At the end of the performance I saw of THE CRACKWALKER, the current production by Sowelu Theatre, no one moved. The cast took their bows, the house lights and the exit music came on, and we all just sat there. Barry Hunt, Sowelu’s artistic director (and the director of the play), opened the theatre door. It was still several moments before anyone got up to leave.
THE CRACKWALKER, written by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, premiered in 1980 as a story of the seedy underbelly of Kingston, Ontario, where Thompson spent some time as a social worker. But it could just as well have been written today, here in Portland.
The story centers on Theresa, a mentally challenged young woman who has no stable address and turns tricks to get by, and her boyfriend, Alan, a mentally fragile young man who can’t escape his nightmarish thoughts. They are taken in by some friends, Sandy and Joe, whose own relationship is challenged by poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence. There’s also an older homeless man who hangs around the fringes, frightening the other characters, perhaps because they’re aware of how close they all are to suffering his same fate.
These are all people who go to sleep each night with no illusions that tomorrow will be any better – they’re just hoping it won’t be worse. But life can be cruel, and things can always get worse. It’s a very difficult, very good play.
I was blown away by the caliber of the acting, which made me feel compassion for all of the characters, even as they did unspeakably horrible things. As Theresa, Liviya Burns gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, anywhere – from her mannerisms to her halting speech, to the desperate look in her eyes as she struggles to understand things clearly beyond her ability. Ryan Downey is heart-wrenching as Alan, who spirals toward a breakdown while grasping onto his modest but still unattainable dreams. I even had moments of wanting to like violent, alcoholic, possible rapist Joe, thanks to an outstanding performance by Anthony Green. And Lorraine Bahr is reliably exceptional in everything.
If you’re looking for an escapist play to make you feel happy about the world, this isn’t it. THE CRACKWALKER is bleak and hard to watch (at times, excruciating). But it’s the kind of show that does exactly what theatre is supposed to do – foster empathy, start a conversation, and force us to examine the world we live in.
THE CRACKWALKER runs at Sunnyside Community House through September 30 (more details here). Tickets are available on a sliding scale from $12 to $25. I highly recommend you see it and then take whatever you feel the experience was worth (I guarantee it will be much more than $25) and donate it to an organization that provides services and support for vulnerable populations in Portland. You’ll find a list of these organizations in your program.
Photo credit: Megean McBride
a play by DAVID RABE directed by BARRY HUNT at SHAKING THE TREE THEATRE
“When Tallent finds her way into the character’s desperate need for appreciation and connection, she gives this character a vivid, emotional reality. Scenes between Tallent and the always-reliable Lorraine Barr, who plays Chrissy’s would-be mentor Susan, provide memorable moments as do the intense final scenes between Tallent and DiBiaso, who interprets Chrissy’s brutish and often offensive lover then husband with appropriately brooding menace.” – Richard Wattenberg, The Oregonian
a film by SOWELU DRAMATIC and THE NARRATIVE written by ELIZA ANDERSON directed by BARRY HUNT
winner of BEST DRAMA & BEST ACTOR OREGON INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL
A Tibetan survivor of political torture is in Portland, Oregon for rehabilitation. He comes to stay at the home of Madeline, a worker in the rehabilitation center. Finding himself home all day with Madeline’s teenage daughter Rosie, he becomes reluctantly embroiled in her angst, loneliness, invasive curiosity and dangerous game playing.
a play by MARTHA BOESING directed by LORRAINE BAHR at PERFORMANCEWORKS
“Directors Bahr and Davis have shaped the show surely and with telling compassion, and the eight cast members invest it with conviction. Among the cast, I’m particularly taken with the performances of Woods as a young pregnant wife and Lewis as an old Russian-émigré factory worker for getting beneath the sloganeering to the human heart of the thing.” – Bob Hicks, The Oregonian
a play by PHILIP RIDLEY directed by BARRY HUNT at THEATER! THEATRE!
“The production moves at a measured, slow—perhaps occasionally too slow—pace, but it never lacks emotional intensity. Bahr and Hamby ably plumb the text and rich subtext. There is a no-holds-barred quality to this play; it is certainly not for the squeamish.” – Richard Wattenberg, The Oregonian
Now showing on Amazon Prime a film by SOWELU DRAMATIC based on the play by TANIA MYREN adapted by JEB PEARSON directed by BARRY HUNT
winner BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY SANTA FE FILM FESTIVAL
Filmed on majestic landscapes in rural Oregon and Southern Washington, and shot in a 70’s retro style, the film is a post-apocalyptic love story. A group of boys living in a cave develop a ritual culture influenced by religion, childhood fears and superstition. Setting out to travel the earth killing diseased creatures and making the world “clean” for their brotherhood, they discover a “her,” the first woman they have seen. Though sick, she speaks to Bhule and awakens ideas about the world he has never entertained.
a play by LUKE HEYERMAN directed by BARRY HUNT choreographed by KEITH GOODMAN at INTERSTATE FIREHOUSE CULTURAL CENTER
Redirected with an emphasis on choreography and recorded for public television broadcast.
“The set—a pair of fabricated rocks set on a bare stage—hardly could be more stark. Yet perched upon them, ready to surround us, are a lifetime’s worth of love and fantasy, expectation and disappointment, memory and regret. In the spare, dreamlike production is shot through with emotional conflict yet feels meditative and mournful. At once heroic yet dashed upon the rocks.” – Marty Hughley The Oregonian
a play by LEA FLODEN directed by BARRY HUNT choreographed by KEITH GOODMAN at BACK DOOR THEATER
“In its collaborative approach to putting a production together, Sowelu emphasizes the importance of the interaction among actors. That emphasis is well-displayed—and the main pleasure—in the entertaining revival of Floden’s amusing comedy. Under Bahr’s sure direction, the actors give an almost musical flow to the show’s constant comings and goings. A gesture, an inflection or a glance can bring a smile at any moment.” – Michael McGregor, The Oregonian
a play by DAVID RABE directed by BARRY HUNT at the BACK DOOR THEATER winner DRAMMY BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR for GARFIELD WEDDERBURN
“Receiving a solid, thoughtful production from Sowelu Theater, Streamers offers a vision of manhood in distress. Hill ably captures Midwesterner Billy’s troubled efforts to maintain his faith. Najieb skillfully reveals self-controlled ghetto refugee Roger’s efforts to ignore unpleasant realities. In Barnes’ hands, Richie becomes an often flamboyant but generally sensitive Latino. What could have been an unnecessary anticlimax becomes a haunting conclusion.” – Richard Wattenberg, The Oregonian
a film by AARON KATZ, co-presented in Portland BY SOWELU with the HOLLYWOOD THEATER. Official selection SXSW FILM FESTIVAL awarded NEW YORK SUN TOP 10 FILMS of 2006
“It’s probably the best first feature made by a Portlander since Van Sant’s Mala Noche. — Shawn Levy
“A remarkably delicate construction whose narrative relies more on natural drift than artificial drama…Directed with extraordinary empathy by Aaron Katz.” – Jeanette Catsouus, The New York Times
featuring STAN OLMSTEAD and JOAQUIN LOPEZ at BACK DOOR THEATER
“This show of flamenco song and movement is a knockout. For anyone enamored of flamenco music in its purest form, Sowelu Theater’s exciting performance An Evening of Flamenco and Ballads is a must see. The intimate, highly concentrated evening of Spanish soul music, which also includes poetry by Pablo Neruda, features traditional sorrowful and passionate song styles such as the alborea and the solea, plus stunning selections by Federico Garcia Lorca. – Holly Johnson, The Oregonian
by KEITH GOODMAN at BACK DOOR THEATER
“Goodman is precise yet tender. The dancer/choreographer offers a highly abstract portrait of two men who influenced his early life and his ideas about what it means to prosper (or not) as an African American male in the U.S. The piece, danced by Goodman, Joaquin Lopez and David Oury, has a sense of angularity and solidity. Goodman’s soft-spoken narrative gives some information about his subject, but our imaginations do the work.” – Holly Johnson, The Oregonian
a play by ELIZA ANDERSON directed by BARRY HUNT at BAC K DOOR THEATER
“This production of Anderson’s play has a number of creepy elements—an eerie yet brilliant score, a claustrophobic all-white set, and characters who periodically collapse from starvation—that present a terrifying portrait of what life could be like after civilization destroys itself. It’s a thought-provoking show, and watching people flounder around from hunger is truly disturbing.” – Laura Parisi, Willamette Week
a play by FERNANDO ARRABAL directed by BARRY HUNT at BACK DOOR THEATER. DRAMMY award WINNER BEST MEDIA DESIGN
“Hunt has put together a marvelous cast headed by Bahr (charming terrorist of teacup drama) and a violently blimpish Breen. The production also heralds the return to Portland stages of Michael Fetters, whose intelligence and physical prowess have been sorely missed. This is one of Sowelu’s most adventurous stagings in some time, with excellent use of shadow puppetry by Gray and Pearson. Picnic holds that war will never cease until we level it with cruel laughter.” – Steffen Silvis, Willamette Week
a play by MEGAN TERRY directed by BARRY HUNT at BACK DOOR THEATER
“Hunt’s actors perform as athletes with Keith Goodman’s choreography really making the most indelible impression. Lopez, Pearson, and Roylance are a three-part harmony of desperation, and muster their charms and masculine wiles for the benefit of the audience. The actors are Machiavellian vaudevillians, calling on the great prison drama canon from Jean Genet to Grand Illusion to Kiss of the Spider Woman.” —Toussaint Perrault, The Mercury
a play by MARK RAVENHILL directed by BARRY HUNT at BACK DOOR THEATER
“There are choices in this that made me respond emotionally, intellectually and sometimes audibly. The pace was excellent. Having read the script, the immediacy that the actors brought to a seemingly issue-driven piece helped smooth over portions that were difficult to read…in what was a very challenging, demanding and ultimately rewarding production of a difficult play.” – Audience member
a play by CARYL CHURCHILL directed by LORRAINE BAHR at BACK DOOR THEATER
“When Sowelu takes on playwright Caryl Churchill, it’s a case of tiger vs. tiger. Sowelu is known for its vivid physical approach. Churchill is known for ravishing language and political bent. Unlike so many sensually inert couples on Portland stages, Oakland and Russell generate actual heat: You can sense the physical pull that holds them helpless. Frustration rises like a fever as supporting characters reconcile themselves to the land that holds them like a loamy prison.” – Bob Hicks, The Oregonian
a play by ELIZABETH EGLOFF directed by BARRY HUNT at BACK DOOR THEATER
“Elizabeth Egloff’s play is a fairy tale set deep in the American heartland. Whether preening himself, puffing out his chest, charging in circles or slipping over the furniture effortlessly, Sean Skvarka skillfully portrays the swan with finely tuned athletic movements that are graceful, controlled and birdlike. Through his eyes, Skvarka conveys the yearning and desire that propels him. While nudity in the early scenes might trouble some viewers, The Swan should fly with Portland audiences.” – Richard Wattenberg, The Oregonian
a play by JAMES STOCK directed by BARRY HUNT at BACK DOOR THEATER
“British playwright James Stock’s Blue Night in the Heart of the West is a stunning mess befitting its subject: America. It’s the Book of Esther as told by David Lynch. No company other than Sowelu could do this piece justice, and Hunt has again generated power from a complex work. The Sowelu troupe is first-rate. As with all of Sowelu’s work, the audience never knows if the piece’s dangerousness will spill over onto them. That’s as it should be.” – Steffen Silvis, Willamette Week
a play by LEA FLODEN a SOWELU LAB DEVELOPMENT directed by BARRY HUNT at BACK DOOR THEATER
“Set in the dustbowl of the Midwest, the play is an exciting addition to the literature of freak shows as agents of transcendence. Hunt has honored her new work with a near-faultless production. Harder gives another powerful performance. Gallimore gives a quiet, understated reading. Michelle and Lauren Hasson give mature performances for two so young. The rest of the cast is equally strong.” – Steffen Silvis, Willamette Week
a play by MARTIN CRIMP directed by BARRY HUNT at BACK DOOR THEATER
KELLY TALLENT for OUTSTANDING ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
LORRAINE BAHR for OUTSTANDING ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
“British playwright Martin Crimp places his play within the ever-changing tent show of America, where narcissism and lubriciousness are at center stage while the promise of ‘making it’ fuels the optimistic misery of American life in the bleachers. The current production of Crimp’s play shows the company to be at the height of its craft, shaped by the interpretive intelligence of director Barry Hunt and his cast.” – Steffen Silvis, Willamette Week
a play by TANIA MYREN directed by GRETCHEN CORBETT at BACK DOOR THEATER
winner DRAMMY BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR, BEST DIRECTOR, BEST PRODUCTION, BEST SET
“A struggle in a post-apocalyptic landscape…where something went horribly wrong on Earth in the year 1400. Anse (Hunt) and Bhule (Harder) are brethren in a catastrophe cult that moves across the seared landscape, cleaning away human remains. They meet Persephone (Tallent) and her mother (Bahr), who lead them toward redemption. Corbett at last has a company prepared to meet the challenges posed in Myren’s play.” – Steffen Silvis, Willamette Week
a play by LUKE HEYERMAN, PRODUCED A SECOND TIME as a SOWELU LAB DEVELOPMENT PROJECT directed by BARRY HUNT at BACK DOOR THEATER
“Christmas, for all its rumored joys, is the nadir of drama production, where every theater strives to outdo the others by trundling out some creaking piece of holiday furniture. The only bright spot of the season has been Heyerman’s new play. Even more exciting is that it’s a work in progress. Heyerman and Hunt met this week to rewrite some scenes. For those who saw the piece early on, a second viewing should prove more rewarding than the predictable pantos elsewhere. – Steffen Silvis, Willamette Week
a play by JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY directed by BARRY HUNT at BACK DOOR THEATER
“Skvarka as Murk and Harder as Tony make excellent opposites. Oakland turns in a superb performance as Linda. Gallimore gives a powerful portrayal. Nan Gatchel’s April comes close to faultless. The execution of the piece is astonishing at times, both in the novel approach that yields up new meaning and in the physical interpretation of it. In an attempt to uncover the primal roots of live theater, Sowelu has successfully laid down important new roots.” — Steffen Silvis, Willamette Week
a play by LUKE HEYERMAN at STARK RAVING THEATER directed by BARRY HUNT at BACK DOOR THEATER
a DRAMMY BEST ORIGINAL PRODUCTION HONOREE
“Heyerman’s new play The Hero is a haunting tale of a soldier’s final battle with his demons. Lost in the desert, perhaps the Sahara, he confronts the memories of his sad wife, a beautiful mermaid he once lured to land. The cast includes Michael Fetters, one of the most promising actors in town. Sensitively directed by Barry Hunt, it lives up to a line by Saint-Expury, which says, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” – Steffen Silvis, Willamette Week
a play by LUKE HEYERMAN directed by BARRY HUNT
nominated for OUTSTANDING ORIGINAL PRODUCTION
This Stark Raving Theatre production workshop production sets the tone for what will become Sowelu Lab development of New Works and all players are made up of the soon-to-be Sowelu ensemble.
Produced by STARK RAVING THEATER, a play by ELIZA ANDERSON directed by GRETCHEN CORBETT
Gretchen Corbett directs Barry Hunt and the future Sowelu ensemble in a Stark Raving Theatre production that will later be adapted into the second Sowelu Dramatic film.
When I first took a writing class from Sowelu Artistic Director Barry Hunt I was 16. He taught me how to access my own point of view and to express in writing the way I saw the world. In acting classes I was challenged to dig deeper, to let go of my preconceived ideas, and to trust my instincts. In rehearsals and on set, I am constantly using the tools I was taught to work with my cast. Most importantly, I was taught to find collaborators and trust in them. In short, nearly every aspect of my creative process has been informed in some way by what I learned.