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Oregon Shakespeare Festival explores the price of progress

At first glance, Idris Goodwin’s newest play, “The Way the Mountain Moved,” may appear miles apart, if not worlds away, from his usual beat. An acclaimed playwright, rapper, essayist and poet, Goodwin typically explores the urban hip-hop scene in his work, not the Wild West of 1850s America.

In both settings, cultures collide, clash and contradict, and the inhabitants are forced to face the consequences of their decisions and actions, Goodwin says.

“The Way the Mountain Moved,” commissioned as an installment in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions series, will be debuted through Oct. 28 in the Thomas Theatre on the OSF campus, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. Showtimes, ticket prices and information available at osfashland.org or by calling 800-219-8161.

This play joins “All The Way,” “Roe,” “Sweat” and others previously presented as American Revolutions commissions in the United States History Cycle. Suitable for middle and high school groups, “The Way the Mountain Moved” is meant to be an educational experience.

Goodwin wrote the play to turn the page of an iconic chapter in American history and highlight significant moments that shaped the country’s moral and environmental landscape, specifically the building of the transcontinental railroad and the pre-Civil War era.

“The time was ripe for drama,” Goodwin says in a telephone interview.

In Goodwin’s fictional version of the 1850s, four men — a U.S. Army lieutenant, a sharpshooter, a botanist and an artist — set out across a remote desert to survey a route for the new continent-spanning railroad. When a terrifying phenomenon scatters them in what is now Utah’s Salt Lake Valley, their separate odysseys cross paths with lost pioneers, wary Paiutes and an African-American Mormon couple unsure whether to befriend, fight or flee from the newcomers.

“In the craziness, the different factions interact, and their beliefs intersect and collide. (The surveyors) begin to question their mission and their role in the mission,” Goodwin says.

“The play asks tough questions,” he says. One of those questions: “Whose dreams will prevail as one group oppresses another?”

“There is this convergence,” Goodwin says. “What is the price of progress? What does it mean to the land and to the people?”

What is exposed is “a microcosm of the nation, then and now,” he says.

Goodwin is best known for “How We Got On,” his 2013 portrait of three African-American teenagers dreaming of power and fortune in the 1980s hip-hop music scene, and “And in This Corner Cassius Clay.” Produced in 2016, the story of the young prizefighter is set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. The play received the 2017 Distinguished Play Award from the American Association of Theater and Education.

This spring, Goodwin takes the helm as producing artistic director of StageOne Family Theater in Louisville, Kentucky. The first production, an adaptation of “Frankenstein,” opens in July.

Like his earlier plays, Goodwin wanted to explore often untold perspectives in “The Way the Mountain Moved.”

He wanted to give opportunity for “a disenfranchised segment to tell their stories in their own voice.”

“We’ve inherited a complicated history that we are still trying to reconcile,” he says. “Theater is a vehicle to gaining deeper knowledge and empathy.”

Goodwin says his work has been inspired by music, mainly hip-hop. He often uses slang and song lyrics from the 1980s in his plays.

“I like the literacy of the lyrics, the story-telling, and the wordplay between characters,” he says.

He also notes being influenced by filmmakers Spike Lee, Martin Scorcese and Brian DePalma, and playwrights Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson.

Goodwin also says he admired Robert Schenkkan’s courage and vision in his play “All the Way.”

“I have always been drawn to those with a particular view, a particular voice, a distinctive style,” he says.

“The Way the Mountain Moved” is being staged in OSF’s most intimate theater just as Goodwin wanted.

Because the play is character-driven and the dialogue lyrical, he says he wanted it played in the round.

The intimate setting allows the audience to be drawn into the characters’ struggles.

“The people are enterprising, fiercely independent and often wrong-headed,” he says.

Goodwin says that “The Way the Mountain Moved” was written “out of both my love for and frustration with westerns.”

“This is the western I have wanted to see. I felt that westerns could do more in telling the story of the conflict and diversity during the western expansion — the deep-running consequences to both the land and to the values of the people.”

Krista Unverferth, right, and Robert Vincent Patrick appear in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "The Way the Mountain Moved." Jenny Graham / OSF