Left Hook is a play about disruption and dashed hope. It offers insight into the lives of people who lose homes, businesses and, most of all, their sense of community.
Yet, it offers a slim sense of hope for the future – for those young enough to have a future – as its characters leave what they have known to step into the unknown.
The play, written by Rich Rubin and directed by Damaris Webb, is set in the early 1970s as people are forced out of the Albina community where Emanuel Hospital plans to expand with the help of the Portland Development Commission’s urban renewal powers.
The play will have a staged reading, with actors but no elaborate sets or costumes, at 7 p.m. Oct. 13 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, on Northeast Schuyler Street between 16th and 17th avenues. Public transit and carpooling are recommended. Only street parking is available because the church parking lot is being reconstructed. The suggested donation of $10 may be paid in cash or check at the door.
Laura Lo Forti’s eight-minute filmed conversation with Kent Ford, leader of the Portland Black Panthers in the 1970s, will precede the play. Afterward, a moderated panel will include Ford; Ray Lampkin, a former professional boxer; and Stanley Dunn, the boxing program director at the Matt Dishman Community Center.
The story is set in a boxing gym where the African-American owner, Ty, 40, sees the hospital plans as an opportunity to start a construction business and gain financially from the rebuilding expected for his old neighborhood.
He’s a man who practices physical, mental and even dietary discipline to stay in shape for boxing, and he teaches the value of discipline to his student, Donnie, 18.
The Westminster reading is a production of Vanport Mosaic, a nonprofit founded in 2015 by Webb, Lo Forti and Renee Mitchell. The mission is to elevate the stories of communities of color, said Webb, and bring them into the dominant culture. The nonprofit, she said, is “community driven and artist led.”
Webb, who has worked with playwright Rubin in the past, expects to produce “Left Hook” at the Vanport Mosaic Festival, scheduled the last weekend in May 2018. The name recalls the 1948 Memorial Day flood that destroyed the city of Vanport, built as temporary housing for workers in the World War II Kaiser Shipyards and related industries.
About a third of Vanport’s post-war residents were African-Americans who were forced to seek post-flood housing in North and Northeast neighborhoods that had been targeted by realtors and banks with a practice called redlining. Within that district, a central commercial hub extended along Williams Avenue from Russell Street north, surrounded by residential streets.
More than 20 years later, buildings in the area were leveled for an Emanuel Hospital expansion. However, the federal money needed for new construction didn’t arrive and much of the land remained empty for decades. Former residents and their families are still angry at the city, the hospital and the urban renewal agency for the destruction of the community.
In the play, Ty, the boxing gym owner, sinks money into a construction business that dies along with the old community and the hospital plan. A friend shows Ty a newspaper story about the loss of government money and comments:
“Spent all the money tearin’ us down, so no money left to build us back up.”
That was the left hook, a powerful blow the boxer didn’t see coming.
A 1971 Portland City Club report noted that residents complained to city council in 1970 that they weren’t consulted about the hospital plans, and many had no information until appraisers knocked on their door or they received notices to move without adequate relocation plans.
The report, covering several Portland urban renewal districts, recommended that affected residents be involved in future planning efforts. The report also recommended abolishing the autonomous development commission and creating a city department to undertake urban renewal, which didn’t happen.
In 2012, the hospital offered a public apology for its role in razing the area. Some observers say city and federal officials shared in the debacle.
What theater can do, Webb said, “is allow us, in the dark for a couple of hours, to empathize with the lived experience … and consider the ways to connect with people. I hope there is activism. That can look so many different ways. But theater can connect the community.”