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Theatre Students to Stage Reading of Play About Historic Vanport Flood

November 01, 2017

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Fir Acres Theater

On November 4, Lewis & Clark undergraduate students will be on center stage in a reading of local playwright Rich Rubin’s Cottonwood in the Flood, a piece of historical fiction about one family’s experience of the Columbia River flood that destroyed Vanport, Oregon, in 1948.

Vanport Mosaic is a Portland nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and honoring the legacy of the city of Vanport and those affected by the catastrophic flood. The codirector of Vanport Mosaic, Damaris Webb, will direct the Lewis & Clark reading of Rubin’s play. The student coordinator of the production, theatre major Kalea Lee Fleischman BA ’18, believes this reading provides a necessary opportunity for Lewis & Clark students and the broader community.

“This reading is important because it is a chance to hear and tell a story of a group that is not part of the dominant narrative,” says Fleischman. “As a person of color, and Damaris shares this sentiment as well, it is not very often that I find a role in a play that relates to my life and my personal character. This is an opportunity, and an important one at that, to not only provide roles for non-white students but, more so, to tell their stories.”

The story of Rubin’s play is one of the Hawkins family, an African American family living in Vanport in pursuit of work and economic stability. While this family is fictional, the real Portland survivors of the flood are numerous.

“This is also local history,” Fleischman explains. “I think that it is easy, especially here at Lewis & Clark, to get caught up in the college bubble and forget to look at the bigger picture, but this play is very relevant—just look at Portland’s housing crisis now. Though this play is set nearly 70 years ago, how much has really changed?”

Much of Vanport history can be defined at the intersection of historical racial injustice, the idealized American dream, and the economic strife of wartime. In the early 1940s, migration from the South to Vanport boomed, ushering in nearly 40,000 in search of work in Portland’s navy shipyards and railroads. Many of these families were African American, and many were forced to confront the lingering racial injustices of the region. The 1948 flood devastated the city and displaced virtually all who lived there. This event is rarely discussed as a critical junction in the narrative of Portland history, a fact Vanport Mosaic is trying to change.

This question and more will be tackled following the staged reading in a panel discussion featuring Rich Rubin, local historian Zita Podany, and Vanport survivor Beatrice Gilmore. In addition, Lewis & Clark will host its annual Ray Warren Symposium on Race and Ethnic Studies in the week following. The legacy of Vanport will be honored at the symposium with an exhibit on the flood in the Aubrey R. Waztek Library.

For Fleischman, involvement with the event has been an invaluable experience. “I think what I’ve gained as student coordinator, not just from this project but from the entire theatre department, is the assurance that there are more people in the community who want their stories told, and that there are people who are willing and wanting to listen.”

The reading will take place Saturday, November 4, at 2 p.m. at Lewis & Clark’s Fir Acres Black Box Theatre. Attendance is FREE.

Theatre department

This story was written by Scout Brobst ’20.

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