Don’t miss this essential piece of Portland history!

Image courtesy World Stage Theatre by Shawnte Sims

This weekend we were excited to be back in person at Northwest Children’s Theater for the first time in two years. The show? A collaboration with World Stage Theatre to present Shalanda Sims’s Vanport the Musical.

My 11-year-old described Vanport as “cool, interesting, and educational,” while my  9-year-old proclaimed the show to be “the best show I’ve seen this year.  Well, except Hamilton.”  He added, “It’s like Fiddler on the Roof because they don’t have a home at the end, but this is way better.” They both had many questions and the show prompted great discussion on the drive home and into the next day.  We all had little knowledge about this part of Portland’s history prior to the show, and we were inspired to commit to learning more.

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Vanport the Musical is based on real events and leads us through the development of Vanport, an area built between Portland and Vancouver during WWII, to house those working at the shipyards. Workers from around the country, many of whom were Black, were encouraged to come to Vanport with the promise of work, housing, racially integrated schools, innovative social supports, and cultural centers such as churches, libraries and nightclubs. We see characters leaving their homes for Vanport filled with optimism and the belief that a better life lies ahead, and we watch as they work to fulfill their dreams.

The show touches on many complicated themes such as segregation, domestic abuse, war and infidelity, managing to do so with respect and dignity. The power of the show, however, comes from the richness of the characters and their relationships with each other. We see the beauty of multigenerational families, the strength of women, the joy of childhood, the importance of community, budding romances, the bonds between men, and resiliency of the human spirit.  

The actors playing government officials never share the stage with the protagonists, instead performing on a platform offstage. This placement highlights the disconnect between those in power and the community impacted by their decisions. Our hearts hurt as the officials discuss dismantling the community as the war nears an end and the land is desired for other uses. The question of where those living in Vanport are expected to go, particularly Black individuals legally prohibited from residing in many parts of the state, remains unanswered.

This show is equal parts enjoyable and impactful. Hearing Black voices share local Black history, is incredibly powerful and is critical at this time in our society.  Despite the nature of some of the themes in the show, the overall feeling was one of love, hope, dignity, strength and joy.  

Vanport the Musical is recommended for ages 8 and up, and that seems appropriate. Younger children may not grasp all of the nuanced themes, but the music, humor and story will likely still engage them. We would encourage all families to see this delightful show!

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PDX Parent is proud to be one of the sponsors of the FREE sensory-friendly performance on Sunday, May 29, at 2 pm.

Vanport the Musical
Written by Shalanda Sims
Presented by World Stage Theatre in collaboration with NW Children’s Theater & School and Vanport Mosaic
May 20-June 5, 2022
Access Shows on May 21, 28 and 29
Buy Tickets Here

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