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OSF employees join other artists in responding to violence in Missouri

Three Oregon Shakespeare Festival employees journeyed to Ferguson, Mo., last weekend to be part of an ongoing dialogue with other artists about oppression, violence and resistance happening in that part of the country.

Ferguson, a suburb just north of St. Louis, drew national attention this month after white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot an unarmed,18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, on Aug. 9. Accounts of the events leading up to the shooting are disparate, and the investigation is ongoing.

In the weeks since, there have been reports of fires, looting, mass arrests, vandalism, protests that have turned violent, attacks on police officers and police response that included tear gas and armored vehicles.

In response to the mayhem, OSF’s Claudia Alick started a Facebook page, titled “The Ferguson Moment,” calling theater artists nationwide to organize “national artistic responses” to what was happening in Ferguson. The page has since garnered more than 400 members, including OSF’s Sharifa Johka and Mica Cole.

 “I was sitting in our production of ‘The Great Society,’ and there was a scene that looked like it was straight out of Ferguson,” Alick said.

“I was struck very strongly by the resonance of that,” she said.

As part of their own response, Alick, Johka and Cole traveled on Friday to Ferguson with the goals of serving the community, documenting the experience and collaborating with other artists. The trip was sponsored by OSF, Alick said.

“Arts are uniquely positioned to help communities talk about difficult issues and also to process them,” Alick said. “And that means healing.”

Other artists from around the country also traveled to St. Louis and Ferguson for the weekend.

On Friday, they met with a group of local and national artists to determine how they could help, as well as with Ron Himes, director of the St. Louis Black Repertory Theater, and the cast of “Purlie Victorious.”

Alick said the cast members talked about how they were personally affected by what was happening in Ferguson. One cast member shared her husband had been jailed for no reason while he was visiting family in the area. Another had witnessed a separate shooting earlier this month in St. Louis.

On Saturday, the artists spent time volunteering in Ferguson. Alick, Johka and Cole each took time volunteering with others at a visual arts table, organized by local artist Elizabeth Vega, in the neighborhood where Brown was killed.

“It felt like a regular neighborhood except that the street was covered in roses at the site of where a man had been killed and except for all the protesters, artists, religious figures and curious passersby who lined the streets,” she said. “The neighborhood was loud and, at one point, there were three different people talking on loudspeakers.”

Alick said she spent the day at a table with art supplies. People passing the table would write a message on a piece of construction paper and add it to the “story wall.”

Some wrote Bible verses, while others paid their respects to Brown’s family or advocated solidarity.

“One child just wrote his name in that child scrawl we’ve all seen and attached it to the wall,” Alick said.

Sunday morning many of the artists attended a youth theater production by the St. Louis Black Repertory Theater’s youth program.

The play started with slaves in Africa, a scene that Alick said brought tears to her eyes, and ended with the cast chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

Sunday evening, the team of artists hosted a professional development workshop that about 50 artists attended.

Artists from around the country led exercises on Zen movements, cultural mapping and polling, beatboxing, documentary theater and the Theatre of the Oppressed.

“We taught theater modes they could use in their own communities in moments of crisis,” Alick said.

The evening ended with a forum in which artists acted out scenes turning moments of injustice into moments of peace.

Alick said she wasn’t able to stay in town for Brown’s funeral Monday, but she was pleased with the response the “Ferguson Moment” had received from the national theater community and the dialogue it had sparked.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or by email at tthomas@mailtribune.com.