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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: January 9, 2018

Where racism exists, the Theater Ensemble of Color aims to educate

Written by: Bob Keyes

Photo courtesy of Theater Ensemble of Color

For its first play of 2018, the Theater Ensemble of Color presents “Rachel,” a play written a century ago about a young woman of color who confronts the realities of racism in America. It seemed like an appropriate choice for the theater company, which operates with a mission of strengthening culture through education, activism and the arts.

Rene Goddess Johnson, the theater’s artistic director, saw a lot of herself in the title character, who works as a teacher and vows never to have children to spare them the hurt and injustice of growing up black in America.

“Rachel is me. It’s my story,” she said. “It represents everything I was questioning about living as a black woman. Why would I do this to my babies? Why would I raise them in a world I do not feel safe in?”

The play opens Thursday and runs through Jan. 21 at the Studio Theater at Portland Stage Company.

Related to “Rachel,” the ensemble also will preview its summer production, “A Meal for Malaga,” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 16. An original play by Christina W. Richardson, “A Meal for Malaga” tells the story of the small, multi-racial island community off the Maine coast, whose residents were forcibly removed from the island and relocated by the state in 1911. The play considers what caused the forced removal and explores the role of racism.

The two plays are logical companion pieces because “Rachel” was written around the time that real-life events at Malaga took place. The two theater pieces create context for each other, Johnson said, and demonstrate the kind of racism that people of color live with in America, then and now.

This is exactly the kind of theater Johnson had in mind when she formed the Theater Ensemble of Color in fall 2014. The ensemble has earned its reputation as a theater willing to take on difficult subjects with a goal of creating a more welcoming and diverse community. It’s a multi-ethnic, multi-generational ensemble that operates under the fiscal sponsorship of the Celebration Barn Theater in South Paris.

“For me, this company is about the truth and how to help people,” said Johnson, who grew up in South Africa under Apartheid and came to the United States when she was 6. She has lived in Maine most of her life and doesn’t feel comfortable here, because of her skin tone. “All I want to do is be accepted in a place I love being in, and after 26 years that is not true, and it breaks my heart,” she said.

She is trying to use theater to change that, and “Rachel” is part of that effort. Angelina Weld Grimke wrote the play in 1916. Grimke was named for her great-aunt, the abolitionist Angelina Grimke Weld. Her father, Archibald Grimke, was vice president of the NAACP. She wrote “Rachel,” in part, in response to the racism of the film “The Birth of a Nation” in hopes of educating white audiences about the effects of racism and the inhumanity of lynchings. It was first staged at NAACP anti-lynching rallies protesting the film. The program for its first production included a note, “This is the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relative to the lamentable condition of the millions of Colored citizens in this free republic.”

Theater Ensemble of Color’s “Rachel”

WHEN: Opens Thursday, through Jan. 21; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19-20 and 2 p.m. Jan. 21
WHERE: Studio Theater, Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland
HOW MUCH: $15 advance, $20 day of show; discounts for students and seniors;
ALSO: The Theater Ensemble of Color will preview its summer production, “A Meal for Malaga,” with a staged reading at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the theater.

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