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Theater preview: Tangoing With Tornadoes

One woman's ordeal can be lesson for all
by: ©2008 STEPHANIE YAO, Playwright S. Renee Mitchell presents a cathartic view of verbal and emotional abuse in relationships.

S. Renee Mitchell is one of the more high-profile crusaders for social change in Portland. But in addition to her grim determination to fight perceived wrongs, the poet, novelist and Oregonian columnist gets an almost giddy pleasure from playing the entertainer.

'I do,' she says, smiling broadly. 'Being there in front of the audience is wild. It forces me out of my comfort zone.'

This weekend, there will be talk of change and costume changes when Mitchell unveils the latest reworking of her 'Tangoing With Tornadoes,' a 'choreoplay' that addresses the issue of verbal and emotional abuse in relationships.

The subject cuts close to the bone for the playwright and producer, who also will take the stage.

'I had gone through this experience not really knowing what it was,' she says. 'I was on my way to a nervous breakdown, still having to function as a mother and a professional.

'I thought, If this could happen to me, imagine what's happening to other women out there,' she says. 'I decided I'm going to keep pushing this. It was like a calling.'

With Mitchell serving as narrator, the play uses movement and song as well as dramatic portrayals to bring light to a problem many women - particularly in the black community - are not inclined to even acknowledge.

'It's the whole myth of the strong black woman,' Mitchell says. 'We're expected to ignore all of the things that are going wrong. We don't seek help.'

Mitchell says people who try to suppress their responses to abusive behavior end up debilitated by low self-esteem, depression and exhaustion, to say nothing of drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal tendencies.

The current production is the latest version of a work Mitchell fashioned from her collected poems in 2003 and staged again in 2005. Despite the serious subject, she says the play is designed to entertain.

Included in the cast are Nasir Najieb, who recently won acclaim for his performance in Sowelu Theater's 'Streamers,' and Cheryl Martini, who appeared in the popular 'La Carpa del Ausente' at Milagro Theatre.

'It's cathartic, but it's also humorous,' Mitchell says. 'We present this information in a way that's entertaining.'

Mitchell says performing is an extension of the candor she has shown as a writer.

As a columnist, she once was roundly criticized after revealing that she had left her children at a public library only to find them in the company of police when she failed to retrieve them before closing time.

'I make mistakes,' she says. 'I don't mind telling people that sometimes I haven't made the right decisions as a mom. I think it's important for high-profile people to be honest about their humanity.'

She admits that going on stage may provide an opportunity for her detractors, but that doesn't faze her.

'People are going to come just to see me fail, and that's fine, too,' she says. 'Come on!'

- Eric Bartels

7 p.m. FRIDAY and SATURDAY, 3 p.m. SUNDAY, through Jan. 27, Center for Self-Enhancement, 3920 N. Kerby Ave., 503-249-1721 ext. 259, free