What is Black wealth? How does the physicality of Blackness benefit everyone in society except for Black people themselves? These questions are often in the backs of Black minds. Yet, there aren't many facets of entertainment—or, really, facets of society in general—that attempt to confront such dilemmas. Soul'd: The Economics of Our Black Body is a new performance piece presented by Vanport Mosaic that uses comedy and drama to examine the ways Black bodies have been used as a means of production in the U.S., from slavery to the present day.
Created by Damaris Webb and "the project," a cohort of African American performers and designers, Soul'd isn't a typical play with a plot or story arc. Instead, it is a series of monologues and sketches that, when presented together, tell a part of the Black narrative. For instance, cast members in a hilarious skit called "Gentrification Jeopardy" are asked to accurately and competitively identify white gentrification throughout history. This segment, like any game show, even breaks for commercials—one looks back at Black exploitation through cotton farming while another surveys the horror of for-profit prisons.
"Money—who gets to spend it and who gets to hold it—is really what helps define us as Black Americans versus other Black cultures," says Webb. "It's our capitalist democracy that keeps the perpetuation of certain systems in place."
Making sure that nearly every aspect of Soul'd was Black was an important part of bringing the project to fruition, though it wasn't easy. Webb describes a certain loneliness to being part of a theater community that's largely white, and the fact that Soul'd was generated by Oregonians of color is a surprise to many.
"It's a shock to people who aren't from here that Black people are here," says Webb. "That's the other sad part of the 'there's no Black people in Portland' narrative—it's a double negative. First, there's not that many of us to begin with, but then the ones who are here are told they don't exist."
Webb is right—Black people do exist here, and Soul'd speaks on their behalf as well. One bit is about how Portland's Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard used to be all Black-owned businesses. There's even a reference to Jermaine Massey, the Lloyd District DoubleTree hotel guest who was kicked off the property last December while calling his mother from the lobby, illustrating how public spaces are still controlled along racial lines.
These instances aren't the only ones that zero in on local adversity, though. Root Shocked, a documentary by Cecilia Brown, is being screened alongside Soul'd. The short tells the story of generational oppression through Portland's use of blight condemnations, which local artist Cleo Davis sought to bring attention to by moving the historic Mayo House to a property that has been in his family for decades.
"I instantly knew this was a really powerful story that I think deserved more coverage than a typical breaking news story," says Brown. "What Cleo was trying to do is shed light on the racist history of Portland and how that affected his family, and how through these seemingly unimportant policies and mundane ordinances, the displacement of an entire Black community could take place."
Soul'd and Root Shocked can spark conversation and change, and neither takes that responsibility lightly. Balancing comedy and tragedy almost equally, the production as a whole challenges the conventions of modern theater, as well as what Black economic empowerment looks like.
"We're not saying we have the answer, but we're sharing what we feel may be something you feel or something you've gone through," says Webb. "I think this will energize conversations to come."
SEE IT: Soul'd: The Economics of Our Black Body is at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N Interstate Ave., vanportmosaic.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 pm Sunday, through Nov. 24. $25 suggested, $5 students and seniors.