ONSTAGE Growing up in rural Louisiana, queer black comedian and social worker Luna Malbroux was pretty familiar with assumptions people might make about her. Hearing fellow comedian Mindy Kaling talk about how she carries herself with the entitlement of a white male made a big impression of her, and partly inspired her to write her play How to Be a White Man (at Burial Clay Theatre, March 23-April 1).
Malbroux, who leads anti-bias and anti-racist workshops, performed in the play with Faultline Theatre company at PianoFight last year. She got good feedback, but some people, including from Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr., who has an M.F.A. in theater from Carnegie Mellon, saw it more as a performance piece than a play.
Jackson, who co-founded the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, knew Malbroux because they were both doing a residency at the African American Art & Culture Complex, which gave them access to the offices and theater there (“like a African American futuristic We Work,” Jackson said.) They talked about reworking How to Be a White Man, and now they’re putting it on with Jackson directing and Malbroux starring.
In the first version, Malbroux says, there were eight or so characters, and now there are just two.
“There’s a black woman and a white man,” she said. “I don’t want to give it all away, but it explores identity and power in a relationship. Also when I first wrote this, Obama was president [both she and Jackson laugh] and a lot has changed between the summer of 2017 and now, so I wanted to make sure it goes deeper.”
Jackson says the previous play had a lot of different stories in a vignette style, and now it’s possible to go more in depth. Because they share an office with each other as well as others involved in the play, they can check in with each other. This is helpful to her as a writer, Malbroux says, giving her immediate feedback, which she’s used to as a stand-up comic. Asked for an example of an idea she got or something she changed as a result of talking with her co-workers, both Malbroux and Jackson start laughing again. They were thinking about the artistic director of the play, a black woman, and what she said during a conversation about the concepts of the show.
“She said when she was young and starting her own business, she would be taken more seriously if she said she was ‘Stanley Emerson’s secretary,'” Malbroux said. “He was a character she created to do business. We just lost it. I said, ‘I’m going to use this.'”
In How to Be A White Man, Malbroux plays Michelle, about to get a job at a SNL-like show, Avocado Nation, but constantly feeling the pressure to be twice as good, being a black woman in comedy. Her white male foil is played by Kevin Glass.
Jackson, who appeared in Motown the Musical as well as Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, about the Temptations, has directed musicals before, but this is his first time directing something like this, and he says it was fun to get the comedy and drama across just using words. Malbroux thinks this version of the play is easier to connect with, and she’s loving it as a writer and actor.
“The people I work with inspire me on the daily,” she said. “I work with Kevin Glass, and having his support and Rodney’s and doing a play that has such tense subject matter and we all get along and love each other—that means a lot.
ONSTAGE “You lost a brother, I lost my family. You lost a brother, I lost my whole country… I lost everything I had.”
With this scathing refrain, Quang (James Seol), a fighter pilot turned refugee, reminds an anti-war hippie (one of many roles played by the excellent thespian-chameleon Jomar Tagatac) that Americans will never know as much about the war as the Vietnamese who endured it on their native soil.
There are many facets to the Vietnam War—or the American War as the Vietnamese now call it, to distinguish it from invasions of their country by the Chinese and French over the centuries. In A.C.T.’s new “irreverent road trip comedy” Vietgone (through April 22), playwright Qui Nguyen has chosen to look at it from one particular perspective: the Vietnamese who sided with the Americans, and who escaped the fall of Saigon by the skin of their teeth to come to the United States.
Lives intersect in 1975 at the Ft. Chafee, Arkansas refugee camp. Quang, a helicopter pilot trained at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, commanded a unit for the South Vietnam Air Force for eight years. Tong (Jenelle Chu), the woman he falls for in the refugee camp, worked at the US Embassy and was granted two tickets out. To her regret, her younger brother Khue (Stephen Hu, in one of his many roles) will not join her because he won’t leave the love of his life. At his urging, she brings their mother Huong (the delightfully caustic Cindy Im), who is unabashedly vocal about her disgust with the camp’s food, the incomprehensible language, and most especially the GI who is smitten with her daughter.
Given the tragedy of their lives—years of war, forced separation from loved ones, landing on a distant and unfamiliar shore, confinement in a camp in the middle of nowhere—it’s quite a feat that playwright Nguyen and director Jaime Castaneda have created an exuberant comedy that has the audience roaring out loud at many moments.
Nguyen’s skillful play with language is nothing short of brilliant. In the opening scene, an actor representing the playwright (Tagatac) explains how the dialogue will be presented. When the Vietnamese characters are speaking to each other, it will be in familiar, contemporary language, even raps, that the audience can easily follow: “Whoa, there’s a lotta white people up in here?” When an American attempts Vietnamese, it will be awkward and grammatically incorrect: “Seeing you for first time was love in sight first.” And when the Americans speak English to the Vietnamese it is a jumble of common words sounding like total gibberish: “Nascar, botox, frickles.”
As the play unfolds, the purpose of Nguyen’s linguistic gymnastics becomes clear: English-speaking audiences have to grapple with what it feels like not to understand the language that surrounds you in a strange place, and maybe share some deeper understanding of what it means to be a war refugee.
Nguyen has created the opposite of the classic Hollywood Vietnam War films, where the heroes are all Americans and the Vietnamese are minor characters, exoticized and stereotyped, and mostly silent. In Vietgone, the narrative is defined by the Vietnamese, and the Americans have the walk-on parts.
The first act is snappy. We witness the fall of Saigon, the chaotic departure of many Vietnamese on helicopters and aircraft carriers, and their arrival in the bleak resettlement camp. The scenes go back and forth in rapid-fire sequence from Vietnam to America, aided by black and white projections of the war.
The main characters are irreverent and compelling. The beautiful Tong rejects her many suitors and asserts she is the “sheer opposite of every Vietnamese woman on the planet”—she doesn’t want to be protected or taken care of, she wants to strike out on her own in her new country. “I’m no Juliet waiting on no balcony,” she raps, “I can save my own kingdom, I’m a badass bitch!”
Her mother Huong resents—after burying two husbands, birthing eight children, and surviving two wars—having to learn English, and thinks the Americans should learn Vietnamese. Until they do, she delights in voicing her obscenity-laced opinions in front of Americans who don’t understand a word of her insults and think of her as a sweet old lady.
Quang resists being seduced by America, “I don’t want to think about where I am, a soldier lost in some foreign land.” He is obsessed about getting back to his wife and two children in Vietnam. Yet he continues to defend the US role in the war even though he knows that in this new country he will be subject to racism: “We get to America by any desperate means/Cause they say they’ll take the poor and the weak/But does that do for refugees that look like me/peeps reminding them of their enemy?”
The drama, and the humor, slow somewhat in the second act as the characters reluctantly settle in to their new circumstances, knowing it will be for the long haul.
Nguyen said in an interview that growing up in Arkansas with Vietnamese refugee parents, he loved hip-hop, action movies, and comic books. These cultural influences are evident here: the music by composer Shammy Dee features dynamic raps, the set design by Brian Sidney Bembridge includes huge brightly-colored comic-book style letters announcing places and dates, and several scenes are reminiscent of movies that run the gamut from Dirty Dancing and Easy Rider to Revenge of the Ninja. Even Nguyen’s brilliant inversion of syntax and language echoes that technique in the groundbreaking film The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.
Director Castaneda says, “A lot of my colleagues and I are part of a whole generation of artists who are either first- or second-generation American, who straddle different countries and different identities. It’s in that tension that we’ve seen a lot of new cultural productions grappling with race, identity, culture and history… asking questions about their place in this country, their place in the world.”
The playwright claims in his opening speech that “this story is not about war, but about falling in love.” That assertion is reiterated later in the play when he tries to convince his father, Huang, now a septuagenarian, to talk to him about the war. Huang, speaking in broken heavily accented English to his American-born son, only wants to share his memories of his child’s babyhood and teenage years.
Driving home from the theater, we heard news on the radio that a vet who had been treated for PTSD at a Yountville veterans’ home had taken three women staff members hostage, and then shot and killed them. That tragedy underscored the message of Vietgone, which, despite the actor/playwright’s on-stage denials, is a story about the deep consequences of war—just not the ones we thought we knew.
ONSTAGE After the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, playwright Julia Cho (Aubergine, The Language Archive) was looking for something that would help her understand the murderous rampage which killed 32 people and injured 16—at the time the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in US history. None of her research, or the discourse of the time, helped her make sense of what had happened.
“It felt like conversation devolved into extreme opposite viewpoints and the language was reductive,” Cho said. “It was hijacked by the loudest and most extreme points of view. I wanted a more nuanced approach that could own the complexity of what was happening. I was hungry for that.”
In Cho’s latest play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Office Hour (through March 25), a teacher tries to get through to a sullen student whose behavior and dress—sunglasses indoors, violent pornographic writing—has people worried. Knowing where to begin the play was hard for Cho, who taught in grad school, until she read a teacher’s op-ed about a troubling student. Looking at that specific relationship, between a teacher and a student, gave Cho a way in.
Cho didn’t want to write about mass shootings—but she felt she needed to.
“The older I get, the more it takes to get me across the threshold of writing,” she said. “I felt like I had a sort of responsibility to write about the things that are troubling me. Not that the play answers any of them, but it does raise questions.”
While writing Office Hour, Cho read teachers’ blogs online as well as the report the governor of Virginia commissioned on the shooting She also read One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway—and Its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad, the book about the horrible killing of 69 people at a youth camp in 2011. Cho said it was difficult emotionally to immerse herself in the world of school shootings, but she knows it doesn’t come close to the actual experience.
“I was reading in safety of own home,” she said. “But I owned that feeling of not being safe in public places which came from the events themselves. Basically, I decided I won’t hold the illusion of safety anymore.”
The play, a co-production with Long Wharf Theatre, has been performed at other venues including South Coast Repertory and New York’s Public Theater. Cho says sometimes she has had people who have been present at a shooting come up to her to talk and those are the responses that mean the most.
This current run of the play at Berkeley Rep comes soon after the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 people were killed with an AR-15. The student survivors have been speaking out on social media as well as traditional media- appearing on a CNN town hall, “The Ellen Show,” and other news and talk shows, demanding change. Major companies, including banks, rental car companies, and airlines have cut ties with the National Rifle Association. Others are feeling pressure, too.
Cho says the aftermath of this shooting feels different to her, and it has changed how people are responding to the play.
“I think what’s interesting is now complacency isn’t settling in, and people are coming in with it more on the surface, and the audience is a bit more willing to be engaged,” she said. “It feels like we’re on the cusp of some change, and for me it’s changed my experience of the play and makes it more bearable to watch. Before we were so far from any dialogue or acknowledgement, and now it feels like there’s hope.”
ONSTAGE “It’s amazing how pertinent this feels,” a man in front of me at the SF Playhouse told his friend at the end of the 1946 play, Born Yesterday (Through March 10).
Why, yes, a story about a greedy, ignorant, bullying, vulgar, immoral millionaire going to DC to further his business interests does feel startlingly relevant. But more than that, it’s amazing how well the writing in this classic play by Garson Kanin holds up—how it feels funny and even fresh and not too hokey—70 years later.
A couple months ago, I heard someone on a political podcast joke about “sucking pretty hard on the West Wing pipe,” as a reference to our need to see shows where government and democracy get treated as vital things that still matter. The producing director of the Playhouse and the director of Born Yesterday, Susi Damilano seems to have tapped into that need, with characters who say, for example, that selfishness is not a virtue—it’s something that hurts people. (Take that, Ayn Rand, and by the way, that’s not how you spell Ann.)
In Born Yesterday, calling someone a fascist is a horrible insult. To which the character responds, “I can’t be a fascist! I’m from Plainsfield, New Jersey.” I’m always a sucker for New Jersey jokes (my favorite state after California), so that totally made me laugh. Not everyone may share my fondness for New Jersey, but the play is full of satisfying lines for audience members no matter what state they prefer, like: “I don’t want to live in a country of ignorant people – it’s too dangerous,” and “Who do you think the government is? It’s me—and you. And a few million more people.”
Scenic designer Jacquelyn Scott’s created a gorgeous Washington DC hotel suite that has a view of the capital out the window, an elegant staircase, chandeliers, and a little wet bar, where people are constantly pouring themselves a drink. This is where corrupt junkman Harry Brock has come with his girlfriend, Billie Dawn, looking to get even more money and power by bribing politicians. Brock worries Billie, a former chorus girl, needs some polish, so he hires reporter Paul Verrall to show her around and teach he about Washington, not expecting her to start to think about what it means to be a citizen and how greed subverts democracy.
The cast is luminous. As Brock, Michael Torres throws his weight around, practically growling and baring his teeth, seeming uncomfortable in his too-large suits—always loosening his tie and taking off his shoes. He’s the embodiment of Oscar Wilde’s line about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, constantly judging people by how much money they make. Anthony Fusco gives a beautiful, funny and heartbreaking performance as the former US District Attorney, now working for Brock, who still has enough self- knowledge to realize he’s sold his soul and drinks heavily to forget it.
As the senator doing business with Brock, Louis Parnell shows, as he responds to Billie telling him he shouldn’t have to put up with Brock’s abuse because he’s a SENATOR and that’s special, that he still has some conscience and shame left. It would be hard to be more handsome, more charming, more nerdily worked up about democracy than William Holden playing the reporter in the 1950 movie, but Jason Kapoor somehow does it, while coming off as completely relaxed and delighted by Billie.
Millie Brooks as Billie Dawn, shines. On opening night, people practically leapt to their feet to applaud her performance. It’s nice to see a woman getting all the best lines, but it was Brooks’ delivery and her total commitment to the role whether she’s beating Brock at gin, saying she doesn’t understand why a senator’s wife pretends to have read David Copperfield when she hasn’t, or strutting while saying “I’m superb! New word,” that made us all root for her and want to see her get the new life she talks about.
The supporting cast is incredible as well, including Melissa Quine as the maid who makes a whole hilarious production of entering and exiting a scene during a fight between Brock and Billie.
The Playhouse’s artistic director Bill English calls the play, which earned its author a spot on the Hollywood blacklist for being a communist sympathizer, “a subversive comedy masquerading as a romance.” That’s about right. It’s pretty rare that a frothy, fun comedy takes on capitalist greed and makes you feel that integrity will win out over corruption. And that’s a real gift.
ONSTAGE If hearing about an intimate drama with two couples—one youthful, one aging—trying to figure out their relationships automatically conjures up “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” John Kolvenbach’s new play at the Magic Theatre will make you think again. The characters in Kolvenbach’s “Reel to Reel” (through February 25) are about as far from Albee’s bitter, antagonistic husbands and wives as you can imagine.
Kolvenbach’s dialogue is no less brilliant, but he uses words (and other sounds – more on this later) to plumb the depths of love within a marriage. The playwright skillfully interrogates the way two very different people come together over time (in this case more than half a century), shave off the sharp edges, lift each other’s spirits, and create a life together.
In “Reel to Reel,” the young people and the elders are actually the same people at different times in their lives—aged 27, 42, and 82. The older couple is played by Magic Theatre veterans Carla Spindt and Will Marchetti, and their younger versions by Zoe Winters and Andrew Pastides. The ensemble performs together seamlessly. Their often-complicated action on stage—moving quickly from scene to scene, decade to decade, not only speaking but also producing Foley sound effects live on stage—is agile and engaging.
When we meet the octogenarians Maggie and Walter, they seem cozily matched. Their gentle banter is witty, sometimes stinging, but never cruel. “You’re 82. How did that happen?” Maggie teases Walter.
“I’m sorry, Maggie, but you are my one remaining interest. I’m focused. I’m a reduction sauce, thick at the bottom of the pan,” Walter tells her, trying to pull her attention away from the audiotape she is splicing at her worktable. Their interplay seems as comfortable as the well-worn Turkish rug in the middle of their bohemian New York apartment.
At first, it hardly seems possible they are the same people as the young Maggie who comes on like a take-no-prisoners military officer, barking orders at the bewildered Walter. “Take out your phone. Call her now and tell her you met somebody and I guess tell her you’re sorry and she can keep your guitar that you never play…”
Ambushed, Walter fumbles with record albums and beer cans before succumbing to this feisty woman who has already decided his fate.
When she finally leaves his apartment, he fears she has disappeared out of his life forever, and becomes desperate to find her.
The Magic Theatre has produced several plays by Kolvenbach, including “Goldfish” (2009), “Mrs. Whitney” (2009) and “Sister Play” (2015). This is the world premier of “Reel to Reel,” which he also directs. His witty and elegant writing never descends into sentimentalism, despite his concentration on the day-to-day stuff of romance, cohabitation, and lives that intertwine over the decades.
The sounds—some instrumental, some vocalized by the actors, a few played on tape—are crucial because Maggie is a “sound collagist.” She records everyday noises ranging from covert conversations to washing machine cycles, painstakingly assembling them by splicing raw tape, and sometimes incorporating them into live performance art routines. It’s been her lifelong obsession. She explains that she when she was nine years old, “I asked for a tape recorder for Christmas. The first thing I recorded was my mother’s washing machine.”
When we witness her performance art routine, including her recreation of the sound of “someone’s femur being crushed” by “breaking raw macaroni with a hammer” and her admission that she started covertly taping her parents because she was obsessed with what they talked about when she was not there, her odd profession starts to make some sort of sense.
Maggie is also fascinated with the intimate sounds of their marriage, and Walter gets drawn into them too. Both the young and old get a kick out of describing and recreating their partner’s snores “mumbling, and snorting and mewing—it sounds like cats,” and sighs, screams, cries and laughter in ways that are funny and familiar.
Walter too is an aspiring artist, he wants to be a filmmaker. But he is so disappointed with his major attempt, that he burns the last copy in the trashcan. At one point, he takes over Maggie’s live “sound” act, one of the few scenes that seemed unnecessary and a bit too predictable.
All of the acting is superb, but Winters may have the most challenging role. As the younger Maggie, she has to go from shrill to shy, uninhibited to desperately private. This actress is not afraid to be vocal or vulgar and she creates a character that is intriguing and someone we—like the young, perplexed Walter—definitely don’t want to lose track of.
Another star of the show is Sara Huddleston who designed the complex soundscape, using voices, instruments, buckets, bottles, and all manner of props.
Kolvenbach succeeds in convincing us that the most ordinary sounds of our lives—the sighs, the creak of an open cabinet, the long-distance phone call from parents, the insistent ring of a doorbell—can evoke the most extraordinary feelings. You will leave the theater listening to the world around you with a very different ear.
The playwright Dominique Morisseau has family members and friends in Detroit who lost their houses in the 2008 recession, or got bad buyouts from jobs they’d worked at for years. That was an election year, and Morisseau heard people talk about letting Detroit go bankrupt.
“I think they were saying that with the idea of punishing these greedy executives, but that’s not who makes up that city. Human beings work in those factories,” she told 48 Hills.
“It’s important to change the way we look at the working class. With our new president, the working class has come up again. And with the new president, when we speak on the working class being ignored, we’re talking about a small, centralized group. I like to expand the face of the working class because the people who have been forgotten are not just in Middle America or in Appalachia.”
That’s what Morisseau does in her play about four people in a Detroit auto plant, Skeleton Crew, a co-production of Marin Theatre Company and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. A manager, Reggie (Lance Gardner), tells Faye (Margo Hall), a friend of his mother’s and the union rep, that the plant will close soon and asks her what his best course of action is. Faye has worked there nearly three decades and will lose out on a full benefits package if she isn’t able to make it to a full 30 years. Along with Faye and Reggie, there’s Shanita (Tristan Cunningham), who is pregnant, and Dez (Christian Thompson), who is saving to start his own business.
Through projections and sounds, we’re aware of activity on the floor, but the action takes place in the break room, where the characters ignore the signs Reggie puts up, fight, play cards, talk, share food, and encourage one another. Morisseau said she wanted to show the macro as well as the micro, but to keep the action centered on these four lives. She isn’t afraid of drama, she says.
“Either you write with emotion or you don’t,” she said. “I write with emotion. I lean into it. One thing I love about people of color is how expressive we are. We get angry and we’re joyous. We feel things to the Nth degree.”
Morisseau, a Detroit native, who now lives in Los Angeles, says when she thinks of her hometown, she thinks of love.
“We have strong Detroit pride from a young age, and we want to protect its identity because it’s so abused in the media that it makes us go extremely hard in the opposite direction,” she said. “I have 300 family members in Detroit and my husband’s family is from Detroit. I have a loving and generous family that supports my work and always has.”
Skeleton Crew is the third in a cycle of plays Morisseau wrote about Detroit, known as the Detroit Projects, following Paradise Blue, about a jazz club,and Detroit ’67, about the riots/rebellion in that city.
The recipient of numerous honors including an NAACP Image Award, a Spirit of Detroit Award, and an Obie Award for Skeleton Crew, Morisseau was partly inspired to do a trilogy of plays by August Wilson’s Pittsburg cycle as well as her friend (and the author of the Oscar-winning “Moonlight”) Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays.” She also liked the idea of creating a body of work like author and activist Pearl Cleage, who has written non-fiction, novels, and plays.
“It’s so cool she has this volume of work about black womanhood,” she said. “I see myself in her work.”
To write Skeleton Crew, Morisseau interviewed people who’d worked in auto plants, from those on the floor, retirees, managers, and union workers. Everyone she talked to had pride in the jobs they did.
“There are a lot of assumptions about people who work in factories, but these people are passionate about their jobs,” she said. “I talked to one young woman whose father had worked in the factory before her, and she said ‘I love my job. Tell them that,’ and I said, ‘I will. I’ll tell everyone that.'”
ONSTAGE The crowd of weary travelers staggered on stage—some in elegant jewel-toned salwar khameez and saris, some in ragged dhotis and shawls. They carried bedding, a battered trunk, a sewing machine, a baby. Exhausted and bewildered, they seemed to be going in circles, unsure of their destination.
Behind them, a map of colonial India, dense with villages, was projected on white sheets hanging from a line.
A British bureaucrat in a suit, clutching a map in one hand and a long pointer in the other, smacked his pointer at the map and the travelers scattered, some to one side of the stage, some to the other, careening, pushing and falling over each other. He struck his stick again, and again they fled haphazardly across the stage, seeking safety.
The cause of their anguish? The Partition of 1947—the British division of India and Pakistan —which created “the greatest walking migration of the twentieth century.” That was the subject of The Parting, produced by EnActe and Nooorani Dance earlier this month at Z Space. (It comes to San Jose’s Hammer Theater March 23 and 24.)
With cold regard for ancient traditions, village friendships, or families, the British divided the land along religious lines—forcing Hindus out of Pakistan, Muslims out of India. Cyril Radcliffe (Stefan Fisher), the Englishman creating the arbitrary and cruel boundaries at the behest of Lord Mountbatten, was not a cartographer and had never been to India—but his hasty decisions displaced 15 million people and caused the death of an estimated 2 million.
Writhing on the stage, the travelers moaned and cried, “Why remember? Some things are better left forgotten…”
But a small orphan girl Asha (Anika Warrier) begs her adopted grandmother Mamta (Ranjita Chakravarty) to tell her what happened to all these grief-stricken people. Mamta reluctantly agrees, explaining that she has to go back in time “to when the line was fresh in the sand, like a wound that had just begun to bleed.”
Each of the 15 million had a story, and the breadth and depth of those personal stories is what playwright/director Salil Singh brings to the stage in The Parting. The stories, all based on real events, were developed for the drama by Anurag Wadehra from newspapers, archival research, and oral histories. Singh forged them into this ambitious production, which dares to “awaken the pain and tear things apart.”
As Mamta shares the painful history with her young listener, they ride a primitive wooden cart, the centerpiece of the stage design by Salil Singh. The cart also serves as a metaphorical vehicle, traveling through time, locations, and sorrows.
In one vignette, Boota, a Sikh peasant (Chanpreet Singh) rescues Zainab (Farah Yasmeen Shaikh), a Muslim refugee who is brutalized by thugs. He shelters her with tenderness and respect, and they eventually fall in love, marry, and have a daughter. But their tragic past is resurrected when, after the passage of the Abducted Persons Recovery Act, Zainab is forcibly returned to her home village in Pakistan and torn from her husband and child.
In another tale, the hapless Ghulam Ali, (played with comic undertones by Chinmaya Vaidya), a limb-fitter in the British army, is trapped between the two new nations. The Pakistani authorities throw him out because he was born in India, the Indians deport him because he is Muslim. He is shunted back and forth across the border and, like so many others, becomes a man without a country.
The production director, Vinita Belani, founding artistic director of EnActe Arts, a company dedicated to presenting South Asian stories to theater audiences, undertook a challenging task: staging this epic with 22 actors (many of them children) and 18 dancers.
The dancing was especially evocative—both the ensemble pieces and the solos. Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, the dance and music director, brilliantly incorporated multiple forms of south Asian dance, both classical and folk, focusing prominently on Kathak, which originated in North India, site of the most brutal conflict during the Partition.
In one of the most effective uses of dance, two lines of women dressed in black with gunghroos—ankle bells often used in Kathak dance—surrounded the seated travelers. Their costumes evoked the image of a sooty train car, and the insistent rhythmic jangles created by their precise foot movements mimic the wheels of the train.
But the most exquisite dancing was Shaikh’s own solo as Zainab. When she relived her anguish through tortured movements, her portrayal of pain was breathtaking. As she emerged from her terror under Boota’s tender care, her graceful dance was as fluid as liquid mercury. In a later scene, when Zainab has to denounce her husband in court, her movements were sharp and jagged, almost as if she was cutting herself off from her past love.
The solo violinist Raaginder Singh Momi was another standout. His original compositions are based on Indian classical, folk, ghazal, and contemporary cinema styles. His onstage renditions of South Asian melodies were poignant and beautifully executed.
Unfortunately, some of the recorded background music used in the dance and ensemble scenes was not technically up to par, and often detracted from the elegant movement on stage.
The epic unfolds on a simple but visually compelling set, created by Singh. The white sheets hanging on a line divide the stage into the known and unknown, the perfect backdrop for the constantly displaced persons who shuttle from home, to road, to train, to refugee camp, and sometimes home again.
To present such a difficult history on stage is a challenging task, and the creative team strived to make it both understandable to universal audiences, and deeply credible for those whose families lived through it. Sometimes the challenge proves too much. With so many stories strung together the power of the key ones was diminished. Yet if some of the drama seems muddled or repetitive, the overall impact was powerful: Director Singh succeeds in portraying both the broad sweep of history, and the personal toll that it took on individual Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
In a particularly haunting scene, mobs massacre refugees on the trains heading both north and south. Survivors on both sides of the Partition ask the same question, “Will the nightmares ever end?” Producer Belani notes that unlike the Holocaust or Hiroshima, this tragic story is rarely told. Yet the wounds of this brutal Partition still scar both nations.
ONSTAGE Marga Gomez has been one of San Francisco’s most beloved comedians since her time in legendary ’80s Latino performance ensemble Culture Clash — right through to her “Best Comedian” win in the 2017 Best of the Bay. (She’s also been seen all over big and small screens, from HBO to Batman Forever.)
Her lastest solo show, Latin Standards at the Brava Theater’s new Cabaret Center (Thu/11-January 28), goes beyond its “recuerdos of yesteryear” title, taking a nostalgic trip through Gomez’s family history to trace her dad’s career and personal path toward becoming a successful Cuban entertainer in the US — and bringing up parallels in Gomez’s own on- and offstage journey. It’s also a sharp-eyed view of the effects of San Francisco gentrification, especially on comedy and nightlife (RIP Esta Noche and Josie’s Cabaret), and the ongoing challenges of being Latinx in the entertainment business.
The show was workshopped here in 2016 and then went on to win raves in New York, as a “loving, funny tribute” and “an engrossing portrait.” Now its back, through January, to inaugurate the Brava’s new cabaret space. I talked to Gomez about Fonomimicos, tip jars, stolen jokes, and more.
48 HILLSThe show is partly about being “a ballsy adult child” of your father, a Cuban entertainer. Can you tell me a little bit about him?
MARGA GOMEZ My dad, his stage name Willie Chevalier, was born in Guanabacoa, Cuba. I’m not too sure about his childhood. But my guess is that his family wasn’t rich. Because he was super thrifty and would freak out when I’d drink half my milk and pour the rest down the sink.
He started performing when at age 17, in the pre-Fidel cabarets of Havana. Back then he was a “Fonomimico” — meaning he lipsynched to popular Spanish songs and made them funny, but in guy clothes. Unimaginable! He also told jokes, probably half stolen.
One night a talent scout from Johnny Walker scotch “discovered” him and bought him a one-way ticket to NYC. My dad promptly divorced his wife, who was also a teenager, and flew to New York. Two marriages later I was born in Manhattan and dad was an established comedian, powerful producer of Spanish language variety shows, and closet songwriter.
This story is framed around his three songs that made the Latino Billboard charts. But “Latin Standards” has other meanings, including how jealousy can wreak havoc in a life. Telenovelas come from somewhere.
48H You’ve lived through such a significant time in the San Francisco arts scene. Latin Standards doesn’t just reflect on the story of your family, but on the meta-story of “launching a hipster comedy night at the struggling legendary Latino drag club, Esta Noche, in the midst of San Francisco’s gentrification crisis.” Can you tell me a little bit about that hipster comedy night, and how it may represent a unique moment in San Francisco history, especially since Esta Noche is no more?
MG Esta Noche looked and felt exactly like one of my father’s hangouts in Manhattan except instead of posters of busty Latina babes in halter tops and hot pants, this joint plastered images of bare-chested hombres in jock straps everywhere and proudly displayed a life-size oil painting of the actor Joe D’Allesandro, naked, his schlong pointing down at the happy hour snack table.
My comedy career started in San Francisco at Josie’s Cabaret, a popular gay venue. I sold a lot of tickets there. Then in the late ’90s I moved to LA and New York to get more famous- LOL. When I moved back to San Francisco in 2006 everyone could see comedy for free, and if they were feeling charitable, throw money in a fucking tip jar. The comedians were often telling jokes in dim light with no stage and shitty sound. I was not pleased with this downgrade. However my father taught me to adapt in this business, so I searched for a place to run a “tip jar” show with, at least, a stage and decent lighting — which led me to Esta Noche. It was opened in the ’70s by two gay Latinos as a safe haven for queer Latinos.
The club was humble at best, but they built a stage four-foot high, so even if you were standing with a drink you could see all of the drag queens in their finery. There was even a stage spotlight. It was shabby and smelled but it was Carnegie Hall compared to other comedy tip jar venues.
My first year at Esta Noche was slow-going, attendance-wise, with many tech mishaps. More than once I had to personally throw out a drunk or run across the street to buy another microphone battery at Walgreen’s. But after a year we had full houses every week. The last year of its existence, Esta Noche was selected as a venue for Sketchfest and the short-lived, but genius, Comedy and Burrito Festival. The greatest benefit from my two years there was becoming friends with the drag performers, or as they were known “Las Chicas de Esta Noche.”
Sadly the club owners were secretly planning to sell the bar to rich white folks. In 2014, they took the money and adios. For decades Esta Noche existed along with another queer Latino bar “La India Bonita” just a block away. At one time there were three queer latino bars on or near 16th street in the Mission. All gone now. “Latin Standards” is a love letter to my father and to the gay latinx dives of memory.
48H You’ve been working on this show for a little bit. Where have you performed it, and how has it changed significantly as it develops?
MG I didn’t realize when I booked Brava in January that my first show will be exactly one year from when Latin Standards made its world premiere Off-Broadway at The Under The Radar Festival. This has never happened before and may never happen again but I got an almost full-page great review from The New York Times and a “Critic’s Pick.” I hope the San Francisco press likes it but I can take a hit. I’m just glad we still have theater critics and my fate is not up to Yelp. So much of this show’s path has been guided by an unseen hand. Maybe it’s my dad micromanaging from the sky.
Anyways, Latin Standards began as a mixed media project that incorporated music and archival family photos. The pre-New York workshops at Brava in November 2016 included non-stop projections behind me. I learned that projections can misfire and undermine the story. Projections make tech week extra hellish and sometimes are used as a crutch. I want the audience to have the pleasure of visualizing the characters and locations I’m creating on stage.
As I toured the show in 2017 we dropped the projections and the audience laughed and cried just the same. Since New York, I still update the opening monologue because I am telling stories from childhood, recent past, and present day — so I must follow the news, reflect it, and make it funny. Latin Standards was developed during the 2016 presidential campaign and I expected a more festive world to perform in. Dammit!
My Brava run will be the first show in their new cabaret space. In two days I will see the stage for the first time and the new lighting set up. Any challenges from a cabaret setting will bring new discoveries. I will adapt the script as needed based on the original direction by my beloved director David Schweizer. I’m the canary in the cabaret, and like any trouper will expect the unexpected. I can’t think of a better way to kick off 2018.
48H This is your twelfth solo show — but a teaser on the Brava website says this is “perhaps” you final solo show. Say it isn’t so!
MG Latin Standards is my final solo show. That doesn’t mean I won’t be doing standup or front a Shakira cover band in the future. I’ll be teaching how to create a solo show, but I won’t be writing a new one. Come say good bye!
ONSTAGE “We want to overstimulate people. I love the idea of making people make choices,” said Kathleen Hermesdorf, over outdoor brunch on lt warm winter’s day, at Chloe’s Cafe in Noe Valley. Hermesdorf is founder and director of the FRESH Festival (Jan 5-27), a vibrant monument to experimental dance, music, performance, and artistic expression of all kinds, that lights up January with more intriguing choices than you can shake an electrified divining rod at.
Now in its ninth year and boasting more than three dozen participating artists and companies, this is the biggest FRESH, with three solid weeks and four weekends of performance, workshops, classes, exchanges… even a celebratory party or two. The festival has moved a couple times in its evolution — including a stint at the late, great Kunst-Stoff arts space — and this year’s main performances happen mostly at the spacious Joe Goode Annex, with conversations, potlucks (a festival favorite), and other events at Poppy Art House, which Hermesdorf says she loves for “its living room feel: We can cook there, there’s a little bar, it just brings everyone closer.”
Included on this year’s roster? Everything from Brontez Purnell’s “Chronic: A Dance about Marijuana” and “Cappaghglass,” a work about the refugee crisis in Europe by Tara Brandel, to ALTERNATIVA’s GUT Motive dance classes exploring corporate-reality and the very varied RIPE [raw + intimate performance experiments] series. A string of happy hours featuring the exploratory music of Albert Mathias and various guests will take place at F8 nightclub, as well.
Hermesdorf founded the festival in 2010 with Mathias, her partner in ALTERNATIVA, the dance and music company they launched in 1998 after working together in Contraband, the legendary Sara Shelton Mann‘s dance company.
“January was such a typical dead month, internationally, for performance, it proved the perfect chance for us to do something where we could have everyone come together,” Hermesdorf told me. “We can have students and faculty come, performers who aren’t scheduled anywhere else can come, and they can inter-relate and cross-pollinate. It’s an enormous opportunity for people to collaborate, find someone new to work with, even find someone to live with — because that’s the filter now, isn’t it? Who can afford to come live here.”
The festival is a networking phenomenon in its very structure as well. Hermesdorf is a curator of curators, in that she and her team choose artists to curate their own events during the festival. “I think what contributes to the feeling of FRESH operating as a strong community is that, unlike many other festivals, we’re not simply application-based,” she said. I’m not just looking for the next hot young thing or rising star. I want to know enough about the work so that I can stand by it, or know enough about those curating the events. But I’m thinking that may change, so that we can take a chance and be more egalitarian.
“But for now the artists are mostly hand-picked. I work with two or three co-curators. This year it’s José Navarette and Abby Crain, who’s been with us throughout. And through them we find the artists to curate events. That’s such a different way of discovering what’s out there. Like, ‘Oh, let’s see who the SALTA collective is interested in’ or “Who can we have come lead a potluck discussion this year”? It’s truly a collaboration in that way.”
And despite the global draw, FRESH remains very Bay Area-based. “Even people on the roster who aren’t local are people who have lived here or who have been based here in the Bay Area. Tara Brandel lives in Ireland, but she lived here for a long time in the ’90s and now she’s getting her Master’s from Davies. Christine Bonansea, now she lives in Berlin and was also in New York for a while, but she lived here for many years and has been a collaborator.”
And the festival still fulfills one of its original functions, which was to provide Hermesdorf and Mathias’s ALTERNATIVA company with a showcase for its own season, and to help them find support in the larger arts community. “In some ways FRESH is super community-based, and in others it’s super-selfish on my part. I’m a working artist, I want to present my work, and I want to be surrounded by my allies, other artists in the city, and to expand my community at the same time.”
This year’s theme, as topical as it may ever be, is ANTIDOTE. As festival materials state, “Pandora’s Box is open and we are in the thick of destabilizing destruction and deconstruction, extraordinarily influenced by nature, history and politics. We are in constant recovery, restructuring or reconstruction, trying to make sense of things, make a difference, make a life, make a living, make a family, make friends, make art. We need to seek new means and methods of resilience, healing and problem solving.”
Hermesdorf elaborated: “The festival starts with the artists and then a theme is developed, since people seem to like a theme to work around. The theme this year was almost going to be about space, but then the world went absolutely mad last November, everything flipped upside-down,” she laughed ruefully.
“So this theme of ANTIDOTE or a tonic came out in relation to a toxic world. It’s also about turning inward and taking care of each other, the feeling of, yes, we’re all on our own and we have to figure things out, but when things really come down to the wire, how are we going to co-exist and survive and collaborate? In my world it’s how we share resources; in the bigger world it’s seems to be how much we want to isolate and act like other people are onsters. Art is such the great bridge in that regard.”
I asked about the somatic aspect of antidotes, how many of us particularly felt the last year hitting in the pit of our stomachs, how many of us scrunched ourselves up in a defensive posture, and how movement might help. “I think it’s really important that we look at how all this happens in the body. In my experience, it’s how I take in information and perceive the world: in motion and through tissues and our own matrix. I think it’s really crucial to perceive your body in terms of finding a truthful response to what’s going on, and to find agency and action. You can sit and talk forever, I love that, but to make something happen you need to move.
“In a broader aspect its also about this form of continuity,” Hermesdorf said. “It’s about not letting us as artists get stopped in our tracks, or giving up on the possibilities of community. We have to let the art do its work.”
ONSTAGE In 1941, when she wrote Watch on the Rhine (playing at Berkeley Rep through January 14), Lillian Hellman would have had no idea of the mass murder of millions that would follow the ascendance of fascism in Europe.
Today, we know about the Holocaust, but we don’t know about tomorrow. As each day’s headlines bring news of a ban on Muslims, militarization of local police forces, immigration raids, and mass deportation, and a power-hungry president who threatens journalists who expose his lies and hurls invectives at African American athletes who dare to dissent, we can’t help but wonder where it will lead. As Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone explains, “A new level of anxiety has embedded itself into our DNA… looking for the right moment to explode into our everyday reality and destroy any illusion of normalcy.”
The choices that Hellman so poignantly portrays in this 75-year-old play — whether, on one extreme to stand by and assume that this too shall pass or, on the other, to commit a most heinous act against one person to save the lives of many others — still resonate powerfully today. Under the skillful direction of Lisa Peterson, associate director of Berkeley Rep, the excellent ensemble, including the three children, create a vivid, compelling picture of a world on the eve of disaster.
At first, the two moral poles seem to be set by two men: Kurt Muller (Elijah Alexander), a German engineer who has risked his life in an attempt to join the partisans trying to block the advance of the Nazis, and Count Teck De Bracovis (Jonathan Walker), a Romanian aristocrat with ties to the Nazi regime. These two immediately distrust each other, carefully scrutinize each other’s movements and eventually come to blows.
But the predominance of that match between good and evil is deceptive. Hellman prefers to plumb the grayer areas.
The real opposing pole to Muller’s militancy is matriarch Fanny Farrelly, played with a unique combination of wit and éclat by Caitlin O’Connell. The wealthy widow presides with an iron hand over her splendid home in the suburbs of Washington, DC. The set by Neil Patel oozes with inherited wealth, from the recessed wooden ceilings to the brocade upholstery to an eclectic mix of vases, clocks and decorative lamps. Farrelly is the unlikely hostess to both Muller and the Count. Muller, because he is married to her daughter Sara (Sarah Agnew) who has returned to her childhood home after a 20-year absence, and De Brancovis because, well, Farrelly has a soft spot for European nobility, “who play good cribbage and tell good jokes,” even if they are delinquent with their bills.
It is late spring 1940. Europe is already gripped by the Nazi onslaught, but the US has not yet entered the conflict, and the clouds of war seem quite distant, especially in this affluent home where breakfast is always served at 9am. When the Muller family arrives with battered suitcases and shabby clothes, they stand in sharp contrast to the elegance of Farrellys’ living room with its French doors that open to a plant-filled verandah. The children, Joshua (Silas Sellnow), Babette (Emma Curtin), and Bodo (Jonah Horowitz) are precocious, polite and fluent in several languages — but they are also hungry, having had only a warm bun and a glass of milk on their train journey. Even the servants, Anise, the efficient and clever housekeeper played with style by Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, and butler Joseph (James Detmar) are dressed far smarter than the Muller family.
Sarah Muller, well-aware how insulated by privilege her mother and brother David (Hugh Kennedy) are, tries to gently explain how distant her current life is from the cotillions and society teas she once knew. She doesn’t know how long they will stay. The Muller children, who are clearly loving towards their parents, despite their unconventional and precarious upbringing, slowly make themselves at home in their grandmother’s house, taking delight in the plentiful breakfasts, the sanitary plumbing, and the luxurious hot baths. Kurt explains to his children they are on holiday and that they “will have plans when the hour arrives to make them.”
Kurt is energetic and bursting with ideas. He has crossed many borders, taken part in clandestine acts, and endured blows and bullets, which have left their mark, so he walks slowly and his hands tremble. He tells his mother-in-law that he has given up engineering to become an “Anti-fascist,” a “job” he cares passionately about even though “it doesn’t pay well.” After he saw 27 men murdered in street clash with Nazis, he tells her, he could no longer stand by and watch.
“My time,” he says, “has come to move.”
The dapper, conniving Count De Brancovis is not only freeloading off the Farrellys and cruel to his wife Marthe (Kate Guentzel), but he is also on intimate card-playing terms with Nazi officials in the Embassy.
Fanny’s role is more nuanced than either of these two men: her dilemma is the one that is the most familiar today. Her life is more than comfortable, she wants for nothing aside from wishing her rather unimaginative son were more like his deceased father. Though her daughter’s arrival brings her closer to the realities of war, her solution is to keep that family safe in her mansion where she presumes the war can’t touch them. When their shielded life is threatened, her instinct is to buy her daughter and granddaughter fancy new dresses.
Kurt has made his decision: he has no choice but to sacrifice his time, his work, and even his children’s well-being to fight fascism. Fanny’s opulent home has been immune to the terrors of war, but when she finds the conflict right under her roof, she faces the central moral dilemma of the drama.
How long can you ignore the thundering march of the jackboots? When do the offenses get so strong that you have to take action? Fanny hasn’t seen the victims the Nazis murdered in the street, but is there a moment when it will be her “time to move?” And what action do you take? Is providing sanctuary enough? Money? What if there is a risk of endangering your daughter or your grandchildren? Or someone else’s grandchildren?
If the title of play seems familiar, it may be because “Watch on the Rhine” or “Die Wacht am Rhein” is the song from Casablanca that the German soldiers sing in Rick’s bar, before they are drowned out by the French patriots’ rousing “La Marseillaise.” It was a German battle song from the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, all the way up to World War II. We learn from Kurt that when he was a member of the German unit of International Brigade fighting Franco in Spain, they changed the words to an anti-fascist anthem: “This time we fight for people, this time the bastards will keep their hands away.”
Hellman won the New York Drama Critics Award for this play when it was produced on Broadway in 1941, but it has been rarely produced since. She is perhaps most well-known for her response to the House Un-American Activities Committee when they asked her to name names of political subversives she knew. She refused their request, stating: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
In this prescient drama, she clearly answers the question, “When is it time to move?” Sometimes, Hellman’s characters discover, we have to take the risk – no matter what the cost.