It started with a question, 10 years ago.
“How did we end up in Oregon?” Shalanda Sims wanted to know.
“I started bugging my grandmother about this, to give me more background about how we got from Texas and Denver to Oregon,” Sims said.
The answer was Vanport City, the public housing project her great-grandmother Dorothy Mackey came to live in, along with thousands of others, in order to work in Henry Kaiser’s shipyards during World War II.
Many families stayed in Vanport, located at the current site of Delta Park and Portland International Raceway, after the war. They made the city their home until the flood of 1948 washed it away.
As Sims shared with people how Vanport brought her family to Portland, others told her that they had similar history. But Sims also found that many people hadn’t heard of Vanport. So, she decided to bring that story to life on stage.
Sims’ musical “Vanport,” supported by a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, will be performed Friday and Saturday at her alma mater, Jefferson High School.
All but one of the 25 actors, both children and adults, are African American.
Sims, who now lives in Troutdale with her husband and three children, is a writer/director/playwright who formed the World Stage Theatre company in 2007 as a way to get African American youth involved in theater. Her goal was to tell important stories revolving around black history. Two of her children are in “Vanport,” and her husband helped build the set.
For her research, Sims viewed documentaries, read stories and recorded oral histories.
The musical follows the stories of Mackey and three other families with ties to Vanport.“It’s ultimately their journey, the American dream, trying to find their place in the world, building community and overcoming obstacles,” Sims said, noting the play touches on racism and classism. “It also highlights what the children experienced, having integrated schools, for example.”
For Velynn Brown, who traces her Portland roots to Vanport, the play is a way to bring the story to life for her children. She had been trying to teach them about her history through books and documentaries.
“But it wasn’t until it came to life on stage that it really began to stick in their hearts,” Brown said, who is in the play with her two daughters.
Kate Szrom, a filmmaker and video storyteller, said she’s impressed with Sims’ musical.
“The play is a smart way to talk about Vanport. The performers are up there bringing this history to life,” Szrom said. “A play is really great, it is so accessible.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday- Saturday, Nov. 15-16
Where: Jefferson High School, 5210 N. Kerby Ave.
Tickets: $10 at the door