Two Breakthrough Shows by Two Homegrown Artists

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One-man and one-woman shows demonstrate polarity at the Fertile Ground festival.

My old steel bike frame heavily hoisted upon my shoulders, its old scarred body being carried like a damsel across the stream, I traversed the dozens of railroad tracks jutting across paved-over-wetlands on a January night, staring across that endless portal of industry, The Railroad Earth, and I muttered to myself, “Boy, you really are a Genius aren’t you!” Then it dawned on me that I was in the scenery of the promo photos for Genius, the play that I was late for.

I had mistakenly traveled far out of my way on bicycle, even though I was on a perfect trajectory to meet the Headwaters Theater, located down by the rail tracks, if I simply took Vancouver Avenue all the way from Rose Quarter. I truly got lost in the ride. And the real crux of it is that I had been to this venue before, once performed improvised music in this very building, back when it was called Crux. It was another short-lived warehouse arts venue experiment that came to pass nearly a decade ago.

Creeping along the moist, gravelly, dirt and concrete parking lot, bike lights flashing, breath heaving, it seemed that because I was late, I couldn’t gain entry. Then I found a door slightly cracked open. I went to the restroom, caught my breath, went to the concession stand, ordered a much-needed beer, and then, along with three other latecomers, a man working the stand showed us the entry. I was seated. No tickets. Pay as you leave: a policy of Yocto Theater.

From this point, Sean Bowie rolls out his newest work, Genius. It is a one-man show that characterizes a person through internal dialogue with a chunky narrative as told by the first person, the main man, Mr. Bowie. It is not clear to me immediately if the narrator and sole actor is playing himself, or a character, or if he will do many characters. But as things unfold, he clearly becomes himself, yet he leaves enough mystery there to keep you piecing things together.

As I get comfortable in my seat, taking off my jacket quietly, scoping the place out, Bowie has launched into his monologue. He is checking himself out in the mirror, talking himself up, gaining confidence, and seizing the day. He takes off for a walk, soaking in the warm sun, checking out the birds. What unravels is the first day of the rest of his life. He characterizes the ideal, perfect day– the kind when everything goes right, you do something heroic, eat a lot and all of that. I do realize eventually that it was a perfect dude’s day, complete with the ideal busty white woman at his door. But his dude-ness finds depth precisely in the authenticity of his monologue. It is difficult not to relate to this every-man.

Headwaters Theater is a fairly high-tech black box style theater. Several rows of stadium style seating, a three-projection system, and a solid p.a. system make for a pretty versatile performance space. 21st Century low-budget plays have this amazing capability with digital projection, enabling immediate set changes at extraordinarily low cost. The technology is fully utilized here to illustrate the monologue, provide scenery and sonic environments, without any breaks. The rapid dialogue and fast scene changes left me unsure of the work’s structure at first but ultimately converged to create a narrative patchwork. The storyline came together, like railroad tracks, apparently each going their own direction, but inevitably crossing at the same place.

The performance apparently becomes the story of his relationship with collaborator and wife, Mary Rose. He discusses the meaning he finds in sex. It is basically that when the sex isn’t good, the relationship is failing. Somehow, the meaning of carnal pleasure and epidermal intimacy is at its most poetic during lovemaking. He conveys this in a dude-like way. And I think this is who he is.

He confronts his life as an actor, or rather worker-actor. He discusses the very shitty process of pursuing acting later in life, and the path that led him to create Yocto Theater and its debut work, Genius. This is always a valuable thing to see: someone pursues his or her dreams to success. His eyes welled up with tears after the work’s emotional final scene– his wife giving birth. And his tears didn’t dry up after the performance ended. It was a full theater, positive reviews were coming his way, and the good people donated- Bowie, not any character, was crying.

And then there was another day at Fertile Ground.

Turiya Autry performed her one-woman show at Conduit Dance the following afternoon. It is a similar yet totally different space. In fact, her monologue, Roots Reality and Rhyme, is similar yet totally different as compared to the play reviewed above. It is a personal narrative that incorporates poems from a book of the same title. It is a memoir of sorts, her life story told in chunks, like a recollection of previous selves with old problems. And it ends as she launches on to a new path, shedding the skin of her past life.

There is a projection screen that provides scenery, fast set changes, and two short video pieces that helped illustrate the two key aspects of Turiya’s character. The strong-willed little girl, whom she once was and still is, battles a little boy in the jungle gym. The adult woman finds herself as a sex worker to pay bills. There is a voice of reason and clarity in the whole picture, dealing with social-economic factors and the raw emotional states that rise and fall in the endless grappling for existence in the post-modern era of America.

Turiya Autry grips my attention and never lets go. Due perhaps to her enigmatic voice, the drama that pulls my heartstrings, or because of the memoir-style linear storytelling, I believe that I caught every beat. Her poems help to draw music from lines without actually introducing music. Her delivery reminds me of the “enlightened” hip-hop era that she was in college for, like early work from The Roots, Digable Planets, and Public Enemy.

Turiya Autry.  Photo by Bobby Abrahamson

Turiya Autry.
Photo by Bobby Abrahamson

After spending more than two hours with Turiya in my apartment, first listening to the State of the Union Address live on the radio, then producing a Horizon at End Times podcast with her as my guest, and now having watched her story unfold in a theater, I feel like I have a breezy window in to her soul. But despite this, there is some mystery. I see her rage and love in coexistence with cordiality and raw honesty in a continuous contradiction that seems to resolve with this being’s output: the poem.

Her example is a powerful one, showing the strength of will, the equalizing powers of love and acceptance, personal responsibility and determination. It goes about the objective of providing commentary on society and economics while peeking inside the person whose life might be iconic of social ills and economic injustice.

Actually, this is only a beginning. Turiya plans to continue developing the work. In fact, this was more of a workshop for her show. She read the script from the page and converged a crew to make a rudimentary feature-length production. The rough edges of the new work were not apologized for, and they didn’t need to be.

Fertile Ground comes to an end today. Its eleven-day run appears to have been successful with numerous capacity audiences. It stands out as a great opportunity for local artists to debut and workshop material, but it also gives a promotional punch to present more polished works. For the development of this magazine, it managed to connect some dots, expose a range of performing artists and authors, and spur a few new ideas. That is what festivals are for.




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