Portland’s Confrontation Theatre Wants to Address Diversity On-and Offstage, But It Isn’t Confined to a Single Story

Everything Confrontation Theatre does is tinged with hope.

(Shawnte Sims)

When La'Tevin Alexander decided to name his production company Confrontation Theatre, he was aware it could easily be misinterpreted.

"I knew people would think, 'Oh, it's political, it's socially charged, it's anti-white,'" says Alexander, whose company produces plays by and about the African diaspora. "I was initially concerned people would see it in a very narrow-minded way."

To be sure, Alexander's floater company frequently addresses systemic racism, but it's not beholden to a single narrative. Confrontation Theatre's first production was Dutchman, Amiri Baraka's 1964 play about a white woman who manipulates a black man she meets on a subway train. Its second was Every 28 Hours, a series of monologues about police brutality. But then, Confrontation Theatre produced Sibling Rivalry, a punch-line comedy about family dynamics.

Like most artists, Alexander wants his work to reflect the times. That includes the serious, the banal and the lighthearted. "There's a lot of tragedy going on right now, there's a lot of bigotry, there's a lot of white supremacy," he says. "And although I know they exist and I have to be prepared for them in case they cross my doorstep, I got to live, too."

Still, Alexander admits he doesn't really separate his work from his life. Sitting in a conference room at the Portland Playhouse, where he works as the front-of-the-house manager, he wears a Bob Marley T-shirt and a snapback from Jay-Z's 4:44 tour. A history buff and obsessive researcher, Alexander begins and ends the interview by referencing two books he has stashed in his backpack—a biography of 14th-century Malian emperor Mansa Musa and Children of Blood and Bone, a recently published YA novel that funnels Yoruban culture into the structure of a contemporary epic fantasy. On top of acting in and directing most of Confrontation Theatre's plays, Alexander is also a prolific freelance actor, which might explain his studiousness. "Anything is research," he says. "Whatever it is, I consume it all, and then try to lock it in, so that when the audience comes, I can just say, 'Fuck it.'"

Alexander thought up the name for his company while listening to Bob Marley's Confrontation when he was a senior at Florida A&M University. He had been assigned a theater management project that required him to devise a plan for a hypothetical company, and Marley's "Blackman Redemption" provided some inspiration for the mission statement. "I was listening to the song, and I'm like, yeah, I'm not apologizing for anything," Alexander remembers. "I'm reclaiming my own dignity, my own self-worth, my own self-reliance and caring about the well-being of our own selves."

Some of Alexander's plans for Confrontation Theatre were metaphorical—Marley and Malcolm X were on the theater's board. Others were completely sincere—Alexander devised a business plan to grow his company from a shoestring budget, and decided Confrontation Theatre would create art about the African diaspora by artists of the African diaspora. He liked that the word "confrontation" could relate to anything. "We're figuring out what issue can we confront that we haven't," he says, "that maybe our community is wanting to hear and to think about, or is running away from."

Alexander's professor encouraged him to put his plans into action, but he was more interested in pursuing his acting career. After graduating from FAMU in 2014, Alexander moved to the Rose City for an acting apprenticeship at the Portland Playhouse. But once he became immersed in Portland theater, the idea for Confrontation re-emerged.

"There was this push to do work by and about black people and the black experience," he says. "Although we were on the stage, we weren't in the staffing. We weren't in all the places that would ideally be more effective to diversity, equity and inclusion."

So in 2016, Alexander decided to create his own company. Over the course of Confrontation Theatre's four productions, Alexander slowly assembled a staff: managing director Andrea Vernae, who often also acts in Confrontation productions, media director Tamera Lynn, outreach director Alagia Felix, education director Jasmine Cottrell and technical director Phil Johnson.

Alexander initially built Confrontation Theatre so he could tell the stories he wanted to tell, the way he wanted to tell them. But recently, the company has been expanding its influence beyond its own productions. When Portland Playhouse was looking to hire a black prop master for its production of Fences in spring, it reached out to Alexander, who connected the theater with his FAMU professor Evelyn D. Tyler. Confrontation also partners with Fade to Black, a live forum at Portland Playhouse for members of the African diaspora. For each meeting, Confrontation Theatre writes scenarios to help provoke discussion.

Next spring, Confrontation will co-produce the world premiere of Jump with Milagro Theatre. Alexander hopes Confrontation can do more co-productions in the future. "A smaller company that really could benefit with that actor but can't pay him or her as much, that creates a problem where the actor is like, 'I got to make a business choice,'" says Alexander. But if companies like Confrontation can partner with established theaters already backed by donors and grants, he says, "that creates, I think, one of the best solutions to the problem. Then, you can get the best actor or the best manager or whoever, and still do the work they want to do."

Alexander plans for Confrontation Theatre to keep growing. The company is holding its first fundraiser at the end of the month at Milagro, and Confrontation Theatre is currently developing a play for the next Fertile Ground, a citywide festival of new works in January. Alexander isn't ready to reveal any details about the play yet, but everything Confrontation Theatre does is tinged with hope.

"Although, yes, white supremacy is a motherfucker right now, it will end," he says. "I believe that to be true."

SEE IT: Fade to Black (open only to people of the African diaspora) is at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., portlandplayhouse.com, on Saturday, Nov. 3. 11 am-3 pm. Jump opens March 21. See confrontationtheatre.com for details.

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