Portland Community College students Jordan Rhodig, left, with back to camera, and Olivia Yeung, act out an Illumination Project scene with Michelle Stein, right, an audience member, while project coordinator Jeannie LaFrance looks on from the background.
A group of shoppers moves impatiently through the checkout line at the supermarket. Two women of African descent wearing colorful headscarves reach the front of the line, where the cashier, a White woman, tells them they can't purchase non-food items with the card they're using.
"An ATM card?" one of the Black shoppers asks, incredulously.
The cashier apologizes, saying that she assumed the women were using an Oregon Trail food assistance card, because that's what "your people" usually use.
At the back of the line, a White man begins to grumble about the delay.
"You should just go back to your country," he says to the Black shoppers. An uneasy tension falls across the checkout line.
"Stop!" yells someone from the audience.
The shoppers are actually Portland Community College students participating in something called the Illumination Project — a theatre program that tackles issues of oppression through interactive classroom and community performances. Members of the project — now in its fifth year — have written three original plays depicting incidences of racism ineverydayplaces: "Supermarket," described above; "The Only One"; and "First Day of Class."
The audience, after watching a play once from start to finish, is invited the second time around to stop the action when they see an act of oppression, substitute themselves for members of the cast and start the action again — this time with the intent of finding a way to defuse the situation peacefully.
Cast members and audience members alike improvise the new situation as it develops. The result, hopefully, is a new understanding among everyone about how to recognize, confront and resolve racist situations as they occur.
"Our theatre really engages the audience," said Jeannie LaFrance, the project's coordinator."Theaudience becomes a part of creating a solution for the problems they see by actually coming up on stage."
While most of the project's performances have taken place at PCC's Sylvania CampusinSouthwest Portland, a performance is scheduled this week in North Portland. The project takes the stage from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 2, in Terrell Hall Room 122 at PCC's Cascade Campus, 705 N. Killingsworth St.
The Illumination Project was the brainchild of Claire Oliveros, coordinator of the Multicultural Center at the Sylvania Campus, and Deborah Evans, coordinator of Sylvania's Women's Resource Center, created as a means of addressing issues of race and gender oppression. The two women contacted LaFrance, who directs Act for Action-Theater for All — a community theater group specializing in Theater of the Oppressed, an interactive theatrical form created by legendary Brazilian playwright and activist Augusto Boal — and asked her to start a similar program at PCC.
LaFrancesaidthe Illumination Project initially was intended to have a one-year run, but reaction from students and the community was so overwhelmingly positive that it has persisted to this day and has begun to garner recognition beyond Portland. In fact, the project was one of only 27 recent recipients of a $100,000 Ford Foundation grant, out of a total of 675 nationwide proposals.
The project has been effective in getting the audience, particularly White audience members, to recognize subtle, entrenched forms of racism, LaFrance said — racism that is a product of unconscious assumptions that slip into ordinary interactions. For example, the White cashier in "Supermarket" acted in a racist way, even though she may have had good intentions.
"Most of the plays are subtle, representing ingrained stereotypes and the ways the overarching system of oppression around race impacts people on a daily basis, how it trickles down into our lives and can really impact students' ability to succeed in school," LaFrance said.
"Too often, we place the responsibility on the person who's being oppressed to fix the situation. … We want White people to say to themselves, 'I am responsible for this. It's not only people of color who have a stake in ending racism; I am also responsible for ending racism.' "
Ideally, she said, audiences should come away from an Illumination Project examining themselves and the way they view those around them — and thinking about how they'll speak or act differently in the future.
"Where does that assumption come from?" she asked. "How can we as a community, when we see something racist happening — how can we take action to address that situation?"
To facilitate this realization, there are ground rules in place formembersofan Illumination Project audience. Members of the audience can't substitute themselves for actors who are portraying oppressors — to do so would be to impose a "magical" solution on the situation, in which the oppressor suddenly decides to behave differently. Instead, audience members can only substitute for actors who are being oppressed, or for who LaFrance called "potentialallies"— bystanders who can intervene in the situation in a positive way.
For example, in the scene from "Supermarket," audience members can't step in for the cashier or for the belligerent man at the back of the line. During the performance, audience members chose to step in for other people in line and then act as allies.
In one case, an audience member took the place of an actor standing in line next to the racist White man, who asked the African women to go back to their own country.
"They are in their own country," the audience member said. "Why don't you relax or find another line?"
Ultimately, LaFrance said, the goal of the Illumination Project is to be transformative — to encourage people to become allies against oppression in their own lives, to go forth and confront oppression when they see it happening.
And that transformative effect isn't limited to members of the audience. LaFrance said that her students have come away from participating in the project energized to be allies against oppressionthemselves. Sometimes they decide to go in a whole new direction with their education, and sometimes participating in the project simply reinforces already deeply held beliefs.
Chauntey Cruz is a member of this year's incarnation of the project and had a hand in writing one of the plays: "The Only One," in which a character is the lone person of color in a room full of White people.
"Personally, when looking at issues around racism, I had my opinion on how things were, and I didn't really think there was anything I could do about it," Cruz said. "It used to be something where I'd hope that it wouldn't come up in conversations with my friends, a large majority of whom are White.
"But in doing the project, you spend so much time with these other student educators, that you really get to trust each other and be able to address the issues. Now, I know there is something I can do about it — I can talk to my friends about it, I can have open discussions with anybody."
Cruz said that performing with the project isn't nearly as frightening as she had thought it would be; in fact, she said, it's turned out to be a source of strength.
"We were all freaked out before our first performance," she said. "We didn't know what situations were going to happen or how we were going to respond. … But the actors and the audience are really connected, and it was a lot easier than I thought."
The interactive nature of the performances made the project far more effective than it would have been had the audience just been observers, Cruz said. And as a writer of one of the plays, she got to see how other people's feelings and impressions were reflected in her own work.
" 'The Only One' is based on an experience I had in my own college life," she said. "It's about being the only person of color in a room of students watching a movie. A situation develops, and then everyone laughs and kind of stares at this person of color, and she ends up getting up and leaving. It's not necessarily about racism, but about how people respond when they see one person as different. … It's been interesting watching what audience members have done with that."
As this year's Illumination Project winds down — performances come to an end this month — LaFrance said it has gained enough momentum that she anticipates it continuing indefinitely. It's become an enormously popular program among students, and new sources of funding have become available as it grows in notoriety. Most importantly, though, she's glad that the project is making a difference in the community at large.
"This type of theatre is a rehearsal for the future," she said.