Beautiful Blackbird Comes to life with the Theater Ensemble of Color

Beautiful Blackbird Comes to life with the Theater Ensemble of Color

Some of the most popular works in Painter and Poet: The Art of Ashley Bryan are the original works used in his beloved 2011 book Beautiful Blackbird. As part of the programming associated with this exhibition, the Theater Ensemble of Color, in conjunction with the PMA and Portland Ovations, will present a staged adaptation of Bryan’s fable of diversity, acceptance, and self-esteem. The play will show three times at the PMA, with a special staging for school groups at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall.

We spoke with Nick Schroeder, Affiliate Producer, who, along with Artistic Director René Goddess Johnson, gave us some insights into their organization and their plans for this production.

Nick Schroeder                               René Goddess Johnson
Affiliate Producer                          Artistic Director

What is the Theater Ensemble of Color?
The Theater Ensemble of Color or TEoC (pronounced TEE-ock) is a people- of-color-led artistic and theatrical organization that encourages Maine’s community of artists of color to take aesthetic and business risks. Our mission is to increase inclusion and strengthen culture within our communities through education, social activism, and the arts, and to discover best practices toward the advancement of those goals. We will ensure to present and offer accessibility to work that is impactful, innovative, and relevant to the region and local communities, focusing on growth, vitality, and quality of life for all.

This performance adapts one of Ashley Bryan’s most beloved books, Beautiful Blackbird, into a play. How is performing an adaptation like that different from the work you already do?
Each of the productions TEoC has taken on has been unique and different from the last. The ensemble’s last production, Rachel, was an adaptation of an early civil rights play written in 1920, and the one before that, Lived Experiences, was built from the company members’ lived experiences, accentuating the diversity and multiplicity of the lives of people of color in Maine.
TEoC builds productions that match the energy, tone, and cultural context of the work from which they were inspired. With a legacy artist like Ashley Bryan, whose work has appealed to so many people of so many ages, TEoC’s version of Beautiful Blackbird may be the most vibrant production we’ve done yet.

Why does Beautiful Blackbird resonate with you and your company?
The story of Beautiful Blackbird is especially resonant to TEoC because its themes are so close to the ones inscribed in our mission. On the surface, it seems like a conventional fable involving traditional animal symbolism, but
it’s actually a complex tale, encouraging individuality within diversity while fostering creativity, self-worth, and finding a voice. We love the depth that the collage-y illustrations allows, and we are particularly excited for a TEoC show with music.

Bryan is both a writer and an illustrator. How did his images influence this production?
The cut-paper collage art of Beautiful Blackbird offers a lot of guidance and a framework for how we’ve approached this show. One of the reasons Ashley Bryan is such a good storyteller and is able to convey his stories so well to young people is because his illustrations are able to lead the story before the words. The energy contained in the color palette alone is enough to tell the Blackbird’s story. TEoC has approached this production like we’re another layer of color added onto what’s already there.

Why is this performance important for PMA audiences? What are you hoping they’ll take away from the work?
We are hoping to model an intergenerational appreciation for the body of work that Ashley Bryan produced. His
art has been a vital part of communities we hold dear—of storytellers and their craft, of Mainers, of African Americans, of young people. We hope our adaptation of Beautiful Blackbird will help audiences of all ages learn how this artist’s work can fly off the page.

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October 31, 2018
Brand Manager

Robert is a native of Winslow, Maine, and a graduate of Boston’s Emerson College. After spending years as a screenwriter in New York City and an arts journalist in Santa Fe, he moved back to Maine to raise a family in 2008. He currently lives in Portland’s Back Cove with his wife, who owns a business up the street from the PMA, and two young sons.