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.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Syairah Sims, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Margaret Scott Elementary School, has acted in 'Who I Am' since she was a little girl. Her mother, Shalanda Sims, wrote and directs the play.

“Somewhere along the line, African-American history here in Oregon kind of missed my generation and my children’s generation,” said Sims, a Troutdale resident. “I noticed there wasn’t 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 year’s 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. “Let’s get some information into these kids and in the process, even the adults who didn’t learn the history will be involved.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK -  A class with state Sen. Avel Gordly seven years ago inspired Shalanda Sims, a Troutdale resident, to write and produce a theater production celebrating black history.

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.

“I’ve 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 Syairah’s 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.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - In the play, Syairah Sims acts in a scene about Madam C.J. Walker, a self-made millionaire who developed beauty products for African-American women. OUTLOOK PHOTO:  JIM CLARK

While Madam C.J. Walker’s 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 she’d learned on a deeper level how difficult it was to be a slave. She’s 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 don’t know about his culture.

“It shows how we’ve come a long way and what we’ve 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 there’s still room for “Who I Am” to expand.

“I hope it will start conversations and unify communities,” Sims said.

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