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In the early 1970s, North Portland's Albina district was a hub of thriving African American businesses: home to popular dance venue the Cotton Club, Bill's Grocery store, and the Williams Avenue YWCA, not to mention thousands of African Americans who had made this corner of the city their home. Then, in March 1971, plans were signed to expand Legacy Emanuel Hospital, prompting the demolition of about 300 homes—mainly occupied by African American families, who had to relocate.

That was just the beginning of dramatically transforming neighborhood demographics, changes that continue to the present day. It’s also the starting point for Left Hook, a play by Rich Rubin and directed by Damaris Webb. First unveiled at this year's Fertile Ground festival, it's now being presented as a staged reading in Northeast Portland.

The storyline condenses years of history into a matter of months, highlighting the Legacy Emanuel expansion, the Black Panther movement, and Portland’s once famous black boxing community in the Albina district.

“Our mission is to tell stories of the Pacific Northwest that are underrepresented, or not often heard in the dominant paradigm," Webb says. "Stories that have existed and been told, but are often not acknowledged the way some other stories are."

The play, which has an all-black cast, follows the Left Hook Boxing Club as its members face challenges to their American dream. The particular club is fictional, but it mines real and personal stories of people who were connected to the once-renowned boxing scene.

Webb, who is also an actor, spent seven years of her life boxing and even made it to the Golden Gloves—the annual amateur boxing competition—in the early '90s. She lived in New York for 26 years before returning to Portland, where she grew up. 

“When I was in New York, I wasn’t a black actor or a black director or specifically concerned with making works about racial justice,” says Webb. “But when I came back to Portland, I had my solo show, The Box Marked Black [about her life growing up with a white mother and black father], and that started this kind of ‘Who am I here?’ reinvention.”

That “reinvention” has involved multiple theater productions, with Webb working to investigate social issues and invigorate political change. Her previous collaboration with Rubin was on 2016's Cottonwood in the Flood, which focused on the building and destruction of the city of Vanport.

“It’s a wonderful thing when you can have a working relationship as a director with a playwright," Webb says. “I’m really grateful for his trust in me. He cares very deeply and he’s also very aware, as a white male from the East Coast originally, that he does not ever presume to be the expert in this storytelling of the African American experience in the Pacific Northwest. He’s very clear about that.”

Following this staged reading, Left Hook is slated to receive a full, three-week production at the Vanport Mosaic Festival in May 2018.

Left Hook

7 p.m. Fri, Oct 13, Westminster Presbyterian Church Sanctuary (NE 16th and Schuyler), $10 suggested

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