Nearly a decade before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a federal holiday, Ken Berry celebrated the minister’s legacy with Portland in mind. In 1978, Berry spent several winter weeks in a basement, alongside fellow Black community leaders Michael Grice and Herb Cawthorne, conceptualizing a live program to commemorate Dr. King’s dream while raising funds for students of color to attend Catlin Gabel School.
“We wanted to do something to support the community and Portland Public Schools as well,” says Berry, a four-decade veteran of public education and executive producer of the Keep Alive the Dream celebration.
The annual tradition became formalized with Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1985 and evolved into a six-to-eight-hour extravaganza featuring live performers, speakers and vendors. Now, upended by the pandemic for yet another year, Keep Alive the Dream, hosted by World Arts Foundation Inc., has been translated into documentary form. The result is an hourlong archival film, set to screen at Hollywood Theatre on Jan. 17 and air via OPB Plus and Open Signal the same day along with its annual audio program on KBOO. The free screening will also feature a Q&A and live music.
The film opens with a brief history of Portland’s Black community: from the repeal of Oregon’s Black exclusion laws, to the flooding of Vanport, to the vibrance and civic neglect of North Portland, to modern gentrification. From there, it’s segmented into sermons, music, the program’s generational impact, and the inclusion of multicultural art from outside the African American community.
Overall, Keep Alive the Dream functions as both a snapshot and highlight reel of four decades of arts and activism, digitized from 16 mm film, U-matic tape cassette, and VHS. The condensation from several hundred hours of footage to a 57-minute documentary was an act of marathon curation for director Elijah Hasan.
“When I step back and take a breath, it was really like a rite of passage,” says Hasan, who began chronicling Keep Alive the Dream as a volunteer photographer in the early 2000s. “If you would’ve told me it would be an hourlong show in the beginning, I couldn’t have imagined how that would even be possible.”
Center stage in the doc is the history of Black music in Portland, with appearances by influential artists like Thara Memory, the Legendary Beyons, Janice Scroggins and Ken Berry himself, seen serenading his then-infant son Cedric with “The Greatest Love of All.” Many are among the musicians Keep Alive the Dream producer and XRAY.fm host Bobby Smith documents through the Albina Music Trust initiative.
“I love this film for the music,” Smith says, “but the impact of that music is taken to greater heights in this context.”
Among the dozens of artists who made it into the film, Hasan highlights musical prodigy “Master” Goldie Irby as showcasing the event’s sheer depth of talent. Nine years old when he commanded the stage in 1989, Irby’s gospel virtuosity represents a musical through line for Keep Alive the Dream.
“His genius and level of talent at such a young age was on a level with Stevie Wonder—if not better than Stevie Wonder—as a kid,” Hasan says. “To me the central theme or genetic consistency was just soul. That is the determining factor: the feeling.”
While longtime attendees of Keep Alive the Dream may sorely miss the marathon volunteer spirit that fueled the live celebration before the pandemic, 2022′s documentary version could be a fitting time to reflect, as Berry tries to hand the stewardship of this dream to the next generation. In the coming months, Smith will help launch the Albina Community Cultural Archive—”an online library of sorts,” as he puts it—with mountains more footage and documentation of Albina District history.
“Maybe it needs to take on a new version,” Berry says. “I think there’s still a lot of material we haven’t even tapped into yet that could possibly be used in a part two down the road. My goal is to let the [World Arts Foundation] board decide what they want to do. It’s time to pass it on now.”
SEE IT: Keep Alive the Dream screens with a Q&A at Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., 503-493-1128, hollywoodtheatre.org. 3 pm Monday, Jan. 17. Admission is free, but a ticket needs to be claimed for entry.