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Tracing Pacifics ethnic history

Tensions between settlers and native people in Forest Groves founding


Talking about race and identity in a politically-correct society or even the historically diverse college town of Forest Grove can be eye-opening at best and awkward at worst. A fear of misspeaking or offending can paralyze a conversation before any true understanding can be reached.

That feeling of anxiety, worry and self-doubt is exactly what Pacific’s guest artistic director Jessica Wallenfels was going for when she asked her university theater art students to create a piece about race.

It’s called — The Anxious Seat, also known as the Pacific Identity Project, unscripted and completely devised by Wallenfels and 10 diverse Pacific students.

Part ethnic exploration, part song-and-dance show and entirely original, Pacific’s theater and dance department investigates issues of culture, race and identity while melding the university town’s rich history with genuine experiences of students today.

Take a seat nearest the stage at the Tom Miles Theater on campus from Thursday, Oct. 18 through Sunday, Oct. 21 to see a production that just might bring you closer to an experience of revelation.

When Pacific’s theater and dance department chair Ellen Margolis invited two-time Drammy-winning Portland choreographer and director Wallenfels to take the lead in directing a theater piece on ethnic identity, Wallenfels, a complete stranger to the town at the time, admits she was intimidated. She said yes anyway.

Her students were just as edgy, but both immersed themselves in Pacific University and Forest Grove history.

“The town was founded by congregational missionaries who came across the Oregon Trail,” said Wallenfels. “People moved from New England, the South, thinking they could get a big farm and live a better life.”

But as white settlers began “claiming” land, conflicts arose with the Native Americans already living there.

“Pacific has a lot of pride in its history,” said Wallenfels. Though colonialist forces may be its underlying foundation, “I don’t think that’s the kind of spirit we’re really proud of,” she said.

What is now a private liberal arts college, in 1847 was an Orphan Asylum, opened by missionaries for children abandoned in the move west or by parents who went south seeking California gold, said Wallenfels. Two years later the asylum became Tualatin Academy and in 1854, the institution became Pacific University.

At one time, Tualatin Academy housed a military-run Indian training school, where Native Americans were forced to leave behind their way of life and assimilate to American culture.

Given the fact that its roots seem backward today, Wallenfels and her students were anxious to find a history that Pacific University and Forest Grove could be proud of.

Today, Pacific University educates a white student majority as well as a diverse mix of students — Asians and Pacific Islanders, Hispanic, African-American, Native American and Alaskan natives as well as older and transfer students.

Nearly a quarter of students are from Hawaii, said Wallenfels. In addressing the school’s past, students couldn’t leave out the present, which lead them to question how can different ethnic people learn to understand each other?

They found their lead from two early Forest Grove missionaries who named the first pew of the church the anxious seat — where the reverend invites folks to sit who need to know the Lord or have special prayers in hopes that the communal energy of the church will force a person into a religious revelation.

“It seems we were all sitting in the anxious seat,” said Wallenfels. What better seat than one where we might experience revelation?

The Anxious Seat weaves stories of Pacific’s past and present, seamlessly intertwining both periods. For scenes dealing with the past, Wallenfels had students research a historical character instrumental to the founding of Forest Grove or Pacific, while students play themselves in scenes that deal with present, personal experiences.

She says in rehearsals, students explore the difference between a student from Hawaii and a student from Hillsboro and transfer students from an older, minority student by improvising a scene that might occur on campus.

The ensemble plays many characters, juggling personas in front of the audience. Cast members are gender and colorblind in historical scenes while present scenes are more realistic.

Students, guided by Wallenfels’ knack for storytelling through movement, developed a script for the Anxious Seat using multiple sources — archival documents, letters, autobiographies — and ventured on two walking tours of the campus and town, courtesy of Mary Jo Morelli, president of Friends of Historic Forest Grove.

The actual show is bare bones theater — curtains, the stage, a few crates and costumes. It operates like a musical with dance and song, but it’s more about non-verbal storytelling.

This story of a small university town coming to be in America is one most people think they know, but the master narrative, like Manifest Destiny, all leaves a trail of tears.

However, in recognizing the tragedies of the past and revealing small successes along the way, Pacific’s theater art and dance students have found a tasteful and unique way to celebrate diversity today.



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  • 2 Sep 2014

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