take on state security. Between thoughts on the War on Terror, Iraq, and war in general, the views expressed in home land security often conflicted - but always with respect and the desire to engage.

Throughout the Pottenger's piece, Franco-American fiddling improbably met the rhythms of Latino guitar and African drumming performed by Frano-Yankee Greg Boardman, Bolivian-born Juan Condori, and Somalian-born drummer Harun Sheehkey. Like its accompaniment, home land security was fierce, distinctive, and sometimes dissonant. Its fraught honesty was as striking as the tensions in the music’s phrasing, which sought to align even as they fought.

Portland Press Herald

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Timely portrait of post-Sept. 11 culture in Portland

What it is is a moving and timely portrait of Portland and Maine through the lives and words of its citizens in a post-Sept. 11 world. The Center for Cultural Exchange commissioned the project and is staging the local premiere this weekend. Don't miss it.

The cultural shift experienced by Americans after Sept. 11 was profound, irreversible. It will be, for generations to come, a defining moment in our history. What Americans lost for the first time was a sense of security. And some feel, because of the war on terror and the passage of subsequent Patriot Acts, we are perilously close to losing our freedom.

When the U.S. Border Patrol made a sweep for illegal immigrants in Portland in January 2004, Bau Graves (artistic director of the CCE) contacted Pottenger about doing a performance piece based on interviews of those ethnic communities most affected by this example of America's homeland security policy.

The result is a reader's theater piece in which representative members of Portland's diverse citizenry (including American Indians, Sudanese, Latios, Franco-Americans, African-Americans and whites) tell their own stories as an open dialogue, accompanied by a live band performing fiddle, charango, guitar and African drums. A group of civic leaders joins the core performers, testifying in a sense, and adding another dimension to the dialogue.

These are not professional actors, but what you sacrifice in crispness, timing and polish, you more than gain in honesty and emotional immediacy. Edited and shaped by Pottenger to keep the evening moving and engaging, the stories relate how different communities came to Maine, what they fear, what their relationship is to the land, etc.

Although most productions would trot out civic leaders for their promotional value, their voices are vital to this project. We hear about the pride and hope felt by the Mayor of Portland, Jill Duson; about the long family history in Maine of NAACP chair, Rachel Talbot Ross; the almost crushing personal sense of responsibility felt by Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne, head of Maine's First Responders; the need to work together expressed by state Senate President Beth Edmonds.

Music director Greg Boardman, fiddle, is joined by Juan Condori of Boliva, guitar and charango; and by Harun Sheekhey of Somalia on drums.

Bau Graves and Phyllis O'Neill are leaving Portland and CCE. What a wonderful parting gift.

- Mary Snell is a theater critic who lives in Gorham.

Portland performers put on true reality show


A dramatic production in which a cast of local officials and residents all play themselves might seem to have all the artistic potential of a city council meeting. In fact, many of the people who performed Friday at the Center for Cultural Exchange may have met before at City Hall - including Portland's mayor and fire chief, and leaders of several minority groups. But several cast members said playing themselves in a theatrical production dealing with issues of security and civil rights allowed them to speak and be heard in a way that would never happen offstage.

"It creates a safe place for conversation," said Mayor Jill Duson, who plays one of the 10 speaking roles in "home land security."

"I think people take away a lot of learning about each other in a way that would take us years in any other context," Duson said.

The performance was a response to an incident in Portland in January 2004, when federal agents raided ethnic restaurants and other gathering spots in search of illegal aliens. The action created anger and distrust among the city's minority populations, with some people skipping work and refusing to send their children to school for fear of being arrested.

At the invitation of the artistic director of the Center for Cultural Exchange, New York theater artist Marty Pottenger visited Portland over the course of a year to create a play based on the incident.

Pottenger interviewed 80 people and selected 10 for parts in the performance. The characters, including a homeless man who writes poetry, a Mexican-American minister and a French-Canadian fiddler, speak their own words, which Pottenger edited from interviews.

Several performers said they felt the play helped create an honest dialogue on issues of race, immigration and national security that probably would not have occurred in any other setting. "It's a real conversation about things that people find hard to talk about," Duson said.

The performers came from different and sometimes clashing perspectives. Portland Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne, for instance, said his part involves explaining how he thinks about security threats in terms of "protecting the many, not the few."

LaMontagne said his views might put him at odds with people who take an individualistic view, but he said he felt the play helped everyone understand each other's motivations and concerns.

"It brings a heightened level of awareness on both sides," he said. "Those that are being scrutinized and also perhaps the reasons the scrutiny is occurring."

Such a frank discussion was exactly what some in the audience came to hear. Duncan Wright of Portland said one of the most troubling things, for him, about the immigration raid in 2004 was a lack of dialogue on the issues it raised.

"It's refreshing to have somebody say, through art, 'Yes, this should be out in the open,' " he said. "This is talking about the elephant in the room."