Oregon Shakespeare Festival proves power of diversifying the stage

Actors, from left, Joe Ngo, Brooke Ishibashi, Abraham Kim (behind screen), Moses Villarama and Jane Lui (behind) are in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of “Cambodian Rock Band” by playwright Lauren Yee. (Photo by Jenny Graham for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.)

ASHLAND, Ore. — Set in a small town surrounded by hills and vineyards, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has been bringing the words of the Bard and other classic and contemporary playwrights to life for more than 80 years.

The professional theater company, one of the largest in the U.S., was founded in 1935 in Ashland, which is in what many consider a conservative part of Oregon. Jackson County supported Donald Trump by a large margin in 2016, as well as other Republican candidates. In fact, Ashland is about a 2-hour drive from the notorious World War II concentration camp site, Tule Lake Segregation Center in northern California.

But these days, OSF has been making strides in choosing culturally diverse casting and plays, and in the hiring of actors, directors and other theater artists of color. Since 2016, at least half of OSF casts have been people of color, and in the 10 prior years, at least 40 percent of the actors were people of color, cast in both classic and contemporary plays.

Next season, the theater company is bringing on its first artistic director of color, Nataki Garrett. Garrett is a nationally recognized theater administrator and artist with 20 years of experience. Garrett’s first artistic challenge at OSF is directing the West Coast premiere of the Christina Anderson play “How to Catch Creation,” which just opened in July.

Incoming Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett, a veteran theater artist and administrator, is directing a play this season. (Photo by Bill Geneen for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.)

Garrett follows Bill Rauch, whose 17 seasons at OSF, first as a visiting director then as artistic director, featured a steadily expanding emphasis on creating true representation of racial and cultural diversity on stage. He will leave for a position as the artistic director of the Perelman Center for the Performing Arts, which is being built at the former site of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Clearly, Rauch has championed a real product in Oregon beyond the words of the OSF Values Statement that call for inclusion of people, cultures and ideas in its work and in its audience.

A seasoned theater professional with a national profile touting diversity in theater, Rauch told me that he learned from the many excellent racially diverse playwrights and directors he worked with across the nation — as well as from personal experience.

Bill Rauch, who leaves at the end of this season, has been the Artistic Director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for more than a decade. (Photo by Julie Cortez for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.)

“I was nurtured by an extensive POC community of artists,” he said. “And I am a white gay man with mixed-race kids and a brother who is disabled. Theater should reflect the kind of world that I live in.”

He said over his tenure at OSF, audiences and funders have had a mixed reaction of the company’s emphasis on diversity.

There is “support from many and also resistance to the work from some conservatives who say we are doing too much too fast and the work is too political.”

For Rauch’s last artistic contribution at OSF, he directed “La Comedia of Errors,” a bilingual version of the Shakespeare play, adapted by Lydia G. Garcia. The play is set in Mexico and Southern Oregon, and is the Festival’s first attempt to create a truly bilingual play that can be enjoyed by monolingual English speakers, monolingual Spanish speakers and those who speak both languages. A fun comedy set to guitar music, the production will partner with 18 community organizations for off-site performances “to engage in deeper collaboration with local communities and creating spaces for dialogue about relevant contemporary issues.”

Certainly, the theater’s emphasis on diversity is making an impact on audiences.

I was fortunate to visit Ashland recently during the gathering of the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA), which presented discussions with racially diverse writers and actors in a couple of OSF’s plays.

One of the speakers was Migizi Pensoneau, a member of Native American comedy group The 1491s. They along with director Eric Ting created the OSF new play “Between Two Knees.” The fast-moving musical follows several generations of a Native American family and its travails from two kids escaping boarding school to settlement in Oklahoma, and two generations of US military veterans. The plot is wide-ranging — from the revelation of family secrets to the politics of Wounded Knee.

Pensoneau said OSF played a big part in supporting the development of the play.

“We went through development over a couple of years at OSF, with their sponsorship and encouragement,” Pensoneau said. “It is selling well and attracts a diverse audience, including many new to OSF.”

The play may be challenging to some, but a giant relief to others, with its outright jokes and blame directed at white people, overtly presenting the trampled human rights of Native Americans. OSF staff report that audience comments have been both positive and negative, but the play starts deep conversations about racism and is well attended by school groups.

I also saw two lively classic Shakespeare comedies with strong female leads and racially diverse casts, “As You Like It” and “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

“As You Like It,” is deftly directed by Rosa Joshi, a theater department faculty member at Seattle University. Joshi enhanced the romantic comedy with innovative choreography and staging. The two outstanding romantic leads are played by Asian American actors, Jessica Ko as Rosalind, daughter of a banished duke, and Roman Zaragoza as the young nobleman Orlando.

“All’s Well That Ends Well” is presented in the outdoor Elizabethan-like theater and has a largely multiracial cast. The lead is Asian American actor Daisuke Tsuji as the young Count Bertram, who runs away from his betrothed to lead a battle in another country.

Tsuji also plays the lead character Duch in OSF’s “Cambodian Rock Band,” a contemporary play by Lauren Yee that blends the tragic recent history of Cambodia, with performances by a rock band, singing in both English and Cambodian. The play, set in Phnom Penh in the 1970s and 2008, reveals a poignant father-daughter interchange involving tragic family secrets that both divided and brought their refugee family together.

The unflinching play takes place before, during and after the genocidal rule of the Communist Khmer Rouge which killed 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979, focusing its wrath on extermination of the intellectual and artistic classes, including rock musicians.

The play’s six actors also play music as the band The Cyclos. The songs were written by Cambodian American band, Dengue Fever. The actors had to learn the Khmer language in order to reprise the popular songs of the pre-1975 period. Tsuji chillingly presents the key role of Duch, a former entertainer and math teacher who became the ruthless keeper of the notorious torture and execution prison known as S21.

A key cast member, Joe Ngo, helped Lee write the play based on his own family’s experiences living through the time of the Khmer Rouge and their escape to the United States. Ngo, an alumnus of the University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program, plays the father Chum, who comes to Cambodia to stop his daughter from learning the truth about his life in prison during the genocide.

Born in Southern California, Ngo based his Cambodian-American accent on those of his father and uncles.

Most of the actors also were from the original cast in the premier production at South Coast Repertory, in Costa Mesa California.

Ngo said during a post-play discussion that South Coast’s production had “a very emotional audience reception with intense feelings of many Cambodians.”

But many from the largely white audiences of Ashland commented that they had no idea of what the Khmer Rouge was doing in Cambodia.

“Cambodian Rock Band” next hits the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego in November, the Signature Theatre in New York City in February, and at Portland Center Stage in Portland, Ore. in May.

I left Ashland with respect for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which made possible this wealth of great diversity in theater and aims to include content of political relevance. I hope that more audiences of color will travel to Ashland.

But I also feel strong respect for the actors, mostly from diverse urban cities, who work hard at their parts in this theater that does not hold back from political reality, and who must appear on stage many times each week while living in the unfamiliar territory of Southern Oregon.

Brooke Ishibashi, left, and Joe Ngo in are in OSF’s production of “Cambodian Rock Band.”  (Photo by Jenny Graham for Oregon Shakespeare Festival.)