PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Justin Heath is all too familiar with the often-needed skill of “changing code” after a decade in the corporate world.
Heath grew up in a predominantly black South Carolina town, and he describes his personality and natural way of speaking as more “urban”. When he entered college, he had to quickly learn to change the way he acts and speaks.
“I realized that the more I code-switched, the more interviews I could get, the more jobs I could get and that sort of thing,” he said, referring to the switch from his natural way of speaking to a more formal speech. . “So with experience, I kind of learned to deactivate my original personality and activate the more accepted personality – which people understand better, I guess.”
So when Heath starred in a Beaverton play about a black man impersonating a white man, he immediately connected with his character.
Experience Theater Project’s “Great Gatsby’s Daisy” resets F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, “The Great Gatsby” — you might remember reading it in high school English class — through the eyes of Daisy Buchanan, challenging Nick Carraway’s reliability as narrator. The performance will be an immersive experience, where audience members will have the chance to explore Buchanan Mansion, Nick’s Cottage, a speakeasy club and Gatsby’s Mansion.
In this version, the mystery behind Jay Gatsby doesn’t just revolve around his wealth and character, but also his race. Jay Gatsby, in this version, is a black man pretending to be white.
This version of the story has its roots in historical accuracy, said Alisa Stewart, who wrote and directed the play.
Stewart refers to the book “Jay Gatsby: A Black Man in Whiteface”, written by Janet Savage, which argues that “The Great Gatsby” is peppered with clues to Gatsby’s racial identity, describing as examples Gatsby having “the skin tanned” and “cropped hair.”
Gatsby’s 40 acres of land could also be a possible reference to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s broken post-Civil War promise that former slaves should receive 40 acres of land from Confederate landowners.
But Stewart thinks the most compelling evidence is correspondence Fitzgerald had with his publisher before the novel was published.
Fitzgerald originally intended the novel to be called “Trimalchio at West Egg”, referencing the character of Trimalchio in “The Satyricon”, a Roman comedy about a former slave who gained his freedom and wealth from his former master, and hosted lavish parties similar to Gatsby. Like Savage, Stewart thinks this is a clue that Gatsby is a descendant of black slaves.
“We decided to approach the character’s story this way — that he’s actually an African-American posing as a white male,” Stewart said. “That’s why he had to forget his past. That’s why he had to leave his family. That’s why he had to reinvent himself. He had to come back a whole new person.
Heath said it was a version of the story he had never heard before joining Stewart’s project, but after re-examining the text he cannot see it any other way.
“The more I researched this project and some of the nuances that came up, the more sense it makes,” he said.
Pre-production on the play did not go without its fair share of hurdles and controversy, Stewart said.
Some criticism, she said, has come from literary purists who “like to keep things the way they are.”
Stewart, who is white, said she’s also received backlash from people who say a white woman shouldn’t write and direct a play about something so ingrained in the black experience.
“When we started, a stage manager quit immediately because she felt we weren’t representing the BIPOC community in our space,” Stewart said.
Stewart admitted she was initially confused by the backlash, as her intention was to be sensitive and respectful. She said she wanted to do everything in her power to keep the production respectful and safe for black actors. So she enlisted the help of James Dixon, who joined the project as an equity advisor.
Dixon has been involved in the Portland theater community for decades. Currently, he is Co-Artistic Director of Theater at the Crossroads and Artistic Director Producer of BlaQ OUT, an incubator for Black and LGBTQ community theater.
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Dixon, who said he was friends with Stewart before first committing to the project, acknowledged that while reading the script there were some aspects that made him uncomfortable.
“I like to tell people that when I watch a black show on stage, if you have an all-white artistic team, I can tell,” he said. “When I read it, there were definitely parts that were a little weird to me, and mostly because they lacked perspective, which I was hoping to deliver.”
Dixon advised Stewart to allow some of the black actors to become more involved in their character’s stories.
“I always support the actor, always first,” Dixon said. “And that’s because they’re the ones doing the work, and they’re the ones going through it.”
There is a scene in the production where the N-word is used by a white character who espouses racist views. This gave rise to discussions, Dixon said.
“Like, when can we say the N-word? Do we say it when we’re in character? Can we talk about it like it’s just a word on a piece of paper? We should be able to do that, but for be honest, words have power, don’t they?” said Dixon.
Pass as a means of survival
One of the key messages audience members should take away from “Great Gatsby’s Daisy” is that overtaking was not just an opportunistic tool for paler-complexioned black people to get ahead, but a means of survival. , said Eric Island, who plays Gatsby’s father.
“I think there’s a feeling behind us that wishes we didn’t have to,” he said. “You know, if everything was still equal and fair, we could have a different conversation.”
Island said he started acting about a decade ago almost by accident. He said he’s worked with Stewart in past productions, including “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” where he played the sheriff.
Island will also perform in a live stage performance called “Crossroads at Chambersburg”, which tells the story of abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown. The piece will air from January 27 to February 6 on www.fertilegroundpdx2022.org.
While Island’s character in “Great Gatsby’s Daisy” has few lines, he says the character plays a pivotal role in Gatsby’s past and where he comes from.
“There were people in our community that we knew who were able to (pass) and you know, we want to applaud that, but you hope they don’t get lumped in there and forget where they’re from. come,” Island said. “But at the same time, you know, it’s their answer to ‘how can I survive?'”
“Great Gatsby’s Daisy” will air beginning Friday, January 28 and will last through Sunday, February 20.
Live performances will take place on Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Masks and proof of COVID-19 vaccination (or proof of negative PCR test within 48 hours) are required by all participants.
Tickets are available online at www.experiencetheatreproject.org or by calling the box office at 503-568-1765.