In Play Reviews

It’s the mid-1970s, Portland, Oregon. At the Left Hook Boxing Club in the Albina neighborhood of North Portland, the club’s owner, Ty (Jasper Howard) sits in a squeaky desk chair at a card table. His old friend Bo (Anthony P. Armstrong) shows up to pass the time, and the talk moves from sex to urban renewal.

Left Hook, a new play by Rich Rubin, directed and fight-choreographed by Damaris Webb, is now onstage at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center as part of this year’s Vanport Mosaic Festival.  Vanport Mosaic is a community-driven, artist-led non-profit that engages the public in remembering silenced histories of the Pacific Northwest to better understand our present. (This year is the 70th anniversary of the Vanport Flood, which displaced thousands from their homes in 1948, leading to a large influx of African-Americans to Albina and surrounding Portland neighborhoods.)

While Ty’s protégé Donnie (James Bowen II) shadow boxes in the ring, Bo accuses Ty of “getting soft”. Emanuel Hospital is expanding, and plans are underway to build a new Veterans Administration hospital in the neighborhood. City blocks have been leveled, causing displacement to hundreds of residents and their businesses. This once-vibrant, mostly African-American neighborhood has lost its vibrancy as people are forced to move elsewhere. Ty’s business is scheduled to be torn down, and Bo and Ty’s Uncle Cal (Kenneth Dembo) want to fight City Hall, but Ty tells them he’ll be fine. He’s set aside some money to start a construction business and make some real money.

Bo tells him it doesn’t work that way. “We the urban part, they the renewal part,” he quips. “They renewing their wallets.”

Ty’s teenage daughter Ava (Tonea Lolin), who has a crush on Donnie, and his ex-wife Mae (Shareen Jacobs), who asks for Ty’s delinquent child support payments, reveal more about the boxing club owner, who soon begins to realize he may be getting in over his head. And then the City of Portland makes a move that changes everything, and the Left Hook Boxing Club becomes a pressure cooker ready to explode.

Left Hook is a taut, smart, historically accurate play guaranteed to tell even long-time Portlanders something they didn’t know. By the time I arrived in Portland, Albina was just hanging on after the turmoil of the late 1960s. By the 1980s, gentrification was underway in earnest, and most of those remaining African-American residents were moved farther and farther east. Only a few pockets of the old Albina remain.

In a neighborhood now occupied mostly by urban hipsters and younger white families, Left Hook speaks eloquently of an era where urban renewal equaled racism. And still does. The story continues today in different parts of the city as quickly as those renewing wallets can renew.

The play runs Thursday-Saturday with Sunday matinees through June 10. The Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center located at 5340 N. Interstate, is owned by the City of Portland and operated by the Parks and Recreation Department.

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