Cal Shakes begins new season fostering fresh voices in theater

For its production of 'Black Odyssey', Cal Shakes invited a discussion of spirituality to the stage. Photo by Kevin Berne

The people working at California Shakespeare Theater go all in when it comes to equity and inclusion. That means along with its program to expand the canon by commissioning playwrights from diverse backgrounds — an effort dubbed the New Classics Initiative — the company also works with community organizations to engage audiences.  

Take this season’s House of Joy by Madhuri Shekar. According to artistic director Eric Ting, the play’s director, Megan Sandberg-Zakian, describes it as having “a cast of brown women kicking ass.”

“It’s a South Asian action adventure romance set in harem in 17th century India during the decline of Mughal Empire,” Ting said, who adds that the production is funny, with great fight scenes. “Looking at season, we were talking a lot about #MeToo and gender bias in our culture, and this play spoke to that.”

No men were allowed in harems, and they were self-contained communities with schools and their own economies and women were separate from the male gaze. 

Eric Ting steers the ship as Cal Shakes’ artistic director. Photo by Jay Yamada.

“Harems could seem a kind of paradise on earth,” Ting said. “But they were built on patriarchy, and because of that, they could never be a true paradise.”

Other plays this season include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Good Person of Szechwan, and Macbeth. Along with trying to reimagine and expand classics, Cal Shakes also hosts community nights and story circles for which it invites people to talk about the play. Last season, for Quixote Nuevo, Octavio Solis’ production, cast members and Solis had discussions with members of the Latinx community. For Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey, the company invited members of the Black spiritual community to come have a conversation. For House of Joy, they will have members of the cast and others who worked on the play talking with Middle Eastern, South Asian, and North African people who work in the arts locally.

When Ting came to Cal Shakes four years ago from the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, his background was primarily in working with new plays and emerging writers. He thinks that makes him a good person to take on Shakespeare’s plays since Shakespeare often adapted popular stories of his time. One thing they’re trying to do at Cal Shakes, Ting says, is to celebrate language while creating new classics. 

This season opens with a staging of Octavio Solis’ ‘Quixote Nuevo’. Photo by Kevin Berne

“There are often political references in Shakespeare, and he was often referred to as a chronicler of his time,” he said. “Here we’re having living writers in constant dialogue with Shakespeare as we endeavor to create something more inclusive onstage.” 

Ting, who has never lived west of the Mississippi, says he’s glad to be in California and at Cal Shakes.

“I think a lot of artists say they want to live in interesting times, and it’s interesting times here in the Bay Area. We’re in the midst of wave of change, and we’re all trying to figure out what’s on the other side of it,” he said. “It seems like the best thing is to anchor ourselves in our collective humanity, and that’s a perfect stew for making theater.” 

Cal Shakes season starts May 22 with Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tickets and more info here.

Review: ‘The Good Book’ presents a shifting take on Bible study

Lance Gardner plays Man 1 in Berkeley Rep’s production of 'The Good Book' directed by Lisa Peterson. Photo courtesy of Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Nearly every day the writers made changes to the script of The Good Book, says Lance Gardner, a cast member of the play. Lisa Peterson co-wrote the production with Denis O’Hare — Peterson also directs the play currently at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It made rehearsing difficult, but it was also one of the most enjoyable things about his experience.

“I liked all those discoveries being made in the room,” Gardner said. “It’s a lot of thinking on your feet and a lot of hard work figuring it out, but it’s fun to look back on.”

The story, as you may have guessed from the title, is about the Bible—quite a big subject. O’Hare, a Tony Award winner, and Peterson, who’s won an Obie Award, took on another big influential book several years ago with the play An Iliad, which also came to Berkley Rep.

Gardner says O’Hare was often at rehearsals, and when he left to be in a play in London, he and Peterson communicated daily.

‘The Good Book’ follows its protagonist from little boy obsessed with the Bible to a man who has made peace with his belief and identity. Here, Lance Gardener in foreground as Man 1, with various cast members behind him. Photo courtesy of Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

“All the script changes had to be signed off by both of them, and each had an idea of the story they wanted to tell and the way in which they wanted to tell it,” Gardner said.

The play takes on the story of how the Bible was created. Gardner said he was a little worried going into rehearsals.

“It’s a complex book, and I’m not a Bible scholar—I’ve read some of it, but nothing was fresh in my mind,” he said. “But Lisa as a director knows what she wants to do and has a strong guiding hand, and I trust her.”

Gardner said the script interested him because he’d never seen one like it, following one main character, Miriam, a Bible scholar and an atheist, in current time, and another one, Connor, throughout various stages of his life—from a little boy obsessed with the Bible, interviewing its characters on a recorder in his room, to a bullied teen, to an insecure college student, to a man who has made peace with his belief and identity. The other actors play a multitude of characters. Gardner, for instance, portrays King Solomon, Apostle Paul, a Bible salesman and Connor’s dad, among others.

“It has an interesting structure,” he said. “It was clearly written by two people who are very smart and who have really done their homework.”

Gardner said a couple scenes he was in in the play stand out to him—one in which he plays Apostle Paul and one where many members of the cast are at Princeton University working on the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, and debating over things such as “Man does not live by bread alone” versus “One does not live by bread alone.”

To play multiple characters as he does in The Good Book takes a lot of focus, Gardner says.

“Sometimes in short scenes it’s hard to settle,” he said. “It’s a lot a lot of fun, but you need to be very precise and really present.”

Along with acting, Gardner does radio broadcasts at KALW and has a podcast about theater. Working with radio has given him a different perspective on storytelling, he says, and he hopes to bring some of those tools to the theater via documentary journalism or radio plays.

Through June 9
Berkeley Rep
Tickets and more info here

Review: Superman is Black and invincible in ‘Supremacy’

Publicity image for 'Supremacy' captures Connor Caine's daily flow.

Two modes of storytelling collide with meaningful results in Jason Mendez’s play Supremacy (at Exit Theatre through Sat/18). The playwright repurposes Superman’s origin story by placing an ordinary black high school kid in the role of that indestructible character. By changing Clark Kent’s race, fundamental elements of that superhero fantasy come to indicate more than just how vulnerable young African Americans are in the face of prejudice and police brutality. Reincarnating the familiar Kryptonian as Connor Caine (Geoffrey Malveaux) also allows Mendez to posit a narrative of empowerment. This approach highlights the way that racist Americans consider blacks to be, culturally speaking, different or alien — like Kal-El from that distant planet. In public, Connor’s suspect for simply waking up and walking through the world in his own skin.

When we meet him, Connor’s hanging out with his girlfriend Alex (Wera Von Wulfen) after school. They’re having a friendly debate about people with and without privilege in the context of activist movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. The serious yet flirtatious banter they’re engaged in shows the audience that they like and respect each other’s imaginations and intellects. Their conversation is abruptly interrupted when a thief (Gary Hughes, in one of many roles) bumps into them and runs off, probably with Alex’s phone. A police officer (Kyle Goldman) appears and confronts them. The biased cop thinks that Connor is the offender — Alex is white. Their interaction escalates and the officer then shoots Connor several times until he falls to the ground.

Gary Hughes as Jamal (l) and Geoffrey Malveaux as Connor Caine in ‘Supremacy’. Photo by Jay Yamada

Fourteen framed photographs of African Americans who’ve been killed by the police — including Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland — set the tone for Supremacy. Their images hang on the wall just outside the theater entryway. It’s a portrait gallery that’s steeped in tragedy. And there’s a blank mirror at the center of the display. If you take a selfie, your face will appear inside it. At its core, this is what Mendez asks of the audience. He wants us, regardless of our race or background, to see what it would feel like to see ourselves in their faces, wrongly persecuted on that very same wall. His play humanizes the stories of these black men’s and women’s lives so we won’t see them as sensational headlines or statistics.

After Connor gets shot, Mendez shifts the narrative around in time and the internal logic of the world he’s created begins to suffer. As a coherent structure with a recognizable beginning, middle and end, Supremacy often loses its way. The play tries to account for his hero’s mythological past while at the same time keeps one foot in a more realistic present. From scene to scene, it’s also difficult to get a sense of place. The set design, with graffiti and torn posters, suggests outdoor urban grit only. If there had been the suggestion of interior spaces too, that might have helped to orient the audience and to give the pacing some breathing room.

The play tries to account for its hero’s mythological past while at the same time keeping one foot in a more realistic present. Here, Geoffrey Malveaux plays Connor. Photo by Jay Yamaha

On balance, it’s that real world, where black people get senselessly shot, that loses sway to the mystery surrounding Connor’s birth and the recent discovery of his powers. Connor’s relationships with Alex, his adoptive parents and a school bully arrive on stage but stall instead of developing. His father Anthony (Scott Van de Mark) teaches his son how to box in one scene and is abruptly written out of the story in the next. His mother (Valerie Fachman) is a recurring, steadier presence but comes across as a series of heightened emotional states, a reactive rather than fully formed character in her own right.

Mendez might have been more intrigued by the idea of a bulletproof black man than he was in writing a kitchen sink drama. Kimber Lee’s play brownsville song (b-side for tray), which Shotgun Players produced in 2017, takes a much more straightforward approach to a similar story. Lee wrote a memory play in which a young black man is mourned by his grandmother and sister. It’s a homely, domestic story that’s an exploration of both rage and grief but it doesn’t offer any easy solutions or actions. Neither does Supremacy. But it does reinforce the need to tell Connor’s story, and the stories of black Americans like him who have been so arbitrarily killed — not by reading a journalist’s impassive obituary, but from a first person’s impassioned point of view.

Through Sat/18
Exit Theatre, SF.
Tickets and more info here

Who can ask for anything more? A review of Tony Bennett in San Jose

Tony, tell us; is San Francisco's love here to stay? 2017 photo from London's Royal Albert Hall via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Mr. Bennett,

I rarely dress up. Outside of a funeral, you’d never see me in a tie. So when I found out you were coming to The Civic National Theater in San Jose I got a ticket for my best friend and I. I grew up listening to your album Tony Bennett’s Greatest Hits, Vol. III, which is among my father’s favorites. I can still see the cover, a gray background with you donning a white shirt with high collar, your hands gesticulating anguish, yet pleading the power of the voice to inevitably triumph over the odds — come what may. A mutual friend saw me in my light blue shirt, blue tie and blue sport coat. He was taken by it. After all, I am an activist whose standard attire is a t-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt. 

“You look quite dapper”, said my friend.

“I’m going to see Tony Bennett”

“The singer?”

“Is there any other Tony Bennett?”

“You look … different … all dolled up.”

“This ain’t Justin Beavers I’m going to see”, I replied, “I’m going to see Tony Bennett. You dress accordingly — with class, respect.”

“Justin Beavers?”

“Yeah, and toss Justin Timberlake and Justin Herman in there too.”

“Justin Herman didn’t make music.”

“Yeah, I know,” I replied, adjusting my tie.

I had waited a long time to see you in person. Now my wait was about to end.

My friend and I entered the theater. We were in the fourth row. In front of me a woman with towering blonde hair. I would be craning my neck for sure, I thought. The lights went down. Enter Antonia Bennett and the Tony Bennett quartet. Antonia has inherited your charisma, with a unique voice. She has clearly taken in the pages of the song book written by the great composers, with sassy versions of “Old Black Magic” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Her version of “From this Moment On” cast a shadow of reflection over the packed audience: 

For you’ve got the love I need so much
Got the skin I love to touch
Got the arms to hold me tight
Got the sweet lips to kiss me goodnight

She intimated to the audience that you taught her much about being a singer, about being a human being, and dedicated Billie Holiday’s “You’re a Lucky Guy” to you. Finally, she belted out a passionate song of lust for life:

From this happy day, no more blue songs
Only whoop-dee-doo songs, from this moment on

To me, her voice was like the fragrance of a flower I’d never smelled before. Her resemblance to you is strong and she very capably set the tone, along with the quartet for your entrance.

I looked around the theater. It was packed with mostly older folk — some with metal walkers but spry nonetheless — with a generous helping of middle aged folk, sprinkled with young folks who appeared to be in their early 30s. Sartorially, the scene was everything I expected — made-up hair, sequins, leopard prints, shawls, floral prints, a cowboy hat, and an aloha shirt tossed in for good measure. 

Then, enter Frank: The voice of Frank Sinatra over the PA saying something to the effect of, “This cat, Tony Bennett, is the best singer in the world today.” And then: enter you.

Applause, standing ovation — you in a gray silk suit, arms wide in a gesture of embrace.  Enter your voice, familiar and still powerful at the age of 92. Songs sung, heard, felt; songs that move us through the cycles, the conundrums of this life. You: enter us.

In Love: It amazes me what she sees in me … Steppin’ out with my baby

In Loneliness: In my solitude you taunt me with memories that never die

I sat in the audience and through the songs you interpret, bring to life, refuse to let die — I think of my city and of the lives and isolation of its people. Your songs echo their feelings, articulate the despair as in the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

The joy that you find here you borrow
You cannot keep it long it seems
But gigolo and gigolette
Still sing a song and dance along
The boulevard of broken dreams

The author James Baldwin said that it is the artists, the poets, ultimately, that show us what it means — not only to live in this world, but to survive it. The singer’s is the voice to the human interaction, the condition. In a melodious movement of molecules, in the form of sound that becomes one with the living parts of our being and to the world. The writer Ralph Ellison, in Shadow and Act, tells us that “One of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation in time. Timeless songs are the ones that are the most powerful.”

A medley of your hits included your rendition of Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart.” The ensuing years since then one in which you recorded it (1951) have brought an even deeper meaning in the current state of the world, our country, and in my city, San Francisco, where the heart has grown not only cold, but freezing. And in the audience I can see them, the seniors who have been evicted and displaced. They are here, their spirits somehow one with the music — Carl Jensen, Iris Canada, Ron Lickers — and countless others who our city forgot but who many of us, holding on to the hope of our city refuse to forget, holding on to shadows:

The shadow of your smile
When you are gone
Will color all my dreams
And light the dawn

And, of course, there was, in homage to Sinatra, “Fly me to the Moon”, “The Way You look tonight” and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”, complete with shot glass.  I took those songs as homage to your audience, here in San Jose and worldwide, who are surely the source of your longevity. And again, your timeless voice:

Love is funny or is sad
A good thing or its bad

The Tony Bennett Quartet kept up with you at every step with ripe guitar riffs, piano solos that were reminiscent of the great Bill Evans, up-tempo, mid-tempo — every tempo that reached into our hearts with understatement both seductive and jubilant, like a tide under a quiet moon that illuminates the world on its darkest nights.

My friend, who accompanied me to your show, was very moved by your rendition of “In My Solitude”, bringing up the memory of his father, the passing of his father’s wife of more than 50 years. William and Blanca, both joined somewhere else while my friend feels their presence in this theater, and in all places and spaces their spirit and memory sure to enter.

In my solitude
I’m afraid
Dear Lord above
Send back my love

Mr. Bennett, I think of the seniors in SF who are isolated, who are threatened with homelessness. I think of the fight for deeply affordable housing going on right now in our city. Are your songs political? It is for the listener to behold and take in the meaning. A line in one of your songs pierced my mind and still resonates: “Our love is here to stay.”

Thank you for a wonderful show. And as we continue to fight for the heart of the City of San Francisco, we can’t forget the words you sang on Friday, “How do you keep the music playing?”

In spite of everything, we must continue to try. Who can ask for anything more?

Tony Robles is a San Francisco native, writer, storyteller, and housing advocate for Senior & Disability Action. Read his first letter to Tony Bennett on the occasion of Tony’s 90th birthday here

‘We Have Iré’ celebrates the Afro-Cuban immigrant experience—and challenge

Dancer and choreographer Ramón Ramos Alayo with hip-hop artist DJ Leydis and playwright Paul S. Flores. Photo by Tommy Lau

ONSTAGE Paul Flores grew up in Chula Vista, California, near the Mexican border. His single mom worked a lot, and his grandmother was a central figure in his life. 

“She taught me to play baseball, and she introduced me to unconditional love,” Flores said. “She was my first Spanish teacher and my first dance teacher.”

When his grandmother died in 1995, Flores decided to visit where she was from—Havana, Cuba. He wanted to connect with family when he was there, and he invited his aunt and cousins over to his hotel suite, so they could all talk and get to know each other. He planned a nice evening and wanted to treat them to dinner. But security guards stopped them from entering the tourist hotel because they were Cuban nationals. So Flores ended up going to their house to visit them. 

“They treated me really well,” he said. “They took me all around and introduced me to the whole block and had big parties. I saw the house where my grandmother was raised and the school she went to.”

Since then Flores, a poet, playwright, and co-founder of Youth Speaks, has been back to visit his family numerous times and has even sent friends to stay with them. He’s also produced and performed in shows in Cuba, including spoken word festivals and hip-hop. 

Flores latest work is a docu-theater piece on immigrant Cuban artists, We Have Iré, coming to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Iré is Yoruban word roughly translated as a feeling of balance and good fortune. 

Flores was inspired to put the show together a few years back. He had won a Doris Duke Award and went to New York with other award winners, jazz musicians and dancers, as well as theater artists. One of the musicians was Cuban composer, saxophonist, and percussionist Yosvany Terry. Flores describes himself as a “superfan” of Terry, and with things at the time starting to change in Cuba, with the Internet coming in and Barack Obama visiting, Flores asked Terry to work with him on a show about Cuban immigrant artists.

He also approached dancer and choreographer Ramon Ramos Alayo, who was chosen to by the Cuban government to study dance in Santiago de Cuba when he was 11. Then someone suggested to Flores he should invite hip-hop artist DJ Leydis who lives in Oakland. Immediately, he wanted to work with Leydis, whose house he describes as a meeting place for any Afro Cuban who comes through Oakland.

“I was like, ‘Oh shit, yeah, you’re right. We were friends, we’d laugh, we’d drink,” he said. “So I knew her, but I didn’t know her story. I went to her house, and I put my recorder in front of her and she started to pour out her story.”

Paul S. Flores. Photo by Tommy Lau

That story was Leydis had crossed the ocean on a makeshift raft. She got lost at sea for two days with no food or water, Flores says, but she made it to Key West and got asylum. 

“She took a bus from Miami to San Francisco, not knowing English, and became a DJ and producer with the help of the community,” Flores said. “So in 2007 she was a on the ocean trying to survive and not even 10 years later, in 2016, she was performing at the White House—what kind of story is that? It was one of anchoring stories of the play. It has a spirit of perseverance and determination.”

Flores’ other plays include You’re Gonna Cry about gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission district, Placas about gang members and tattoos, and On The Hill, dealing with the San Francisco Police shooting and killing Alex Nieto. With We Have Iré, he wanted to tell the story of immigrant artists and their successes. 

“In this show we dance, we sing, and it’s positive and celebratory,” he said. “This is looking at the life of an artist, and it’s hard work, but it shows where desire can take you. It has a triumphant tone.”

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
May 10-12
Tickets and more information here  

Life is a ‘Vanity Fair,’ old chum

Rebekah Brockman as Becky Sharp and Maribel Martinez as Amelia Sedley in Kate Hamill’s 'Vanity Fair' at ACT. Photo by Scott Suchman

ONSTAGE If you disregard the period setting, squint at the pastel backdrops and blur out the sumptuous jewel-toned dresses, Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Vanity Fair (at ACT through May 12) excavates the psychic blueprint of a different production — Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret.

An emcee in the guise of a Manager (Dan Hiatt) guides the audience through most scenes while wryly commenting upon the action. He leads the cast in an acerbic opening ditty that sets the tone for several other short songs interspersed throughout. As an analog to the two World Wars in Cabaret, the Napoleonic Wars stop and then start up again, always offstage, but influencing the louche, dissolute society in which the characters inhabit. But it’s in the playwright’s reinvention of William Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, his novel’s protagonist and protofeminist, where the comparison really finds traction.

Hamill presents the audience with a vision of how Sally Bowles becomes Sally Bowles. When Cabaret begins, she’s already a “fallen woman,” and one who wants to stay fallen. Because, for the moment, she’s enjoying herself—but she also senses that there’s no point in getting up. Yet who was she before we meet first meet her? A likely candidate is Vanity Fair‘s impoverished orphan Becky Sharp (Rebekah Brockman), who wants to rise and transcend her penniless circumstances. Can she will herself to do so? The answer is both yes and no, with the no feeling ultimately truer. Brockman draws out what’s contemporary in the script to form Becky’s character—she’s smart and ambitious—without letting us forget why she must be so conniving. The actress lets us see that Becky is not amoral for the sake of it. She’s amoral because she’s trying to survive in a caste system that’s governed by men.

Anthony Michael Lopez as Dobbin, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as George Osborne, Maribel Martinez as Amelia Sedley, Dan Hiatt as Manager, Vincent Randazzo as Jos and Rebekah Brockman as Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’ playing at ACT’s Geary Theater. Photo by Scott Suchman

Thackeray provided her with a mirror in her schoolmate Amelia Sedley (Maribel Martinez), who’s called Emmy. She’s her tonal opposite, a sheltered innocent who comes from a tonier class. George (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), her betrothed and a bit of a bounder, is also wealthy and an officer in the army. Emmy’s path in life is clearly prescribed. She’ll leave her father’s estate to marry George and they’ll live happily ever after with all their land and money held intact by their union, while the low-born Becky earns her keep as a governess. But fate, via authorial intent, intervenes. Vanity Fair tracks the rise and fall (and inevitable second rise) of both women.

In this production, five actors play a multitude of supporting roles. This approach lends the play an economy and adds a welcome briskness to the pace. Only Brockman and Martinez are excluded from all the sudden costume changes and shapeshifting that takes place. And nearly everyone gets the chance to do some gender-bending. Vincent Randazzo is fearsome as Sir Pitt, feckless as Emmy’s brother Jos Sedley and, as Miss Jemima, weepy as a bonnet-wearing nelly. Wilmoth Keegan, sporting a fine pair of bushy sideburns as George, also makes for a convincing old biddy as Miss Briggs. Sometimes the costume changes happen in front of us. Or, in one clever costume design, an actor’s dress hangs on his front while he’s still wearing pants underneath.

Anthony Michael Lopez as Miss Pinkerton and Vincent Randazzo as Miss Jemima in Kate Hamill’s ‘Vanity Fair.’ Photo by Scott Suchman

Under Jessica Stone’s direction, the silliness has plenty of room to land but she doesn’t linger on it. The jokes keep moving right along. What works especially well about these farcical elements is that they’re intimately tied to the more serious aspects of Becky’s and Emmy’s fates. We can laugh ruefully at the absurdity of the class system and then lament the fact that both women can lose their place in society so easily. We root for them because they make such ruinous personal decisions. Emmy pursues a sad path towards self-abnegation just as Becky overcompensates for her lack of status with a bout of hubris. A century and a half after publication, her confident overreach makes Becky Sharp a relevant, compelling character.

Through May 12
Tickets and more info here.

What is Bay Area drag? Oaklash Festival has some wild ideas

"Everyone brought pulled out all the stops, from a clown on a Segway scooter performing to Britney Spears' Circus, to a queen shooting water out of syringes stuck through her cheek," says Oaklash co-founder Mama Celeste, remembering Hollow Eve's performance at last year's festival. Photo by JP Lor

“Television is not nor has it ever been the ultimate form of drag,” Oaklash Drag Festival co-founder and performer and East Bay-based drag queen Mama Celeste, a.k.a. Greg Tartaglione, writes in an email interview with 48 Hills. She’s not-so-subtley shading a certain televised drag competition that’s spawned countless imitators who may not realize the electric connections a live and rowdy crowd can bring. Surely Oaklash’s multitudinous 100 performers will be preaching this to the choir at the second edition of the festival this weekend (Fri/26-Sun/28), which will include two extensive, eight-hour days of performance.

Mama Celeste and fellow performer Beatrix LaHaine started the festival last year to “give the Bay Area the kind of representation it deserved,” says Celeste. In 2018, that meant bringing over 50 drag queens and kings from Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose for an intermission-less six hour show.

“It was exhausting and amazing,” Celeste says. “Everyone pulled out all the stops, from a clown on a Segway scooter performing to Britney Spears’ “Circus” to a queen shooting water out of syringes stuck through her cheek. The audience was living!”

Erika Klash gives you neon creep clown at last year’s Oaklash. Photo by Meme Cherry

The diversity of Oaklash’s 2019 acts speaks to one of the ways in which Bay drag steps back from more mainstream incarnations. Certainly, the disconnect between Bay Area performers and RuPaul’s Drag Race has been much commented on—and the region’s near total lack of representation on the VH1/Logo TV megalith is certainly remarkable. But even if the rumors are true that the deep freeze is due to long simmering feuds between Ru and Bay legends, the Bay’s flavor of drag is anything but mainstream. 

The current scene may well be influenced more by local history than current trends. From the days of political activist and performer José Sarria—the Widow Norton, who founded the Imperial Court system and one of the first openly queer person to run for office in the United States—Bay drag has been about far more than perfectly beat faces and expert tongue pop. Here, the Cockettes obscured the accepted social order with sequins and bearded drag, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have wielded their looks as activist beacons for decades.

“It’s always been obvious to me that the drag community in the Bay Area isn’t like other drag communities,” says Peaches Christ, who will perform at Oaklash with a host of legends like House of More! matriarchs Glamamore and Juanita More! and emergent stars like Nicki Jizz and Lisa Frankenstein. “I think I realized it before I even arrived in 1996,” Peaches continues. “When I hosted John Waters’ visit to Penn State University he told me about the Cockettes and how he and Divine and Mink would do shows with them. I’d never heard about any drag troupe that sounded anything like the Cockettes!”

(from left) Jader, VivvyAnne ForeverMORE, Florida Man mince about at 2018 Oaklash. Photo by JP Lor

“The Castro is known for its flawless beauty queens, SoMa is known for its gender-bending punk aesthetic,” says Mama Celeste. “But as rent has spiked in San Francisco, more and more artists have been moving to the East Bay which has created this amazing melting pot of all the scenes.” Oaklash’s lineup pays homage to 2019’s socioeconomic realities with its East Bay location, for the second straight year at eclectic venue Classic Cars West.

Oaklash also typifies the time-honored Bay tradition—at least in recent decades—of a pan-gender scene that does not hew to rigid definitions of who should be on stage. Some of the Bay’s most famous drag and performance nights over the years have featured artists who work gender into their art, from music to conceptual art, always welcome on Bay drag stages. This year, Zedgar Infiniti, Dollii, The Gooch Palm, Saturn Rising, and 15 DJs show the breadth of the festival’s drag community.

That’s particularly important in the face of occasional mainstream pressure to limit drag to the purview of cis gay men. “My art crosses all gender lines and allows anyone experiencing to imagine me as themselves or relate in a way that inspires their own experience,” says Saturn Rising. “It’s an escape and an affirmation all in one.”

“Drag is about performance, and presence, and being shocked and awed by the beauty of the seven-foot rhinestoned goddess whose sweat is dripping on you in the front row,” says Mama Celeste. Ample motivation to get yourself into IRL drag nirvana, a.k.a. this weekend’s Oaklash front rows, to see the past, present, and future of Bay Area drag get its due. 

Fri/26 8pm-1am, $10-15
Eli’s Mile High Club, Oak
More info and tickets here.

Sat/27-Sun/28 2-10pm, $20; presale sold out, tickets available at door
Classic Cars West, Oakland
More info here.

A live cinema event to ‘Remember Los Siete’ in the Mission

Los Siete Defense Committee demonstrates in front of Mission People's Clinic/Centro de Salud in spring of 1970. Photo via Basta Ya/Found SF

On May 1,1969, a pair of cops stopped a group of Latino activists on the Mission District’s Alvarado Street. In the ensuring altercation, one of the officers was shot and killed by the gun of his partner. The tumultuous trial of Los Siete de la Raza, the seven education activists who became suspects in the killing, was a galvanizing force for the Mission District community against systemic police brutality, one whose reverberations can be felt even now, 50 years later.

Artist and Mission District native Vero Majano remembers the story of Los Siete well from adults’ whispered conversations. Her endless proximity to the group evidences the mens’ centrality in the Mission community. So closely did the situation become tied to the neighborhood’s daily life for Majano that on Fri/26 and Sat/27 she is premiering Remember Los Siete, an impressionistic live cinema event based on found community footage and her own memories, at the Brava Theater Center. The production will feature live band The Comrades, and footage that Majano recovered via videographer Ray Balberan of Mission Media Archives, an important local archivist whose work Majano plans on curating in a future project.

Los Siete de la Raza at their press conference after a jury cleared them of guilt. Photo via Lost SF

Remember Los Siete is nearly the capstone of a month of events honoring the 50th anniversary of the seminal trial that included a bike tour, cabaret, art exhibition, and panel discussions. Still to come is a scheduled talk on the women-directed response to the Siete’s arrest on May 8, hosted by Shaping SF and featuring community activists, artist Yolanda M. Lopez, and Marjorie Heins, author of Strictly Ghetto Property: The Story of Los Siete de la Raza.

This collaborative delivery of Los Siete memories is the latest entry in Majano’s body of work, which stakes out space for Latino Mission District legacy in a rapidly-shifting San Francisco. Likewise, her 2015 collaboration with Hard French DJ Brown Amy and photographer Kari Orvik “The Q-Sides” re-staged the covers of East Side Story oldies compilations, re-centering queer bodies in lowrider community tradition.

Remember Los Siete director Mary Guzmán was eager to aid with this recuperation of memory. She tells 48 Hills that Majano can “put words together in a way that has never been put together, and describes a situation better than any words anybody else could come up with. She knows what to leave in and what to take out.”

In measured musings on the footprints a neighborhood can leave in our lives, Majano spoke with 48 Hills about the power of time’s passage and her newest work.

48 HILLS: How did you become acquainted with the story of Los Siete?

VERO MAJANO: I have known about Los Siete de la Raza since I was eight years old. It was a conversation that adults had around me, whispering. I have family members who were part of the supporting of Los Siete, I have an estranged older brother who was connected with Los Siete. I feel like Los Siete de la Raza in the Mission District, it kind of bumps into history, in a way. You know, that somebody’s uncle was involved, somebody’s cousin or somebody’s married to one of Los Siete, somebody did time with Los Siete. It’s a story that bumps into you around the Mission for some folks. It was the first urban story that I was attracted to.

48 HILLS: What made you want to create a play about these men?

VERO MAJANO: It’s not a play that I’m doing. What I’m doing right now is kind of like a new genre, they’re calling it live cinema. I’m going to be live-narrating the story while projecting very rare footage of the Mission District and Los Siete. I have a band onstage with me that will be doing a live score. It’s something that you have to show up and all experience together. I’ve made a couple films in the past, and I’ve also done storytelling, so it’s two of those things merging together.

Most of the footage that I have, I got from working with Ray Balberan. In the late ’60s, KQED didn’t have any people of color producers. So Ray and a bunch of other folks demanded that KQED make them producers, and they ended up getting 15 millimeter cameras. They taught people how to make films and document their community. I would go through these film bins that Ray had and I would find one that said “dance benefit” with the number “7” on it. It was from an actual dance benefit for Los Siete! We’re going to be showing that. The footage is very unique — it’s folks learning how to use their equipment, but 50 years later it’s this lovely document.

48 HILLS: What is the important takeaway for today’s Mission residents, or today’s San Francisco residents — or the world today — about what went on with Los Siete?

VERO MAJANO: With my work, I’m just reminding folks that we were here. I’m also hoping that it inspires other folks to continue to document their stories, whether that is through making a documentary, a book, a podcast, or whatever. Because I’m not necessarily a historian; I’m telling it from my point of view.

48 HILLS: That actually leads me to my next question, which was whether you could compare the creative process that you went through for Remember Los Siete with another project of yours that I love, the “Q-Sides” collaboration with Hard French DJ Brown Amy and photographer Kari Orvik?

VERO MAJANO: With that project, we knew what we wanted to do, but we had no idea what the outcome was going to be — and it was so beautiful, the way that it built community. I think “Q-Sides” has been my most queer-identified work. For me, that was like, “Yo, I was here, and I was queer.” I think what’s similar is that both [projects] are about leaving a mark in San Francisco. With my work, I’m trying to include the Mission in San Francisco history.

48 HILLS: Where do you go when you want to see the Mission that you grew up with — apart from the footage that you work with?

VERO MAJANO: I think what’s unique about me being here 50 years is that I get to age with the people of San Francisco, together. Meaning, the guy who has been on the corner for the last 30 years, or the bus driver that’s been here forever. Some of them are getting grayer, a little thicker. The girl whose a woman now, my age. Damn, she’s still looking good, and she’s aging. They’re markers. That’s very precious to me right now. The homie who used to hold that block, and now they’re not really holding the block anymore, but they’re still there. They may be sitting on the block — not holding it — and they’re still playing the damn same oldie on a tape player. Those are the things that I pay attention to in San Francisco, in the Mission. If you look really wide, you see nothing but hella change. But I think if you narrow it down, just look at the small details, you’ll find that Mission. Whatever your Mission looked like to you, you’ll find it.

Fri/26-Sat/27 8pm, $30 adult, $22 senior and youth
Brava Theater Center, SF
More info and tickets here.

Reviews: News of the real world in ‘The Jungle’ and ‘N—aroo’

ONSTAGE  “Theater brings news,” an old saw goes.

That can be interpreted any number of ways, but The Jungle (through May 19 at the Curran) brings news of the most literal and urgent kind. The Curran has been completely transformed into the notorious refugee camp, founded on a garbage dump in Calais, that in 2015-2016 was home to thousands. The Jungle—an English slip-up of the Pashtun word dzangal, or forest, which the refugees ironically named their desolate home—became a “short-lived, self-sufficient society,” complete with mosques, church, shops, theater, nightclub, and internationally reviewed restaurant.

The immersive play comes here from sensational runs in London and New York, and it surpasses the hype. After most of the audience (get floor seats!) wends its way through a particle board warren of shops, it’s seated on wooden benches in a large replica of that dirt-floored restaurant, overseen by proud, fatherly Afghan Salar (Ben Turner). The bustling cafe is both the nerve center and the heart of The Jungle. Salar serves chai, TVs blare from the corners, cell phones jangle and play tinny music videos, noise from the nearby motorway (where refugees try to smuggle themselves into trucks headed for the UK) creeps in.

Then the lights black out and riot police burst in. We’re plunged into the terrifying action of a “soft eviction,” one of the many preposterously Orwellian terms that spell life or death for this community of people on the run from at least a dozen countries. Almost immediately afterwards a body is carried in, wrapped in a sheet: a victim of a motorway accident, one of the Jungle’s beloved residents. We then jump to several months earlier, to the beginning of a tale whose end we already know, but in the telling reveals the exhilaratingly human complexity of these refugees and their aid workers, the unfathomable trauma at the heart of many of their stories, and the conflict between loving the place one is from while risking everything to flee it.

The ensemble work here is spell-binding. As the Jungle characters—fierce Eritrean Christian Helene (Nahel Tzegai), inscrutable Sudanese teen Okot (John Pumojena), conflicted Syrian scholar Safi (Ammar Has Ahmad), puckish young Afghan Norullah (Khaled Zahabi), six-year-old Little Amal (Arya Rose Lonmor, alternating with Zara Rasti)—face daily disappointment and desperation with ingenuity, we see the racism, nationalist conflict, chauvinism, greed, and personality clashes that come to the fore in a makeshift way-station under constant stress. We also see the gallows humor, wry camaraderie, touching generosity, exuberant cultural expression, and love of a good piece of warm naan in the morning. These refugees are not types; the audacious trick of the Jungle is to make them so human we easily see ourselves in their place, face to face.

The Jungle was written by two British men (with input from the refugees), Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy, who were aid workers in the camp themselves, setting up the Good Chance Theatre Company there. Two of the cast members were Jungle residents, and three had to become UK citizens in order to get around Trump’s travel ban. And what about us in the audience? Aren’t we just engaging in some bourgeois refugee role-play? The playwrights understand this dilemma, and answer it by considering us students, teaching us in direct and subtle ways what really happened on that crowded scrap of land, to people crushed in the gears of geopolitics.

Resistance in ‘The Jungle.’ Photo by Little Fang

We get actual newscasts and video reports from the site of the Jungle now, where hundreds still languish but where it’s illegal to erect any structures. We learn how to smuggle ourselves in boxes on refrigerator trucks and how to lie in the hold of an overcrowded ship. Conspiracy theories are dispelled onstage, and the timeline of major recent events (so recent that we’ve already forgotten them, as our age dictates) is fleshed out, from the global outcry over drowned baby Alan Kurdi to the terrorist attack on the Bataclan in Paris.

Robertson and Murphy—and directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin—brilliantly show how the events that flooded our feeds momentarily affected real humans on the precipice, and how the world bungled the situation. “Your governments don’t care if we wash up on a beach, as long as we’re wearing new clothes” one character says acidly, and decades of neoliberal policy shrink into a corn cob.

Don’t think it’s all didactic declamation, however—a heart-stopping Shakespearean twist at the end reveals the full humanity, and tragedy, of some of the characters. And Roberston and Murphy poke some good fun at themselves by introducing four initially bumbling British aid workers, each drawn to the Jungle for their own reasons, but helping as much as they can. Two of them, 18-year-old Beth (Rachel Redford) and mama bear Paula (Lorraine Bruce) are incredibly driven, and along with Eritrean firecracker Helene’s outspokenness, it’s a rare pleasure to hear women shouting onstage about politics. With its tumult of viewpoints, origins, and motivations onstage, The Jungle feels like the real world.

(If all this doesn’t recommend The Jungle enough, one of my friends who was an aid worker in a kitchen in the camp collapsed in tears into one of the cast members arms after seeing the play, it felt so true to the experience. And another, Matthew DeCoster of Literary Death Match, told me in the lobby that although he had seen both the original productions of Angels in America and Rent—both of whose influence is felt in The Jungle—nothing had prepared him for how affecting this play was.)


Dazié Grego-Sykes in ‘N—aroo.’ Photo by Robbie Sweeney

One of our best storytellers, Dazié Grego-Sykes, brings different news of the great diaspora in his engaging one-person show N—aroo (through April 27 at Exit Theater). How does a light-skinned Black person exist in the contemporary United States, with its surreal fetishization of African-American culture in service of white supremacy? “It was after being told by people who were darker than me to stay out of the sun that I first wondered, ‘Why wouldn’t a Black person want to be blacker?'” he says in the program, and he runs with that question in some fascinating directions.

Grego-Sykes is a veteran of legendary ensembles like Deep Dickollective, widely acknowledged as the first “out” rap group, and Pomo Afro Homos, who revolutionized theater in the Bay Area in the 1990s. His poise and charisma evince a deep history of performing in spoken word battles and poetry slams: He mesmerizes the audience with a measured, buttery vocal tone even as he addresses one of the most fraught and deadly paradoxes of our country. (N—aroo won the 2017 Best of Fringe award at the Exit’s annual Fringe Festival.)

Alternating polished monologues with familiar but fiery video clips of James Baldwin and Nina Simone speaking on Blackness, Grego-Sykes inhabits several different characters (versions of himself?) to give us a plethora of viewpoints on how Black and white intersect and divide—and especially, how white culture preys on Black culture, and how Black culture becomes more insular and defensive (and thus more enticing to whites) as a result.

Dazié Grego-Sykes. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

As someone who operates in both worlds as an insider and outsider, Grego-Sykes brings word from each —from expounding on how ‘music is the new cotton’ to a truly fantastic riff on why white people bleach their hair—although he’s fully aware that he’s no magical trickster who exists beyond of the advantages and exploitations of US culture as a whole. He knows how to work it, even as he’s held down. The expression of his moral quandaries along the way is what makes the show so poignant.

The stage pictures Grego-Sykes creates for the 55-minute show are minimal and striking (Mona Laughing Brook directs, curtis o. does lights, and Miz Sequoia is the visual collaborator), and when the video clips play you miss him onstage. As for the appropriateness of Grego-Sykes’ use of blackface, it is absolutely not my lane to comment. One of the great lessons of our moment is to just listen—both The Jungle and N—aroo provide amazing opportunities to do this—so here’s Grego-Sykes again: “Within this piece, I employ Black Face as a metaphor for Black performativity in a way that its potency can be manipulated to excite resistance surrounding colorist and internalized racism.”

Review: Wild highs and lows in ‘Falsettos’

Max von Essen as Marvin and Nick Adams as Whizzer in 'Falsettos.' Photo by Joan Marcus

[Editor’s Note: This review has some spoilers, but hey—it’s a 40-year-old play.]

ONSTAGE The first act of revered musical Falsettos—the touring 2016 Broadway revival stops at Golden Gate Theatre through April 14—is a fascinating study in nostalgia. The cast is stunning. The production is nifty. The music is driving. The characters are terrible.

It’s 1979, somewhere in Manhattan. (This part of the play, “March of the Falsettos” debuted Off-Broadway in 1981). After the rousing, if a bit dusty, opening number “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” we’re plunked down into the company of five people riding out one heck of a tizzy.

Marvin (Max von Essen) has left his wife, Trina (a wonderful Eden Espinosa) to be with Whizzer (Nick Adams), a younger, preppy hustler type. Trina and their intelligently depressive young son, Jason (Thatcher Jacobs, miraculous, alternating performances with Jonah Mussolino) are not taking this gay turn well at all. Jason obsessively plays chess and sings “My Father’s a Homo.” Trina blames herself. Marvin—who selfishly yearns to forge a unique family structure where everyone loves him no matter what—suggests Trina see his therapist, the lecherous, hacky Mendel (Nick Blaemire).

Mendel falls in love with Trina after a session, and uses his intimate knowledge of her gained from Marvin to seduce her. Mendel then befriends her son Jason after becoming his therapist, too, and the three form their own family unit, stoking Marvin’s jealous rage. Marvin’s relationship with Whizzer is already physically and emotionally abusive, they break up and now Marvin turns on Trina. He hits her in front of everyone. But suddenly, whiplash-like, everything seems fine, and Marvin and Jason share a syrupy bonding moment straight out of ’80s sitcom Love, Sidney.

Confused? That’s because it’s hardly believable. Who does this? Who does any of this? Probably not people you want to spend a lot of time around. The avalanche of married “straight” men coming out in the wake of Stonewall is a great theme, yet nothing close to politics, or even liberation, is hinted at here. An ingenious foam construction-block set, manipulated throughout by the actors in tight-knit choreography, and the momentum of the musical score helped pull me through. But wow, I had a lot of questions. Not least: Why do gay people love this play so much?

Some clues. Composer William Finn may have Stephen Sondheim’s Company sitting heavily on his shoulder, but his wordplay and phrasing is top-notch. Showstopper “I’m Breaking Down,” in which Trina regrets her life trying to be a perfect housewife, is so soaring you feel the metaphorical rafters shake. And of course, in 1981 this was all pretty novel stuff, though Off-Broadway was hardly prudish at the time. (The play’s one big pitch at Off-Broadway avant-gardism is the head-scratching “March of the Falsettos” number, which here weirdly outfits the male cast as breakdancing neon Oompa-Loompas and attempts to plumb the neuroses of white upperclass men.)

The company in ‘Falsettos.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

Yet a thick veneer of amber coats the enterprise, despite the glimmering performances. I couldn’t help feeling I was trapped with these yuppies and their boring problems. Then, blammo, the second act hits and things perk right up.

This part, called “Falsettoland,” debuted nine years after the first part, and it’s broader, cannier, and much more enjoyable. Here, Finn and Director James Lapine, who collaborated on both acts, seem miles more confident in their story: the fourth wall gets broken, the live band is acknowledged, and the music ramps up. The fuzzy therapist Mendel is transformed into a fun family man. The grating relationship between Marvin and Whizzer gets a tender, and actually sexual, second chance. Set pieces like a baseball game (immortally known as “Watching Jason Play Baseball”) and a squash match (shades of another gay yuppie classic, Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!“) showcase the actors’ chops.

Best, the lovable lesbians next-door are introduced, bringing much-needed levity and good will. Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and her caterer girlfriend Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell) sweep in dancing and the audience cheers. Suddenly we like everyone onstage, and they like each other. The action revolves around planning Jason’s bar mitzvah, and in the details the play shows us the sunny possibilities of an enlarged, alternative family, the kind Marvin originally tried to force.

The company in ‘Falsettos.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

But you don’t think a gay love story from the ’80s won’t end in tears, do you? Alas, all too swiftly and predictably, Whizzer starts getting mysteriously ill. Before you know it he’s on his death bed in Dr. Charlotte’s hospital—she sings “Something Bad is Happening,” running down the early rumors about what was then called GRIDS, and a shiver runs through the proceedings. Whizzer tries desperately to hold on through Jason’s bar mitzvah, but he doesn’t make it. The final moments of the play are a touching act of spiritual confluence and reconciliation.

Look, I wept, as did everyone around me. But afterwards I was pissed. Whizzer’s death seemed like a bit of emotional manipulation straight out of a soap opera, no matter how expertly delivered. The tragedy wasn’t earned. For anyone who lived through the epidemic’s long height, you could probably have Peter Theil die onstage of AIDS and you’d trigger tears. Throw a Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesion up on a Rick and Morty character’s face and I’ll break down. Falsettos debuted on Broadway in 1992—Angels in America by Tony Kushner was already in production and managed to make even a dying Roy Cohn sympathetic. Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, set during the same time period as Falsettos, ran at New York’s Public Theater forever in 1985 and made AIDS a shriek against the whole unjust, uncaring system.

And maybe there’s the rub. Falsettos gives us AIDS in a comfortable vacuum. Absolutely no politics touches this play—let alone gay culture in general: Imagine a New York gay couple in 1982 playing squash instead of going out dancing, or not even making one single Bette Davis reference. And does Whizzer’s death mean doom for many of the other characters, too? The play stops short of bringing anything like that up at all.

The lack of any agenda or connection to outside events might seem refreshing in these politics-drenched times. In fact, I suspect that’s why white liberal audiences loved this revival enough to shower it with Tonys. (The opening night crowd was certainly a demographic.) Maybe it’s a chance to re-enact a mourning ritual without those pesky nagging voices urging action and self-examination. AIDS is still happening. In any case, without at least a brush of relevance or urgency, Falsettos ultimately just squeaks by.

Through April 14
Golden Gate Theatre, SF.
Tickets and more info here.