Performing for peace and unity
A troupe of Baha'i followers dances and recites downtown for a hard crowd to please
Friday, August 6, 1999
Some of the lunchtime crowd, gathered on the steps of Pioneer Courthouse Square, slows down to watch the street performance going on in the square's lower northwest corner, near Starbuck's.
People stare at the dancers who offer a message about racial unity. Then they either walk on or turn their attention to the burritos, hot dogs or salads in their laps.
The performers, members of the Mid-Valley Baha'i Youth Workshop of Oregon and the Reflections of Diversity Dance Workshop of Utah, weave into their performance a message about race and unity, which emerged 25 years ago from the streets of Los Angeles.
A recent movement for the Baha'i faith brings together young adults, who are followers or non-followers, to share a message of racial unity, one of the principles of founder-prophet Baha'u'llah (Glory of God), who was imprisoned for teaching his religion.
His followers believe in world peace, the harmony of science and religion, the equality of men and women, the investigation of truth and the oneness of humankind.
At Pioneer Courthouse Square, the workshop members dance Janet Jackson-styled steps and read poems with social messages and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the crowd.
Performing past the heckling
"You can't dance. I'm sorry," one of them shouts. The others laugh.
In response, Hasan Cross, 19, focuses his character on the group of teen-agers.
"Sometimes we're trying to be cool. We don't act ourselves," he says.
They are Portland's forgotten kids, dressed in black T-shirts and jeans and boots, and they are discussing lunch, beauty and dancing. Their tired eyes follow the arm lifts, body shakes and costumes of the performers.
"Tim, dude, let's go eat."
"Do you have ID?"
"That's Mr. Faggot to you," says one man, giggling as he holds up a paperback copy of Michael Thomas Ford's "That's Mr. Faggot to You: Further Trials From My Queer Life."
"I have a sister. I can make you look from a goth queen to a beauty queen."
"Dude, I'm going to eat. Are you coming or what?"
The street performance continues for another half-hour. But the blond woman wearing lip gloss, the man who does, too, another man wearing a ripped Harley-Davidson T-shirt and a few others leave.
Later, Cross says he doesn't regret addressing the crowd's reaction. He recounts the event with his father, Henri, and Oscar DeGruy as they eat Pad Thai noodles and spring rolls in the living room of the Crosses' Southwest Portland home.
"As that character saying those lines, I wanted to make sure everyone knew what I was talking about," Cross says.
The three are spending part of the afternoon talking about the first Baha'i youth workshop in California, the challenges to offer Americans a social message and the future.
Some hate the message
"Either you loved us, or you hated us back in those days," says DeGruy, who lives in Portland now. "You felt like you had to do something."
In 1974, the workshop started in the DeGruys' living room with a bunch of neighborhood kids, mostly gang members and at-risk teens. Many of them wanted to explore dance, theater and acting, DeGruy says.
Since the 1970s, workshops have started in other parts of the nation as well as in Canada, Europe, Israel, Africa and South America. Each workshop focuses on the similar Baha'i themes.
"We had some KKK stuff written on cars a few times," says DeGruy, 48. "Neo-Nazis came up. Skinheads came up. No one ever physically did anything. We knew everyone wasn't going to like our message."
Henri Cross, 47, was a member of the first youth workshop in Los Angeles. In the mid-'80s, his son started working with the Oregon workshop.
First workshop was eye-opener
DeGruy says: "We had a lot happen to us in the South. It was quite an eye-opener for the kids who had never really experienced the Southern kind of reaction.
"We had to separate from each other on the bus. We had to walk separately and not really hang out with each other in certain cities."
This generation of the workshop, DeGruy says, faces less in terms of acceptance. But the message hasn't changed, as it was made clear the day before during the performance at Pioneer Courthouse Square.
The younger workshop members are taking a stand on other social issues, including gay bashing, HIV/AIDS and school violence.
For Cross, though, these issues are a reminder of the continuing struggle for Baha'is to bring together diverse people, a struggle his father and DeGruy confronted on the streets of East Los Angeles 25 years ago.
"I don't think things have changed very much," he says.
You can reach Marques G. Harper at 503-412-7039 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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