Celebrating history through theater
In its seventh year, 'Who I Am' draws awareness to Black History Month
About seven years ago, Shalanda Sims was taking a class about community issues with state Sen. Avel Gordly.
At the time, Sims felt frustrated by a lack of black history awareness and the unfair treatment she and her family experienced in her community.
What are you going to do about it? Gordly, an activist, community organizer and the first African-American woman elected to the Oregon Senate, asked Sims.
Spurred to action, Sims combined her love of theater and history, writing Who I Am, a theater production celebrating Black History Month.
Somewhere along the line, African-American history here in Oregon kind of missed my generation and my childrens generation, said Sims, a Troutdale resident. I noticed there wasnt a lot being done in the community for Black History Month, and I wanted to bridge that gap of educating all youths and the community.
Seven years later, the Who I Am production continues to raise awareness about black history, drawing participants from throughout the Portland area, including Sims children.
With most performances at Jefferson High School, this years production will feature a show at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, at Reynolds High School.
Who I Am weaves together significant national stories in black history, beginning with slavery, highlighting freedom, chronicling the Vanport era in Oregon and leading up to today.
Each year, the stories are varied, but they retain the same message.
The entertainment and education collide, Sims said. Lets get some information into these kids and in the process, even the adults who didnt learn the history will be involved.
A Jefferson High School alumna, Sims attended the University of Portland on a scholarship for theater and toured with a choir for five years before working with five theater companies. In the past decade, she has taught theater to schools, businesses and organizations.
Former students of Sims have gone on to college and performed in plays; written scripts and books; and performed with theater companies.
Her children, Elijah, Isaiah and Syairah, have inherited a love of theater and have participated in Who I Am since its inception.
Ive always been a little dramatic, Syairah Sims, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Margaret Scott Elementary School, said with a laugh. I love to act and sing and dance.
One of Syairahs scenes revolves around Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American woman who made her fortune developing beauty and hair care products for black women and secured a legacy as the first self-made female millionaire in America.
While Madam C.J. Walkers lavish costumes are fun, Syairah admits her favorite character to portray is Willa Smith in the Whip My Hair scene.
Zahira Hurst, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Walt Morey Middle School, said shed learned on a deeper level how difficult it was to be a slave. Shes also developed a deep admiration for Sojourner Truth.
Sims son, Isaiah, a 14-year-old freshman at Reynolds High School, said his favorite part of the play is teaching those who dont know about his culture.
It shows how weve come a long way and what weve been able to do, Isaiah said.
Black History Month was first celebrated in 1926, held as a weeklong event in February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
In 1976, the celebration was extended to a month, with President Gerald Ford urging Americans to seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout history.
Seven years after her first production, Sims has seen significant growth in Black History Month programming and awareness. But theres still room for Who I Am to expand.
I hope it will start conversations and unify communities, Sims said.