Onstage

A 420 treat from ‘Sheesh & Schlong’

Some parks may have been crowded in San Francisco this weekend—but it wasn’t with festive stoners celebrating 420. They’re finding other ways to celebrate on this high holiday. (Instead, it looks like wine moms are the dangerous scofflaws.)

Cue two of our favorite comics, Marga Gomez and Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, gifting us this snippet from their new “Sheesh & Schlong” act. It’s, what else, a PSA for the joys of keeping your butt glued to the sofa at home. As always, everything is better when you’re stoned? “We highly recommend this,” says Gomez:

Hunky Jesus rises again! (Blessedly online)

Photo by Jere Keys

UPDATE: It looks like they are going to be releasing the photos and videos starting at 1pm at www.twitch.tv/sfqueernightlifefund and you can vote at www.instagram.com/sfsisters then. 

One of the best things to come out of this awful nightmare is seeing everyone rush to help each other, leaping into the vacuum of economic leadership and tackling the grand scale of this situation’s disruption.

Case in point: What on earth and in heaven was gonna happen to the Hunky Jesus contest, one of San Francisco’s most celebrated traditions, now that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’s Easter with the Sisters has been postponed? Why, one of the most sequined, glittered, fan-waving, pec-revealing crossovers in history, of course.

The always charitable Sisters have teamed up with the Queer Nightlife Fund to present the contest online, and you can get an eyeful when they broadcast the (virtual) competition Sun/12, starting at 10am on the Sisters’ Instagram and continuing that day during the Queer Nightlife Fund’s weekly “Quaran-Tea” dance, 1pm-6pm at www.twitch.tv/sfqueernightlifefund–you do not need accounts on either to view, but you do need to sign up/log in and follow the Sisters on Instagram to vote. Plus you get the Foxy Mary competition, too! And, anyone can enter from throughout the US, so get ready for some wildcards.

Potential Hunky Jesi and Foxy Marias submit a photo in character and a one minute video featuring their “Holy Inspiration” in action. The deadline to submit entries is Fri/10. Viewers vote on their favorites during the day, and may the best man-god and virgin(?) win!

The contest typically draws 10,000+ people to Dolores Park. But, like everything else, this year is different. “San Francisco audiences are smart, sophisticated, and have a very twisted sense of humor,” head nun Sister Roma says on the Sisters site. “You can’t just be HUNKY or FOXY to win the title. Our crowd responds most enthusiastically to contestants who have a clear concept, a clever message, and excellent execution.” More info here.

2018 photo via Alex Mak and Broke-Ass Stuart

The collaboration highlights the work of the Queer Nightlife Fund, one of the many community resources that leapt into action once San Francisco effectively shut down. Formed by a consortium of party promoters, leather community leaders, DJs, and at least one financial expert (Spencer Watson of the Center for LGBTQ Economic Advancement & Research), it’s raised more than $117,000—including $10,000 from the Sisters themselves—that will be distributed in $1000 grants to queer applicants who have lost their nightlife jobs.

Organizer Phil Hammack of the Fog City Pup Pack told me, “The QNF came about just before the SF shelter-in-place order first took effect. I started to see tons of events getting canceled in our nightlife community, and it was clear bars would be closing down for a while as well. I reached out to a group of community leaders to brainstorm how we might help.

“Our concern was especially for the individuals who work in nightlife who might not be protected by employment status within a venue—for example, drag performers, lighting and production designers, dancers, etc. But we were also concerned for bartenders, servers, coat check staff. All of these individuals are vital to our nightlife culture, and we were concerned about how these individuals would subsist with their incomes vanishing overnight.

Photo via the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence by Jere Keys

“Knowing how central nightlife is to the queer community, we thought the concept of a ‘giving circle’ where community members could donate and those in need could apply for funds would be an ideal resource for these workers, and such a fund could play a role in preserving our nightlife cultural institutions by providing some economic security or assistance to the individuals who make these institutions happen. The need is huge.”

The QNF has just signed a fiscal sponsorship agreement with the Q Foundation, which focuses on housing and economic needs of LGBTQ+ and HIV+ people in San Francisco, and now all donations are tax-deductible. QNF is currently reviewing 258 applicants and hoping to raise more than $200,000. So vote, dance, donate, and—of course—don’t forget to fall on your knees before your savior! (Once those pesky social distancing rules are gone.)

Review: ‘Toni Stone’ hits a home run (and you can watch it on your couch)

‘Toni Stone’ (Dawn Ursula) speaks to the audience about her passion for baseball as a team assembles behind her in Lydia R. Diamond’s Toni Stone.

Editor’s Note: In the wake of its theaters shutting down, ACT is streaming its plays Gloria (reviewed here) and Toni Stone, reviewed below on opening night by Elaine. To view the ACT streaming plays, click here and support ACT with a pay-what-you-want model. Berkeley Rep has also just announced it is streaming its productions of Culture Clash (Still) in America (reviewed here), School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, and many more. For more details on how to purchase and stream Berkeley rep plays, click here.  

I grew up with three brothers, and the recitation of baseball players’ stats was the background noise to my childhood. So when the eponymous Toni Stone (Dawn Ursula) took the stage at ACT and rattled off teams, players, positions, trades, RBIs and earned run averages it sounded very familiar to me. Although I didn’t understand those terms as a kid, and I still don’t, it made perfect sense that Stone, who dreamed of  playing professional baseball ever since she was a small girl, would memorize her baseball cards and make those stats part of her every conversation.

Helen Hayes award-winner Ursula is mesmerizing, capturing every bit of Stone’s moxie—and she had plenty—as well as her vulnerability. The talented trailblazer was the first woman to play professional baseball: She took Hank Aaron’s place at second base for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues when he went to the majors. She defied everyone from her mother, to white neighborhood coaches, her husband, and even some of her jealous teammates to do what she’d always wanted to do—play professional ball. “No one is going to tell me what I can’t do!” she repeats several times to those who tried.

The bookish ‘Spec’ (Daniel J. Bryant) reads an excerpt from W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk while the team listens in Lydia R. Diamond’s ‘Toni Stone,’ performing at ACT. Photo by Kevin Berne

Playwright Lydia R. Diamond drew on Martha Ackmann’s biography Curveball:  The Remarkable True Story of Toni Stone to evoke a Jim Crow era when Black baseball teams had to endure racist catcalls from the stands, ride overnight on cramped team buses because no white hotels would allow them to stay, and perform humiliating minstrel-style routines (powerfully choreographed by Camille A. Brown) as well as play excellent ball. Director Pam MacKinnon wanted to draw out America’s ugly racial history as a backdrop to Toni’s unique story: “This is a baseball team that had to clown.  It demands that the actors go to this deep, ugly well of American performance traditions.”

Against scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez’s backdrop of a barebones baseball field—aluminum bleachers, stadium lights and metal garbage cans to store the bats—the ensemble of eight men and then gutsy, single-minded Stone become the Indianapolis Clowns. There is outfielder Spec, who is always reading books in the dugout and speechifying to his teammates, quoting W.E.B. Du Bois and Harriet Tubman. There’s the gentle first baseman King Tut (JaBen Early) who welcomes Stone back to the team after a rough patch. He tenderly reminds her that, yes, he has heard her story about getting a hit off of a Satchel Paige pitch. The actors double up on roles playing women, children and white men. Kenn E. Head is especially moving as Millie, the down-to-earth prostitute who befriends Toni in the brothel where the team often stayed when no other accommodations would take them in.

‘Toni Stone’ (Dawn Ursula) befriends a sex worker named ‘Millie’ (Kenn E. Head) in Lydia R. Diamond’s ‘Toni Stone,’ performing at ACT. Photo by Kevin Berne

Director MacKinnon noted that the pioneering, audacious Stone had deep roots in the Bay Area. She lived in San Francisco’s Fillmore and first played for the San Francisco Sea Lions. She met her husband Alberga (Ray Shell) at one of the first clubs to cater to the Black community, Jack’s Tavern at Sutter and Fillmore Street, and worked in Bay Area shipyards during World War II. “I was glad to bring her home,” MacKinnon told the audience on opening night. Her word choice became especially poignant the following day, when all live performances of the play were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though I know this is a necessary measure to protect the health and safety of the actors, theatergoers and all of our neighbors, I still regret that others will not be able to see this remarkable play  about a remarkable woman live this time around. As my brothers would say, Toni and the Indianapolis Clowns hit an inside-the-park walk-off home run!

In ‘Please Don’t Eat the Mangos,’ this Mami has secrets

Wilma Bonet and Julian López-Morillas in 'Please Don't Eat the Mangos' at Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley

When Wilma Bonet first read Ricardo Pérez González’s script for the play Don’t Eat the Mangos (through March 22 at Magic Theatre), she liked it right away. 

“First of all, it’s a story with a lot of women in it, and that’s unusual,” she said. “And they’re women that have characters besides the virgin/whore dichotomy. I liked that they were a family with secrets and things going on.”

Bonet, whose parents came from Puerto Rico, says she thinks the play reflects what’s going on on the island now.

“It’s the dilemma of whether to stay or leave,” she said. “It’s really hard to make a living or even to stay in a place you love so much.”

Bonet has been part of many Bay Area theater troupes, including six years with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, along with the Marin Theatre Company, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and American Conservatory Theater. She also developed the role as Abuela in the movie Coco, and voiced some characters.

In Don’t Eat the Mangos, she plays the mother of three daughters who are caring for their parents, and elements in this character remind of her own mother as well as other Puerto Rican women she knew growing up in New York. The play’s notes describe the action: “As a hurricane wreaks havoc, secrets are spilled and ugly truths emerge. Confronting their legacy, the sisters wrestle with what it means to stay true to self, familia, homeland… and how to best seek their revenge.”

Wilma Bonet

Bonet did a reading of Don’t Eat the Mangos at the Magic’s Virgin Play Festival a couple years ago. Later the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab picked it up and the playwright asked her to continue working on it as Mami. This meant they got the luxury of spending nearly a month working on the play. 

Bonet describes this experience of being in nature, getting three meals a day, and being able to take time with the play, as close to heaven. 

“We read it and discussed the whole play, and then Ricardo would go off and write again, and then we’d read that, so he can hear it, and the second week put it on feet and started playing around with where move,” she said. “That gives it another spark, and then you see, ‘Oh, that works, but that doesn’t work.’ The writer sees it and can make adjustments.”

In an interview, Pérez González noted that Tennessee Williams and Federico García Lorca have a big influence on his writing. Bonet, who was in the Oregon Shakespeare Company’s production of Streetcar Named Desire, says she had a similar experience with that Williams’ play and with Don’t Eat the Mangos. 

“I swear to God, Blanche DuBois is a character that stuck out and gave me chills,” she said referring to the protagonist in Streetcar. “Any time her story is on stage, you feel that around you, and you feel like the ghosts are speaking.

“Something similar to that happened with this play. It’s like the ghosts are speaking, and they’re there. We went around and saged the theater and lit a candle. It’s like, ‘OK, we know you’re here – help us tell your story.’” 

DON’T EAT THE MANGOS
Through March 22
Magic Theatre
For more information, look here. 

Can drag queens beat death? Find out in ‘Drag Becomes Her’

Jinkx Monsoon, Heklina, and BenDeLaCreme in 'Drag Becomes Her'

UPDATE: Drag Becomes Her’ has been postponed. 

There are approximately 800 miles separating Seattle and San Francisco’s drag scenes. What bridges them, says RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 3 winner and northwest native Jinkx Monsoon, is their mutual focus on inclusion and reverence of talent and dedication over appearance.

“We live in a very image-based society, and with social media and the abundance of visual stimulation, sometimes people forget that while fashion and makeup are amazing, you can’t watch a dress or some eyeshadow perform,” says Monsoon. “If you’re going to see a live show, it shouldn’t matter if the queen is fat or thin, her eyebrows are perfect, or her look is couture. If she can’t deliver onstage, what’s the point?”

This is also a central question in Peaches Christ’s show Drag Becomes Her (Sat/14 at Castro Theatre)—a riff on the 1992 dark comedy film Death Becomes Her—in which Monsoon and her Seattle sister BenDelaCreme (RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 3) costar.

In the drag parody, Monsoon plays vain, conniving actress Madeline Ashton (a role originally popularized by Meryl Streep) and DelaCreme takes on the part of her rival, author Helen Sharp (first played by Goldie Hawn), both of whom will stop at nothing to achieve eternal youth at the expense of everything and everyone in their lives.

I spoke to Jinkx Monsoon and BenDelaCreme about the impact of Death Becomes Her on their lives and careers, why the camp film remains such a cult classic among queers, and its underlying moral.

48 HILLS You’ve both done the show Drag Becomes Her with Peaches Christ before. What made you want to return?

JINKX MONSOON I started drag because I’ve always wanted to be an actor, but all my favorite roles are female roles. As someone who tried to be “male” for the first half of my life, I was rarely given opportunities to play the roles I knew I’d actually be good at.

So, I created Jinkx, an extension of myself, who would be able to step into my dream roles, like Madeline Ashton. Usually, I would want to be the redhead [Helen Sharp], but not when it comes to this film. When we perform this show, I finally get to do for an audience, what I’ve been doing secretly in my bedroom for ages. That makes it sound like I made a career out of masturbating…and I haven’t don’t that. Yet.

BENDELACREME I always love working with Peaches. She is a brilliant artist and producer. Her shows really feel like the raucous, no-holds-barred roots of camp drag theatre. And she is so beloved in San Francisco. Performing on that stage in front of the wild following she’s gained through the years is like surfing a tidal wave.

Of course Death Becomes Her was one of my two favorite films growing up, along with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, so getting to live out my childhood Goldie Hawn fantasy is a true gift. I also really enjoy hitting Jinkx Monsoon with a shovel.

BenDeLaCreme in ‘Drag Becomes Her.’ Photo by Sloan Kanter

48 HILLS What drew you to the film Death Becomes Her in the first place?

JINKX MONSOON I was five or six years old the first time I watched it. I joined my mother in the living room while she was watching it, and I think the campy, over-the-top femininity spoke to me immediately. I’ve just always enjoyed watching physical comedy with extreme circumstances. It became my favorite movie of all time, the moment I watched Meryl Streep’s body come back to life at the bottom of the stairs. Then, the shovel fight?!?! The whole film—Meryl and Goldie made up a body language for those characters that has yet to be matched in any film I’ve seen.

BENDELACREME Death Becomes Her was that one VHS that I begged my parents to rent every time we went to the video store. With enough pleading, I’d usually get to bring it home at least a few times a year, and I would spend the whole rental period hitting rewind as soon as it ended to cram in as many viewings as possible. It truly has everything: comedy, horror, magic, and the most bizarre ’30s-’90s hybrid style glamour you’ve ever seen.

BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon in ‘Drag Becomes Her.’ Photo by Sloan Kanter

48 HILLS Jinkx, you’ve said that the women in Death Becomes Her would influence the creation of your drag persona. How so?

JINKX MONSOON I’ve watched Death Becomes Her so many times, I’ve lost track. So when I created Jinkx, it was ingrained in me; Meryl, Goldie, and Isabella Rossellini’s performances were woven into the fabric of my being. There was no way I could start doing drag without that influence coming through in everything I do.

While Jinkx is very zany and kooky, she is also very vain and selfish. I specifically let her be the place I channel my less desirable traits. She would do anything to live forever with perfect, unchanged beauty. If this potion were offered to her, she would have gulped it down the moment you said “magic potion.” She wouldn’t care about the side effects one bit. Death Becomes Her and Absolutely Fabulous created Jinkx Monsoon within me. Then Chicago and Moulin Rouge forced it out of me.

Peaches Christ and Heklina in ‘Drag Becomes Her.’ Photo by Sloane Kanter

48 HILLS Why do you think the film’s become an LGBT cult classic?

JINKX MONSOON I think the performances from the principal actors are so iconic and well executed that this outlandish plot seems like Shakespeare. It’s a complete masterpiece. I think in film, so often the goal is for everything to be “natural” and “true to life”—but the LGBTQ+ community loves an epic, over-the-top performance. This film gave four Hollywood heavy hitters permission to be camp, over the top, and iconic. Every other line is quotable. Every vocal inflection in Meryl’s speech is burned into our audio memories. It’s just got that indescribable IT factor that is necessary for something to be cult or queer.

BENDELACREME I don’t even know where to begin. It’s like Night of the Living Dead meets Sunset Boulevard meets “Dynasty.” It’s classic camp! The plot, the sets, the costumes, and the performances are all so over the top, but you still completely love and relate to these despicable characters. There’s humanity in their monstrousness.

48 HILLS If there’s a moral to the story, what is that, in your mind?

JINKX MONSOON When you do things out of spite, jealousy, vanity, or revenge, you may get what you want, but you’ll also get what you deserve. That, and don’t fight at the top of the stairs.

BENDELACREME Death Becomes Her is a story about the struggle for acceptance in a world that values superficial beauty over substance. It’s about the danger of getting swept up in the battle against aging and our own bodies that cannot be won. And if a topless woman tries to get you to drink a glowing liquid, run.

DRAG BECOMES HER (POSTPONED)
Sat/14, 4pm & 8pm, $20-$120
Castro Theatre, SF
Tickets and more info here.

Review: Sketch comedy legends Culture Clash return—with big tío energy

Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza, and Ricardo Salinas in Berkeley Rep’s production of Culture Clash (Still) in America, written and performed by Culture Clash, directed by Lisa Peterson. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

In these incendiary political times, watching the three master sketch comedians of pioneering Latino troupe Culture Clash is like dipping your spoon into a warm, comforting bowl of menudo—although you can imagine they’d throw in a joke about someone in San Francisco trying to order the vegan version.

The trio has triumphantly returned with Culture Clash (Still) in America (through April 4 at Berkeley Rep), directed by Lisa Peterson. The show is so full of good will and laugh-out-loud-moments that you can’t help but sink agreeably into your seat—and into a past when just speaking Spanglish on a stage, or representing the transgender immigrant experience, or shattering the “Latino” monolith into its roiling constituent parts were major cultural provocations.

Ricardo Salinas, Richard Montoya, and Herbert Siguenza in ‘Culture Clash (Still) in America.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

These elements are still more than welcome, if a bit well-worn. Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza, and Ricardo Salinas are gleaming and spry as ever, bounding affectionately across the stage like your favorite uncle, promising strong embraces and moments when you just throw up your hands and let them talk. In the 1990s, Culture Clash (which also involved the legendary likes of René Yañez and Marga Gomez) helped define a mode of comedy that spoke directly to rather than for marginalized communities. And if that meant delving into uncomfortable intracultural territory and saying the quiet part loud while deflating a few stereotypes, well, that just made it more important.

Ricardo Salinas in Berkeley Rep’s production of Culture Clash (Still) in America. Photo by Kevin Berne

This kind of “equal opportunity offenders,” “anti-PC” stance is creaky now—and has been dangerously weaponized by the alt-right—but in the hands of Culture Clash it’s still as cozy as sitting around jawing at a BBQ. Yes, there are a lot of letters the latest iteration of the LGBTQ+ acronym. Sure, white Berkeley ladies like yoga, chardonnay, and weed. In one slapstick sequence, Salinas runs though all the different ways that different Latino ethnicities dance to salsa. It’s a version of the old “white people drive like this, but Black people drive like this” joke, but its hyper-specificity makes it all the more hilarious. And Salinas tweaks the familiarity by stopping to catch his breath and delivering a punchline wallop—”I’ve been doing this for 35 years!”

Elsewhere we’re introduced to a squabbling Cuban-Puerto Rican couple, members of a citizenship ceremony, and a Border Patrol interrogation team that morphs into something quite different. All of these scenes are loosely connected by a somewhat clunky framing device—a documentary film is being made about life in the US today—that nevertheless dips into one of Culture Clash’s pioneering insights: how arts institutions and monied audiences are complicit in the way POC stories get told. Ingenious scenic design by Christopher Acebo and lighting by Tom Ontiveros help bind everything together.

Ricardo Salinas and Herbert Siguenza in Berkeley Rep’s ‘Culture Clash (Still) in America.’ Photo by Kevin Berne.

The overall warmth of the affair is heightened by the troupe’s long relationship with the Berkeley Rep. Previous artistic director Tony Taccone encountered them in the 1980s when he was at Eureka Theatre, and featured Culture Clash and its members in several productions throughout his career. (Still) in America is a kind of update on Culture Clash in AmeriCCa, produced in 2002 at the Berkeley Rep. Opening night was a buzzy reunion of arts and culture figures that could have been lifted straight from the Mission in the 1990s. (I happened to be seated next to Sean San Jose, co-founder of the Campo Santo performance crew and artistic director of Youth Speaks.)

While Culture Clash still digs sharply into the poignance and relevance of what it calls “social archeology,” for me the most shocking thing was remembering how easily the members could inhabit other bodies and identities that were not their own. In the ’90s, with so few minorities onstage, the onus to represent different characters fell onto whoever was at hand—brown actors could play Asian, Indian, African, Muslim, transgender, queer, disabled, etc with barely a double-take. Now, with more, if not nearly enough, representation, these “out of your lane” transformations are looked down upon.

Could this be part of the “political correctness” that the troupe disdains? Could it also be that back in the day we felt more all in this together?

Whatever the case, Montoya, Salinas, and Siguenza bring such open-heartedness and assured artistic experience to their portrayals that any objections about appropriation or permissions faded away in my mind. (Still) in America is a big bear-hug of solidarity and laughter that feels refreshing right now.

CULTURE CLASH (STILL) IN AMERICA
Through April 4
Berkeley Rep.
Tickets and more info here

Review: ‘Gloria’ reveals what lurks beneath office culture’s bright lights

Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah) and Ani (Martha Brigham) sneak a peek at Dean’s manuscript while the intern, Miles (Jared Corbin), watches in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria, performing at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater now through Sunday, April 12, 2020. Photo: Kevin Berne

If you’ve ever worked in an office—and, face it, who hasn’t—the stage set for Gloria (through April 12 at ACT’s Strand Theater) will feel very familiar to you. There’s the metal filing cabinet crowned with the plant-you-can’t–kill, the copier machine that runs out of paper, the swivel chairs. Scenic designer Lawrence E. Moten III has created a verisimilitude from the fluorescent lights to the gray industrial rug.

And, at least initially, the office workers seem very familiar too. There’s Dean (Jeremy Kahn) the earnest, if hungover and perpetually late, assistant to the editor, the smart-mouthed, highly caffeinated Kendra (Malanie Arii Mah), who complains about the coffee (and everything else); the talented but unconfident Ani (Martha Brigham); Lorin (Matt Monaco), the “mother of all fact checkers”; even the eager Ivy League intern Miles (Jared Corbin). And then there’s shlumpy, passive-aggressive Gloria (Lauren English), who’s been there forever. When she finally scrapes enough of her measly salary together to buy an apartment, she throws a housewarming party and invites the whole office. Nobody comes.

Gloria (Lauren English, right) stops by the desk of Dean (Jeremy Kahn) while the intern, Miles (Jared Corbin), watches in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria, performing at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater now through Sunday, April 12, 2020. Photo: Kevin Berne

But this is no ordinary office. It’s the “Culture Desk” of a prominent New York magazine. In addition to ubiquitous post-its there are theater programs pinned to the bulletin board and that stack of files is the daunting slush pile of manuscripts to be read (by the intern) by the end of the day. There’s lots of ambitious elbowing, snide remarks, and petty office politics. These staffers are young, bright, and at a top-notch publication, so we wonder along with intern Miles, why is everyone here so miserable?

This is the opening act of Gloria, the Pulitzer-nominated drama by playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, who the New York Times hailed as “one of the country’s most original and unsettling dramatists.” The play is directed by Obie-winning Eric Ting, artistic director of Cal Shakespeare Theater. In the capable hands of Ting, the cast moves from raucous parody of their bosses and lighthearted dancing to the sugary songs of a favorite pop idol, to venomous jealousy and moments of complete despair. The talented actors convey a mood change with just a stare, an awkward silence, or a raised eyebrow. Lorin’s despondent monologue bemoaning his exhaustion and frustration after staying up all night to fact-check a story, only to find out it is about to be altered again, is a tour de force.

Callie (Martha Brigham) receives the call that a client has arrived at the office while Rashaad (Jared Corbin) and Jenna (Melanie Arii Mah) listen in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria, performing at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater now through Sunday, April 12, 2020. Photo: Kevin Berne

Their dialogue crackles with wit, sarcasm, and literary references, which makes sense because these office workers are all wannabe writers. The only problem is that they have no life experience to write about. Ani is a recent college grad, Kendra blogs about sample shopping, even Dean’s stint in a Buddhist monastery was short and, in his words, “boring.” Still, they dream about publishing a novel, or at least getting a juicy byline on a feature article.

That all changes when a traumatic event in the office affects them all.

Now, the inverse is true. They’ve experienced a horrific drama, but they have to wrestle—with themselves and each other—about how to write about it. The question is not what to write about but who owns the story? The perpetrator? The victims? The bystanders? The creators of a made-for-TV movie? For a moment, the office colleagues imagine that enduring a tragedy will bring them closer together. Instead it becomes a centrifugal force, driving them further apart, to where they hardly recognize each other.

As director Ting writes in the program notes, “Stories arise from our need to make sense of our world, to understand trauma and disaster… Trauma acts as a sort of ghost. The first act is haunting the second. There’s a clear moment the world pivots and leaves the characters unmoored. They’re trying to make sense of it by telling a story.”

The cast of ‘Gloria.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria is at times laugh-out-loud hilarious and at other times so shocking that you can hear a pin drop. Just when you think you understand what’s going on, he pulls the rug out from under you. This fresh, original and disturbing play illustrates why the playwright was granted a MacArthur genius award. Go see it. It may make you wonder what lurks under those familiar fluorescent lights.

GLORIA
Through April 12
ACT’s Strand Theater, SF.
Tickets and more info here

John Cameron Mitchell and the origin of ‘Anthem Homunculus’

John Cameron Mitchell. Photo by Matthew Placik

John Cameron Mitchell wanted his new podcast Anthem: Homunculus to boldly go where no audio series had gone before.

In it, Mitchell plays uninsured Midwestern artist Ceann Mackay who launches an app-based “tumor telethon” to crowdfund for care after being struck with an anthropomorphized brain tumor (acted out by Laurie Anderson). As Mackay stares down death, he reflects on his life and the familial and romantic relationships that shaped it.

The 10-episode series also features turns from acting giants Glenn Close, Patti Lupone, Cynthia Erivo, Denis O’Hare, and Marion Cotillard, 30-odd musical numbers, and what Mitchell describes as “audio cinema”-caliber storytelling that captures many of the issues that the How to Talk to Girls at Parties director has struggled with within his own family.

But because the series is only available on the premium subscription-based Luminary podcast platform, it has only drawn a limited audience—even a year after its release.

Its creators are hoping to attract more listeners by taking the show on the road. Mitchell and Weller are currently hosting marathon listening parties in select cities, including San Francisco (Sun/1 at Roxie Theater), complete with abstract visuals, a theatre-grade 5.1 surround sound mix, and live singing.

I spoke to Mitchell about his groundbreaking musical podcast, throwing himself into his work, and his next podcast, which happens to be set in San Francisco.

48 HILLS Anthem: Homunculus is one of the most imaginative podcasts I’ve ever come across. How did you even conceive it?

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL It started out as a Hedwig sequel because I wanted to write about my own family and thought Hedwig might be a useful mouthpiece. Her character is not me, but emotionally, it was me.

So I started on that, but she has a lot of wigs and a lot of baggage and so did I, and it was not always compatible. So I let go of that character and removed her like a tumor and the story remained. Obviously there’s a lot more going on and a lot of it has to do with stuff that’s happened to me.

48 HILLS How much of you is in this character’s story?

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL In some ways, this is an alternate autobiography. It’s autofiction—that classic form of an autobiography that’s somewhat fictionalized. The first premise is what would I be like had I never left my small town, Junction City, Kansas, where Hedwig lived? In fact, the character lives in Hedwig’s old trailer but never met her and doesn’t know her, so there’s a metaphorical resonance there.

But it’s interesting to think about what you might have been like had you not made certain decisions. Your childhood and your adulthood may have been the same had you not taken certain risks—and this character didn’t take enough of them.

His family was complicated, as was mine. So it’s someone whose mortality is demanding change and his life is flashing before his eyes, literally. He’s telling his life story and having hallucinations of people who have passed who were important to him. Because he has a brain tumor, you’re not sure what’s imaginary and what isn’t, but it’s certainly bringing up all kinds of stuff in his life and the tumor seems to be stage managing this.

48 HILLS There are so many life-threatening illnesses you could have given this character. Why a brain tumor?

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL My parents both had Alzheimer’s, so I saw what a brain disease can do. And it’s frightening to me and probably something I’ll have to deal with in my life, which impacts what I do for a living, which is different from losing your legs or movement. It’s your memory, your cognition, and that’s very scary to me. So in some ways, it’s anthropomorphizing that fear.

Anthem Homunculus art

48 HILLS What are the pros and cons of getting so personal in your work?

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL I definitely wanted to create this as a reaction to the death in my life and the mortality in my life. I lost my brother when I was young. I lost my boyfriend who Jairo (played by Nakhane) is a fill-in for. I lost my father. Disease is in our family, so it’s definitely there to look into that, to purge and understand and free myself. You can’t free yourself from death, but you can look at it in a different way.

In some ways, art, for me, is a tool to help you live and also to help you die well because dying well implies living well. You don’t want to have regrets. You want to have felt that you’ve made the decisions you needed to make in life, so when you’re near the end, there are no regrets.

Life is a tragedy, but it’s obviously full of diversions, joy, love, and contentment as well as panic and depression. All of these things are very useful when you look at them a certain way and I’ve always found that my work has helped me with whatever challenges I’ve had in my life. Acting helped me love myself more, Hedwig helped me integrate the male and female within myself, and this helps me deal with mortality.

48 HILLS I imagine that the podcast is at least partially an indictment of our country’s healthcare system.

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL That’s an implication, for sure. It’s not the focus because that’s just the state the character’s in, in Kansas and the state of a kind of lack of compassion by the government that he finds himself in. Kansas, which used to be the reasonable, more populist Republican state has become the reddest of red states somehow, where people can be shot in the face for not being particularly white. It’s definitely changed. It’s certainly commenting on the world under Trump, too, and the strangeness of it.

48 HILLS What does the future hold for Anthem: Homunculus?

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL We’re going to bring Anthem to the stage and eventually Broadway. There are no direct plans yet, but that’s the goal in a more condensed version.

I am also producing my brother’s fictional podcast for iHeartMedia, called The Laundronauts that will star Ed Asner and actually takes place in San Francisco in a laundromat, present-day, and in the ’30s, at the very first laundromat.

The premise is a bully puts a kid in a washer and he disappears and his friends have to go into this alternate world to find him. They become The Laundronauts. The kid disappears into a place called Absentia where all the lost things go in the laundry. It’s a fun thing that’ll be out next year.

ANTHEM: HOMONCULUS MARATHON LISTENING PARTY
Sun/1, 2-9pm, $25
Roxie Theater, SF
More info here.

A pro-immigrant ‘sci-fi magical realism human cartoon opera’? Believe it!

DeMarcello Funes and Sara Moore in 'The Supers.' Photo by Fernando Gambaroni

For centuries, the United States held true to its reputation as a sanctuary nation, greeting immigrants fleeing unfortunate circumstances back home with the opportunity to start anew.

“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” demands Emma Lazurus’ verse at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

But what happens to the refugees seeking shelter within America’s borders when Lady Liberty lowers her lamp and closes the proverbial “golden door” to the homeless and tempest-tost?

DeMarcello Funes and Sara Moore in ‘The Supers.’ Photo by Fernando Gambaroni

This is the central question that playwright Sara Moore (Show Ho, Atomic Clown, and Wunderworld) aims to answer in her latest show, The Supers (February 19-29 at Z Space).

The 80-minute “science-fiction magical realism human cartoon opera” and “live silent film” about intergalactic asylum seekers fleeing to the presumed safety of planet Earth but ending up instead in a totalitarian nightmare opens 2/19 at Z Space.

I spoke to Moore (also the director of the San Francisco Clown Conservatory) about The Supers, the immigration crisis, and the challenges of getting “meaningful entertainment” funded in 2020.

48 HILLS How would you describe The Supers to someone who’s never seen one of your shows? 

SARA MOORE We are creating a new genre of theatre that could easily be called “clown opera.” This is pantomime storytelling set to a full symphonic score. It has all the heightened experience of grand opera but instead of voices, you have amplified cartoon physicality.

48 HILLS What inspired the story of cosmic refugees, fleeing across galaxies to the hopeful safety of Planet Earth, then confronted by a multitude of authoritarian forces?

SARA MOORE Certainly our current immigration crisis has informed this story, but even more so the idea of who has supremacy and why that very concept is idiotic and downright cruel. There is room on this planet and in this very vast universe for all beings to exist, thrive, and get along. I’m a clown and therefore filled with near-supernatural hope.

48 HILLS Your show recognizes the power of everyday heroes. Why is this important in 2020? 

SARA MOORE There’s absolutely no doubt that we are in perilously divided angry times in our own country. Plus, nationalism and outright fascism are on the rise worldwide. More than ever we need stories of people helping, as Fred Rogers so beautifully said.

48 HILLS What are the challenges of telling a story entirely in pantomime, with a symphonic score? What’s gained and what’s lost when using these mediums? 

SARA MOORE It’s certainly very freeing to let go of talking. So much can be conveyed with the body and face, and adding very specified music to this creates an otherworldly landscape, a trance-like reality where the audience can find a new kind of immersion. I do not miss the tactile world of dialogue in this genre. Plus, it’s damn fun to be a human cartoon!

48 HILLS Tell me about your work at the Clown Conservatory. Also, what are the most important lessons that a clowning student can learn? 

SARA MOORE Huge question! The study and practice of Clowning is ancient and draws from many cultures and techniques. At ClownCon we are focused on what we call “human cartooning,” which is foundational to The Supers. We are invested in training the versatile, amplified, eccentric performer who is ready for circus, stage, and film along with resistance and relief: protest, hospital clowning, and humanitarian efforts. Come join us for the most invigorating 24 weeks of your entire life.

Sara Moore

48 HILLS What did you learn opening for Chita Rivera, Carol Channing, Rita Moreno, Sammy Cahn, and Phyllis Diller among other legends while working for Merv Griffin?

SARA MOORE That was an insanely important part of my varied and wild career. Mr. Griffin was a delight and everything you’d imagine he was: a pied piper, a papa and mentor, and a lovable guy, overall. He saw my potential and offered me grand opportunities, along with the great producers Roger Minami and Billy Thomas.

I was in my early 20s at the time and not altogether aware of the scope of what I was experiencing. These were real stars. Carol Channing was like looking into a mirror in some ways and I’m ever grateful for her kindness and love. All the lovely people I got to perform alongside were pretty real and fabulous. I learned discipline and how to pump sheer joy into a performance—and endurance. It was a brutal but wonderful schedule.

48 HILLS Tell me about working with gay icon Quentin Crisp on your 1998 film Homo Heights

SARA MOORE It was like being in a dreamscape, working with Quentin. He was the first true genius I’d ever really met. He exuded an awareness and understanding of the human experience that I’d never witnessed at this height. It was extraordinary, having written a character based on a combination of Captain Picard and Ian McKellan, only to have the most famous English queen agree to play him.

One of the greatest compliments of my life was folks thinking Quentin had written his own dialogue, which he didn’t. I grew up with an English mother and a constant intake of Masterpiece Theatre, so I knew how to write for a British cadence. It was sweet synchronicity with Mr. Crisp.

48 HILLS What are the challenges of getting funding for your work in 2020? And what’s coming up next for you?

SARA MOORE Funding is always an issue. I wish I had a trust fund, but my family’s currency has always been love and support, though sometimes I wish my dad had been a successful bettor at the racetrack! I am ever grateful to our funders at Circus Center. I hope more people with money will kindly offer their support, especially now when we need meaningful entertainment that speaks to bringing us all together in these harsh times. Love is the last great technology, but sometimes love is money!

That said, I am now working on a new clown opera: Cyclones. It’s about the cosmology of the great Cyclone roller coaster and its many clones; another story of bringing people together. Stay tuned.

THE SUPERS
February 19 through February 29
$15-$55
Z Space, SF.
More info here.

Springsteen meets surveillance state in ‘Born in East Berlin’

Anne (Ash Malloy) meets with GDR government officials Lotte (Lauren Hart), Erich (Christopher Reber), and Hans (Patrick Andrew Jones) to discuss Bruce Springsteen's upcoming concert in 'Born in East Berlin.' Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Rogelio Martinez likes a little chaos when he works. So one day he had his toddler daughter, Charlotte, on his lap watching videos while he was writing a play. Martinez says he had instilled in her a love of the Beatles “Let It Be”—but then he’d lost her to Frozen and “Let It Go.” She was still a Bruce Springsteen fan though, so she was watching some of the Boss’s concert videos. 

When Martinez looked down he saw one he hadn’t seen before: It featured Springsteen in East Germany. Martinez, who was born in Cuba, is interested in communism and surveillance, as well as Bruce. So he wrote his latest play mixing all three, premiering at the San Francisco Playhouse, called Born in East Berlin (through February 29).

Katja (Isabel Langen) reflects on her experience at Bruce Springsteen’s concert in East Berlin. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

In the play, an American has come to try and arrange for Bruce Springsteen to play a concert in East Berlin. Authorities aren’t quite what sure what to do—grant her request? Or no? At last they do and in the play—as in real life—Springsteen did eventually play to a crowd of 300,000 people in 1988. Some people like to credit it with leading to the wall eventually coming down, which it did the next year.

As the play’s press puts it, “Who will succeed and who will fail when the end of the Cold War backs up against the force of American rock and roll?”  

For research, Martinez read lots of articles and books about the time, including Anna Funder’s historic look at the State Security Service, called Stasiland. The headquarters of the Stasi became a museum in former East Germany, where a workshop version of the play was performed.   

Playwright Rogelio Martinez

The amount of knowledge the government gathered on its people was stunning, Martinez found in his research, with as many as one person out of 76 working as a full-time informant, according to statistics he read. This interested him as a contrast to our era of social media, when people willingly share where they are, what they’re doing, and who they’re doing it with. 

When you’re writing a play that is sort of a period piece, there needs to be some link to the current time, Martinez says, and he hopes people will compare the gathering of information on people then with the giving away of information now. 

“If you see this play, you have to pause and think about today’s world—and what does information mean,” he said.

Katja (Isabel Langen) watches American music videos on tv with Gerhard (Griffin O’Connor) in his apartment. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Martinez, who teaches playwriting at Columbia and New York University, along with writing for children’s television, says he’s glad the play is premiering in a tech hub like San Francisco, which he points out has recently banned facial recognition. 

“They’re at the heart of technology, and they’re saying let’s just put a pause on that,” he said. “They haven’t figured out what the repercussions are yet.”

Asked what he likes about Bruce Springsteen, Martinez is briefly flummoxed. 

“Well, everything,” he said. “He’s the soundtrack to my life. He seems to tap into this idea of escape. As much as he’s associated with New Jersey, so many songs are about escaping New Jersey.  I grew up in New Jersey, and I knew I wanted to leave and his music talks to me about that. And he continues to grow and experiment. He’s an amazing storyteller who creates myths.”

BORN IN EAST BERLIN
Through February 29
The Creativity Theater at The Children’s Creativity Museum, SF.
Tickets and more info here