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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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Arts + CulturePerformanceThe best (and the rest) on local stages in...

The best (and the rest) on local stages in 2023

A wealth of productions highlighted the vitality of Bay Area theater in a year of protest and continued pandemic.

Before I get to the industry-mandated year-end listicle (feel free to skip down to it), let’s acknowledge the fact that this past year was rough.

Performers and troupes fought for larger slices of a smaller financial pie. Actor Richard May was killed before making his debut with African-American Shakespeare Company. We lost Bay Area Childrens Theatre, fair wage proponents TheatreF1rst, beloved venue Stage Werx, PianoFight, and the unique QueerCat Productions. Killing My Lobster didn’t close, but did “pause” halfway through its season. Cal Shakes didn’t even have a season. One particular critic on the scene went mask-off and devolved into pure elitistism.

Plus, after 3½ years of being “that COVID-paranoid guy”, guess what happened? That’s what happens when you live in a house with folks who buy into the “pandemic is over” bullshit. Even before that, I was already constantly re-adjusting my schedule around companies that were dropping safety measures left-and-right—some not even bothering to tell anyone, so I wouldn’t find out until I showed up at the theatre. I’ve missed several shows and listened to companies continue to bitch about dwindling audiences as they intentionally made their venues unsafe for immunocompromised patrons who’d love the chance to show up.

I also didn’t go to SF MoMA, but that was less about their lax COVID measures and more about them being racist-apologists. In fact, judging by their recent staffing cuts, not many of you went there either.

But… I have to admit: when things were good, they were very good.

As much as I lament the closures of PianoFight-Oakland (formerly The Flight Deck) and Stage Werx, both came with the silver lining openings of, respectively, BAM House and Eclectic Box, where Killing My Lobster will perform next year.

Ayodele Nzinga outside her new BAM House. Photo by Beth LaBerge for KQED

For me personally: A beloved colleague and fellow activist was worried that her show wasn’t getting enough exposure, so she asked me for press tips—the show got a write-up in The Chronicle and sold out every night of its short run. (All credit to her and her collaborators, but it felt good to even have a small part in the whole thing.) A renowned company invited me to direct for them. I wrote a program booklet for SF Ballet. I’ve been attending ceasefire rallies and taking action since October, and I’m part of a great media outlet that took a stand when others just shrugged their shoulders.

More importantly, I took solace in the sight of fellow theatre artists acknowledging the still-ongoing pandemic and therefore refuse to gamble with their health and safety. I’m also encouraged by the sight of them at the same ceasefire events I’ve attended.

In short, Bay Area theatre again proved that it can stand for something and that I have a welcome place in it. I saw works that put their message before any commercial considerations, which was a delight, even when the show wasn’t great. I still miss the crucial venues and talented folks who have gone, but I also love the fact that many pretentious no-talents have been flushed away by the tide of chasing trends – usually landing in spot now going through what SF went through a decade ago. Just as next year’s mayoral election presents a chance to clean out a greedy administration that says the quiet part loudly, so too does the exodus of toxic Bay Area theatre folk present the chance for those of us who remain to rebuild in a better way.

I feel that way because that’s something you see first in art, be it art in a proper gallery, a mural on the side of a building, or just the Powell Street “SF Sister Cities” sign’s recent “adjustment.” It’s all exemplary of art’s ability to let people reclaim something from the gate-keepers and oligarchs. Theatre is where people become the message, and that message is louder than ever.

So, as I wait to see the wild ride 2024 has in store, here are things from the past twelve months that both inspired and challenged my optimism.

Heklina photo by Jose A Guzman Colón

BIGGEST LOSS to BAY AREA THEATRE
The death of Heklina and the closures of EXIT Theatre and PianoFight

I couldn’t choose just one. EXIT and PianoFight’s importance to local indie artists can’t be overstated (not even by me). And as someone who still treasures his autographed Peaches Christ short film DVD, it was weird to see a show at Oasis this year knowing that Heklina was no longer with us. New venues can follow EXIT and PF’s examples on how to welcome broke local talent, but Heklina was a star whose loss makes the night that much darker.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT
All the radio silence on Palestine by theatre artists

I considered choosing “sitting through Hippest Trip at ACT” or “all the dropped COVID safety measures” (both of which did suck), but seeing so many artists—who paid lip service to Black Lives Matter and #StopAsianHate, who held the Ukraine flag on the Opera House stage, and who took to the streets after Roe v. Wade was struck down —refuse to even utter the word “ceasefire” as homes and hospitals are bombed, journalists (like me) are murdered, and children are orphaned and killed. I myself tried to interview Muslim and Jewish theatre artists for a story with another outlet. That story dissolved like wet newspaper, and one talented artist said they’d never speak to me again. Sure, we’ve heard from Middle Eastern-themed Golden Thread, dance venue CounterPulse, and the performers (although not immediately the organizers) of SF is a Drag, but most everyone else is ignoring these UN-recognized war crimes the same way they ignore this still-ongoing pandemic. And we’ve seen how well the latter has paid off. As artists themselves, they should think about how future artists will interpret that cowardice.

Sipho Nose, ‘Izibele I,’ (detail), 2023 was part of the ‘Sanibonani’ show at Jonathan Carver Moore

BEST ART SURPRISE
Discovering the Jonathan Carver Moore gallery

I recently interviewed the gallery’s namesake owner. He told me how during the ceasefire and APEC protests, he opened his doors to the protesters and was overjoyed to see artists taking a stand. He told me how he purposefully set up shop in SF’s groundbreaking Transgender District to both make art accessible and to fulfill an unmet need for Black and queer fine art. Wouldn’tcha know it, those are things I look for. Now, I know where to find it in downtown SF. 

BEST ART EXHIBIT
TARAVAT at YBCA

When I saw this show by Iranian woman artist Taravat Talepasand, who had survived censorship and other trials, in July, its impact stayed with me. Since the War on Gaza started, its exhibits seem even more haunting.

‘Josephine’s Feast.’ Photo by Jay Yamada

BEST SHOW ABOUT SF
Josephine’s Feast world premiere at The Magic

An all-Black cast, COVID is a prominent subject, and my hometown as the backdrop. It wasn’t perfect, but like its titular lead, it made me feel seen. (Honorable mentions to Crushing Wheelchairs and the much-delayed walking tour Sylvester, The Mighty Real.)

Hope Mohr’s ‘Horizon Stanzas’ at Joe Good Annex. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

BEST DANCE PERFORMANCE
Hope Mohr’s Horizon Stanzas at Joe Goode Annex

For embodying the abuse received from toxic masculinity.

MOST COVID-SAFE VENUE
Magic Theatre

With shout-outs to NCTC’s Enhanced Safety Nights (still the only venue to scan vax QR codes) and sketch troupe KML (for requiring masks at every venue they toured), Magic was the only company/venue to require masks at each and every performance. Let’s hope it stays that way.

MOST COVID-SAFE SHOW
Opening night of Exhaustion Arroyo at Cutting Ball

After several COVID-related delays, the entire cast performed opening night in KN95s, with only one pulling theirs down to portray a “Karen.” Not a thing was lost in the performances.

A scene from ‘El último sueño de Frida y Diego‘ at SF Opera. Photo by Cory Weaver

BEST SET DESIGN
SF Opera (large house) and Ashley Méndez for Edit Annie (small house)

Because they all gave me weird dreams afterward.

EXHIBIT I HATE MYSELF FOR MISSING
Angela Davis: Seize the Time at Oakland Museum of CA

Still kicking myself for not getting around to seeing it, especially since it closed around Juneteenth.

STAGE SHOWS I HATE MYSELF FOR MISSING
Where Did We Sit on the Bus? at MTC and Amreeka at Golden Thread

‘Cause fuck you, COVID.

Muteado Silencio and Israel Muñoz in ‘Crushing Wheelchairs.’ Photo by Tiny Gray-Garcia

BEST OVERTLY POLITICAL SHOW
Crushing Wheelchairs by POOR Productions

The very people London Breed and Elon Musk want wiped away from our streets are the ones behind the crudely produced but no less impactful rebel yell that was this show.

BEST DIRECTOR
Margo Hall

When not showing off her own performance skills in Josephine’s Feast, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s AD brought two entertaining Black stories to sparkling life: the historical intimacy of LHT’s In the Evening By the Moonlight and the hilarious sincerity of SF Playhouse’s Nollywood Dreams. Both saw her leave her mark, and both left us wanting more.

Pene Pati as Nemorino in Donizetti’s ‘The Elixir of Love.’ Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

BEST PERFORMANCE
Pene Pati in Elixir of Love at SF Opera (major house) and Linda Amayo-Hassan in Yerma at Shotgun

The former for having so much unbridled fun on the Opera House stage; the latter for being matronly, confrontational, and mysterious—sometimes all at once. (Special shout-out to Gabby “G” Momah’s performance in Shotgun’s Wolf Play.)

Deborah Cortez, Carla Gallardo, and Dyana Díaz in ‘Doméstica Realidad.’ Photo by Constanza Hevia

BEST ENSEMBLE
(several)

I’m not kidding, folks: it was impossible to narrow this one down.

  • the trio in LHT’s In the Evening by the Moonlight… brought their historical likenesses to life without resorting to cheap impressions
  • the rockers of Berkeley Rep’s Cambodian Rock Band played and laughed through their pain
  • every cast Shotgun assembled levelled-up, even if certain scripts didn’t always
  • the men of Magic Theatre’s Travelers embodied the fight between piety and rationality
  • the women of La Lengua’s Doméstica Realidad brought class struggle right to our faces

Theatre is collaborative and this year showed us why that’s a great thing.

WORST-BEHAVED AUDIENCE
SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse had some great shows this year but, I swear to God, if I hear one more entitled, upper-class prick whine about how “offended” they are by an usher politely asking them to put on a mask…

Killing My Lobster in ‘Mythed Opportunity.’ Photo by Kayleigh McCollum

BEST SKETCH
Everything by Killing My Lobster this year

As they regroup and prepare to return next year, the second (half-)full year under Nicole Odell and Emma McCool left us with no shortage of belly laughs and lingering questions about Sailor Moon.

Ryan Nicole Austin, Traci Tolmaire, Rotimi Agbabiaka in ‘In the Evening by the Moonlight.’ Photo by Alejandro Ramos

BEST SHOW
In the Evening by the Moonlight by Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and Edit Annie by Crowded Fire Theater

Yeah, another tie—it’s my list and I’ll aggregate how I like. The latter had been delayed so many times the past few years, I began to wonder if this show would ever see the stage. When it finally did, I was glad to have followed its progress for so long. And the fact remains that both of these shows reminded me why I love theatre so much: the acting, direction, writing, and truth-through-art – all were on display in every scene, and I’m grateful to have seen it. (One final shout out to we are continuous at New Conservatory, which was wonderfully heart-breaking.)

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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