‘The Normal Heart’ still beats ferociously at Theatre Rhino

Jeremy Cole as Felix and John Fisher as Ned in Theatre Rhino's 'The Normal Heart' at The Gateway Theatre. Photo by David Wilson.

ONSTAGE In the opening line of The Normal Heart (through Nov. 25, Theatre Rhinoceros at the Gateway Theater, SF), a young gay man in a hospital waiting room, turns to his friends and says, “I know something’s wrong.”

The line probably drew a different reaction when the play opened at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York in 1985, the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. But at Theatre Rhino’s premier production of the drama, the audience had three decades of heartbreak and death and knew, yes, something was definitely wrong.

Yet after 30 years, Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking play still serves as a searing reminder of how the disease was ignored by public officials, the mainstream media, and the medical establishment even as the death toll climbed higher and higher.

The production is directed by John Fisher, who also plays the protagonist, Ned Weeks, a fictional rendition of Kramer himself.

Weeks, a writer who becomes a ferocious activist trying in every way to draw attention to the disease that is devastating the gay community, is played with just the right balance of braggadocio, compassion and abrasiveness. Early in the drama, Dr. Emma Brookner (Leticia Duarte), modeled on one of the first clinicians to detect that the deadly virus infecting gay males in New York was spread by sexual contact, tells Weeks she’s heard he has a big mouth. Ned counters, “Is a big mouth a symptom?”

“No,” she responds, “a cure.”

Morgan Lange as Tommy Boatwright, John Fisher as Ned Weeks, and Benoît Monin as Bruce Niles in ‘The Normal Heart.’ Photo by David Wilson.

So even those audience members too young to personally remember Kramer’s take-no-prisoners advocacy, his founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, become prepared to hear a lot of loud anger from him.

And Weeks delivers, fiercely denouncing the Mayor for ignoring the “mysterious gay cancer” and the New York Times for burying stories about it on the inside pages, when there are front-page headlines about the Tylenol scare and Legionnaires disease.

What is surprising it that Weeks’ rage is not only directed at his enemies, but his allies as well – especially the seemingly random group that gathers in Weeks’ living room to found an organization dedicated to fighting the disease. The well-calibrated harmony of this ensemble is the beating heart of the production: Bruce (Benoit Monin), a former Green Beret and now a closeted, well-heeled banker, Mickey (Tim Garcia), a health department writer who has fought for gay rights “since Stonewall,” and Tommy (Morgan Lange), a self-described “hospital administrator and Southern bitch.” Even as they send out their first mailing, Bruce worries about using the word “gay” in the return address on the envelope and Ned flies into a rage.

Ned becomes increasingly infuriated at their insistence on an incremental approach, seeking compromise with those who have ignored or betrayed them. He calls himself “the only screamer among them.” After one outburst where Ned excoriates the entire gay movement for its lack of focus on the disease, Mickey asks wryly, “Are you sure you didn’t leave anybody out?” Ned, like Kramer, is accused of being on “a colossal ego trip,” and eventually expelled from the group he founded.

Benoît Monin as Bruce, Tim Garcia as Mickey, Morgan Lange as Tommy and John Fisher as Ned in ‘The Normal Heart.’ Photo by David Wilson.

But Ned’s life takes a turn when he falls in love – for the first time – with the urbane Felix (played with just the right amount of irony and flirtatiousness by Jeremy Cole), a closeted New York Times writer whom he tries to enlist for coverage in the paper. While wooing Felix, Ned’s fierce persona turns awkward and self-conscious; it’s an endearing transition that Fisher accomplishes seamlessly.

Although somewhat overwhelmed by Ned’s outsize personality, Felix reciprocates Ned’s affection and tries to frankly explain why he cannot be of help at his establishment paper. “I just write about gay designers and gay discos and gay chefs and gay rock stars and gay photographers and gay models and gay celebrities and gay everything. I just don’t call them gay.” In other words, he writes about everything “gay” except the lethal disease that is ravaging the community.

But Ned’s anger is contagious. By the second act, a year has passed and Dr. Brookner’s dire predictions of a plague have come true, with a death toll in the hundreds. Ned’s friends – those who have survived – have become increasingly infuriated and demoralized. Tommy reports a sorrowful scene of bringing an estranged mother to her son who was dying in Bellevue Hospital: “There are going to be a lot of mommas flying into town not understanding why their sons have suddenly upped and died from ‘pneumonia.’”

In one of the most gripping scenes, Mickey (Tim Garcia) reaches a tipping point when the phones are ringing off the hook and he can find no more volunteers. The calm, witty activist, grief-stricken by the loss of so many friends, is threatened with losing his city job because of his advocacy. His handsome face crumples into a grimace, his rational voice is choked with sobs. Flailing about, he shouts, “I can’t take any more theories. I’ve written about every single one of them. Repeated infection by a virus, new appearance by a dormant virus, single virus, new virus, old virus, multivirus, partial virus, latent virus, mutant virus, retrovirus…What if it’s something out of the blue? The Great Plague of London was caused by polluted drinking water from a pump nobody noticed!”

Tim Garcia as Mickey, John Fisher as Ned, Benoît Monin as Bruce, Nick Moore as Craig and Leticia Duarte as Emma in ‘The Normal Heart.’ Photo by David Wilson

Mickey’s breakdown is echoed by Dr. Brookner who in the first act deals with the burgeoning health crisis in a detached scientific demeanor. She lashes out at the government funder for rejecting her research proposal, calls him an idiot, and in disgust throws her patients’ carefully organized medical records all over the stage.

Ned’s public anger and private anguish come together, as the handsome, polished Felix is ravaged by the disease, in an unforgettable scene where characters and groceries end up in chaos on the floor.

The scenic design (by Gilbert Johnson) has some effective elements and some bothersome ones. The projections at the beginning of each scene of New York Times headlines and articles are an important reminder of how little was known about HIV, its origins and its impact. But the crudely lettered white panels with statistics about the death toll and media coverage are unnecessary and distracting. Though the information is valuable, it is already available in the actors’ words.

Even more annoying are the actors’ clapping and chanting between scenes, sound effects that add neither meaning nor atmospherics. Is this some kind of male ritual? If it were just a device to cover scene changes, music would suffice.

Jeremy Cole as Felix and Robert Zelenka as Ben in ‘The Normal Heart.’ Photo by David Wilson.

But these shortcomings did not detract from the potency of this highly-charged play, and the passion and compassion that brought many in the audience to tears.

Kramer’s slice of life captures a crucial moment in history, when a mystery disease rapidly besieged the gay community, but was ignored by almost everyone else. As Ned bitterly states, “We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peacetime and we’re all in the same country.”

Today’s audiences know well the devastation of the AIDS epidemic – not only to the white male population in New York depicted in this play, but to women, communities of color, and people around the globe. I am not sure why Theatre Rhino, known as the “longest running queer theater in the world,” waited 30 years before staging The Normal Heart. But the power of Kramer’s fury has not diminished and Fisher and the company have staged a memorable version of a play that, sadly, seems to be timeless.

According to the World Health Organization, 35 million people have died of AIDS and an equal number are living with HIV infection, with the greatest prevalence in Africa. There is still no cure for AIDS.

The Normal Heart
Through November 25, $20-$40
Theatre Rhino at The Gateway Theatre (formerly Eureka Theater)

Tickets and more info here. 

Need a car to get there? Rent one in your neighborhood on Getaround. Sign up today, and enjoy $50 off your first trip: http://get.co/48h[Sponsored]

Onstage: Roaring through life with ‘Eva’

Julia McNeal as Eva in The Eva Trilogy ('No Coast Road'). Photo by Jennifer Reiley

ONSTAGE When Eva Malloy (Julia McNeal) muses “It’s a lifelong journey, isn’t it, shaking off a Catholic childhood?” a knowing chuckle ripples through the audience. Yet as the play unfolds, we witness the deep pain that flippant quip attempts to gloss over.

The remark comes in Eden, the first of three plays by playwright Barbara Hammond’s “The Eva Trilogy,” now in its world premier at the Magic Theatre (through November 12). All three plays are performed in succession in each performance. Though stylistically quite distinct, together they tell one comprehensive story.

The first play is essentially an early morning monologue delivered with wit and sass by a disheveled Eva. She’s been up all night and is waiting for the hospice worker, “the way the Israelites looked up for manna from heaven.” Through her stream-of-consciousness ramblings, we learn that she has been in Paris for the last twenty years “on a journey out of the moral universe and into the unknown.” Her sister has called her back to this drab coastal Dublin suburb to help care for her mother who is in the final, debilitating stages of Parkinson’s.

Julia McNeal as Eva in The Eva Trilogy (‘No Coast Road’). Photo by Jennifer Reiley

Hammond’s lyrical writing in Eva’s voice is reminiscent of James Joyce’s for Leopold Bloom, as he wandered the streets of Dublin describing seemingly random characters and events. With equal parts wry humor and rueful reflection, Eva ruminates on her rule-bound Catholic childhood, her (almost) carefree life in Paris, and her dismay at her mother’s incapacitating illness. She ponders the best way to ease her mother’s pain, a mother who never much nurtured her. McNeal is versatile and charismatic, and we are drawn into Eva’s story even though her nonstop narrative goes off on tangents and we too begin to wonder whether the tardy hospice worker will ever show up.

In fact, we don’t meet any other characters until the second play, Enter the Roar. There, the hospice worker appears, along with Eva’s sister and brother-in-law and the family priest. Their formal statements about Eva’s action are addressed to an unseen tribunal of some kind, perhaps an inquest or a criminal trial, and occasionally to the media. They ponder whether Eva’s actions towards her mother constituted an act of kindness or a two-commandment-breaking sin.

Particularly compelling are Amy Nowak as Roisin and Rod Gnapp as Eamon, playing two seemingly simple characters who raise questions of great complexity. Roisin’s official title is “hospice helper,” though she hates that appellation because it makes her sound “like a volunteer when it’s a real job.” She would have been a nurse but she “never did well at Bio.” Still, she adds, “All the families call me a nurse. I like that.” Roisin has seen many people at the end of life, including a great poet. “You’d think he would have known. But I don’t think he did. I don’t think he had a clue.”

Eamon is the bland but compassionate civil servant who married Eva’s sister Teresa (Lisa Ann Porter) even though she had a daughter out of wedlock. In a low-key manner, he pleads for mercy., reminding them all that Eva’s mother had been bed-ridden for a year, “severely depressed, trouble with breathing, with the swallowing, can’t even turn her body an inch on her own. An inch.”

More sure of himself is Father O’Leary (Justin Gillman) who has no doubts that Eva has committed many sins, one more grand than all the rest, and should be duly punished. His rigid, unforgiving view of right and wrong is laid bare: There may be no more scathing critique of the Irish Catholic moral code since Joyce described Stephen Daedelus’s brutal school days in Portrait of the Artist.

At intervals during the statements, there was a blast of taped sounds – a cacophony of traffic noise, news reports, repetitions of the characters’ words. The intrusion was distracting and did not seem to serve a dramatic purpose. We can hear the roar of the play’s title without it.

Justin Gillman and Rod Gnapp as Father O’Leary and Eamon in The Eva Trilogy (‘Enter The Roar’). Photo by Jennifer Reiley

In the final play, No Coast Road, set 30 years later in Corsica, an aging, one-legged Eva — still just as bawdy and biting — meets her match when a young American hiker (Caleb Cabrera) stumbles upon her hidden campsite. In a series of brief scenes, their teasing encounter evolves into a tender understanding when she realizes he too has sorrows brought on by his own mother.

Caleb Cabrera as Tom in The Eva Trilogy (‘No Coast Road’). Photo by Jennifer Reiley.

The settings by Hana Kim go from sparse to lush. In Eden, Eva sits alone on a brick stoop against a foggy grey-white backdrop, with wisps of mist blowing in from the sea. The second play, Enter the Roar, includes a few more props – chairs, a bank of official microphones, a mirrored back wall that forces the characters to reflect on themselves – but is still minimalist. But the final play, No Coast Road, is set in a dense forest in Corsica, lit by fireflies and twinkling stars. A free but solitary Eva inhabits the rudimentary campground. The verdant cluster of trees seems to come alive as it shimmers in the wind and is filled with shadows at night. Through skillful use of light, the illuminated image of a Nymph (the graceful, expressive Megan Trout) races across the leaves, or lies in repose in the treetops, reflecting Eva’s inner thoughts and dreams.

Magic’s artistic director Loretta Greco selected this ambitious project to close the theater’s 50th season, and she directed all three plays. It is a bold choice, but Greco’s capacious worldview and her compassion for her prickly, headstrong main character — and the others, who are more complex than they first appear — make wrestling with life’s most difficult issues a powerful experience.

Through November 12
Magic Theater, SF.
Tickets and more info here.
Use code EVA20 for 20% off ticket price! 

Tearing down the ‘Walls’

(Left to right) Velina Brown (L. Mary Jones), Rotimi Agbabiaka (Bahdoon Samakab), Marilet Martinez (Zaniyah Nahuatl), Lizzie Calogero (Cliodhna Abhabullogue) in Walls.

ONSTAGE San Francisco Mime Troupe groupies (Troupies?) had a moment this week when the veteran political theater troupe’s 2017 production Walls landed on Conservative Internet’s radar. “Trump NEA Grants $20K For Lesbian Illegal Immigrant Musical,” read the Brietbart.com headline, the text comprised of jabs at “Obama holdever” National Endowment for the Arts chairman Jane Chu. (Walls comes to Dolores Park July 4 at 2pm, then heads around the Bay.) 

The far right may still consider the Mime Troupe a radical organization — this year’s production Walls does feature a romance between an undocumented immigrant and (wait for it) ICE officer — but over a half century since the free open theater was founded, how is it keeping up? 

48 Hills spoke with Walls’ director Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, whose first professional Bay Area acting credit was in the Troupe in the ’80s. She toured with the troupe in Europe, and was contributed her experience as a homeless mother (at the time of the production) as inspiration for 1990’s Rats: A Dream Play.


48H What is the troupe’s role in its San Francisco community?

Edris The troupe is the oldest political theater company in the country, and perhaps there are only one or two more in total. That is an important role, to bring politics to the stage without apology or dilution. Its role in the city is the same and as a city with very active local and national politics, it is the theatrical voice of the city.

48H Has that changed since you first became involved in the 1980s?

Idris When I was in the troupe in the ’80s it was a vital part of the summer for residents. The park would be packed on Sunday with people arriving as early as noon to watch the setup and get a good seat on the grass. There was cheese and wine shared by many. With the changing demographics, I don’t think it is as visible or vital to the new folks and the old residents have been largely priced out. 

People are still in the park — the hipsters have all but staked a flag in Dolores Park, [the site of] our opening [performance] — but I am curious to see how many still come just for the show.

Another thing that is different is that when we did [1986-’88 production on US foreign policy in Africa] Mozamgola Caper, we attended secret meetings of the ANC, which was labeled in the US as a terrorist organization. We had leading activists involved in the creation of the script and characters. I don’t know that SFMT works so closely with leading activists and organizations on script. They are not part of the rehearsal process for Walls other than attending the previews. Also, the script was subject to change in those days at any moment once new information came in. At any point during the run of the show the dialogue, situations, even the politic could be changed.

48H Why is it important to have the community feedback sessions like the one I was able to attend?

ECA Feedback is important because the Mime Troupe is committed to issues that concern our community and the only way to be really sure is to ask. It is also a great place for us to get further information on the issues, as you can see from the preview you attended.

48H What are the special challenges that presenting a piece on immigration entails? Have there been particular issues that have come up during the preparation of Walls?

Edris The government that is a parody of itself is hard to parody. All of the shows have particular issues that the company either cannot agree on or cannot find a way to satirize without seeming insulting. This was a challenge in the ’80s, and the form is still a challenge to the messaging. 

Not everyone is on board with the love story or the character’s ending but we seem to have reached a compromise. Joan Holden, Mime Troupe founder, would have said “Compromise does not make great art” — I heard her say it in 1991. Back in the day we would have had a great row about it. [But] I think as the country becomes more polarized, organizations like SFMT are trying to find ways to not behave in that way.

48H What message do you hope people walk away with from Walls?

Edris Believe it or not, I am not a message artist. My love is satire. My hope is always that people see themselves in the folly and examine the way they process information, [the way they] treat people and the planet.

WALLS Tue/4, 2pm, free. Dolores Park, SF. Runs throughout the Bay through Sept. 10. More info here.

[Sponsored] Need a car to get there? Rent one in your neighborhood on Getaround. Sign up today, and enjoy $50 off your first trip: http://get.co/48h.  

Holes in our understanding

Fauxnique finds the camp in French feminist theory for solo show 'C*NT,' June 9-10 at ODC Theater. Photo by RJ Muna.

You may recognize dancer-performance artist-“faux queen” Fauxnique a.k.a. Monique Jenkinson from such gigs as winning the 2003 edition of Heklina’s landmark drag competition formerly known as the Trannyshack Pageant, or her solo show The F Word, or her appearances on nearly every stage in San Francisco. Fauxnique’s new production C*NT, or, The Horror of Nothing to See debuts Fri/9-Sat/10 at ODC Theater as part of the Walking Distance Dance Festival. It promises to dissect “(misogynistic) pathologizing and (feminist) mythologizing around the female body,” according to its presser. We caught up with the artist via Skype to discuss the holes in our current understanding of gender.

48H To start I’d like to clarify our language. Is faux queen your preferred terminology as a cis woman who does drag?

FAUXNIQUE Some people mind faux queen. I don’t — I think it’s funny. I use Fauxnique as my drag name, I like playing with the idea of “faux,” the idea of fakery. The idea that a cis gendered woman who does drag is considered the fake version … The politics around it, this idea that if you’re a faux queen you’re in this lesser category is … problematic. But I think it’s a rich place — I like being in the problematized space sometimes, looking at what that is and how we process it

48H Drag Race has shaped mainstream understanding of drag culture so much since it debuted in 2009. I was wondering why there had never been a faux queen in all the nine seasons, and in my exploratory Googling I ran across a RuPaul tweet from last year saying that she didn’t need to cast female — presumably she means cis women, since she has had trans women on the show — drag queens because that’s what the Miss Universe pageant was for.

FAUXNIQUE Oh that’s so dumb. It’s a cute answer, you know, that the pageant queens are doing drag. Women performing that kind of femininity are totally in drag. But it’s also kind of — whatever, I don’t know what RuPaul’s real politics around that are. I think that everything that RuPaul says is calculated to create drama.

Fauxnique on faux queenliness: "I like being in the problematized space sometimes, looking at what that is and how we process it."
Fauxnique on faux queenliness: “I like being in the problematized space sometimes, looking at what that is and how we process it.” Photo by Mark Christopher

48H Does it concern you, that the leading voice in drag talks like that?

FAUXNIQUE Women have been performing drag for as long as there has been all these trappings used to identify what is feminine. It’s always all been drag. So to think that RuPaul would not consider women dressing up as drag queens to be drag — it’s funny to me. Especially if you ever watched RuPaul’s Drag U. It was a spinoff show where drag queens would take women under their wing and make them into drag queens. There was one episode with women who had been Hollywood actors. [Note: Do not watch this 2010 episode unless you want to see Charlen Tilton from Dynasty win Ru’s top honors wearing actual blackface.] One of them was great — they made her into a drag queen and she was like “I’ll be so sexy for my husband!” And I was like no you’re not! You’re being a drag queen, which is a really different thing! That’s why I feel like RuPaul is smarter than that? But maybe it’s about marketing and what people are ready for. I have to hand it to the queens here in the Bay Area, who have always been subverting what the definition of drag was.

48H That was another one of my questions for you. How has your career in the San Francisco drag community affected your perception of what drag is?

FAUXNIQUE I came into a community that was really welcoming, that was already subverting what drag is, that was ready for women to be part of it. It felt like a very special situation. Sure, when I won Ms. Trannyshack in 2003, if there had been social media to the extent that there is now, I’m sure there would have been tons of commentary about how I didn’t deserve it or whatever.

48H I’m curious about the subtitle of this piece, “The Horror of Nothing to See.” Can you talk a little bit about what it is in reference to?

FAUXNIQUE It comes from an essay by a French feminist Luce Irigaray called “This Sex Which Is Not One.” One of the premises of this work is that I’m reading French feminism as high camp. This essay is specifically about women and the labia, about this idea that, as a culture, we have to have this one to one, the penis or vagina. The vagina is the baby canal, where the penis goes in — but it’s not the locus of sexual pleasure for women.

As phallocentric language makers we have to have this one to one, women have this, man have this — it’s totally binary, it’s not even taking trans sexuality into account. Of course, that’s problematic. It’s also amazing, this way that feminism is being articulated in a bodily sense. Irigaray is saying this sex which is not one, that women’s genitals are a multiplicity. She says that labia is always touching itself, therefore the woman is a walking dialectic. That’s crazy! I love this kind of complication. Then what she says is that this sex which cannot be defined as one is defined as none, as zero, as a vessel, which represents the horror of nothing to see.

So the piece is definitely thinking about the erasure of women in drag. There’s this double negation that happens when you’re called a faux queen. Drag queens are ostensibly men owning femininity, playing with femininity, imitating women. Then when women want to imitate women it’s fakery, it’s not allowed. It’s almost like how dare you, this isn’t yours, is the philosophy of RuPaul. The Miss Universe pageant is actually a very narrow and incredibly patriarchal way in which a woman might be allowed to play with her femininity, whereas the zone of drag is a place to upend that. [C*NT] is about reclaiming that which is hidden, lost, erased.

C*NT, Or, The Horror of Nothing to See, Fri/9-Sat/10, 7 and 8:30pm, ODC Theater, $30 (tickets sold as package with tinypistol’s PoemAnthemSong.) More info and tickets here.

Sgt. Pepper, UnderCover

UnderCover takes on the entirety of the Beatles' classic 50-year-old 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,' june 2 and 3 at UC Theatre.

1967 was a banner year for music – a year when Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, and Aretha Franklin topped the charts. But perched above them all was one album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by The Beatles, of course. Fifty years later, Sgt. Pepper is an icon of songcraft and experimentation that, if Rolling Stone Magazine has its say, remains the greatest album of all time.

June 2 and 3 at the newly refurbished UC Theatre, UnderCover Presents is poised to give that anniversary a hero’s welcome. UnderCover has made its name staging epic, one-night music festivals that celebrate classic albums with a lineup of premier local artists. The 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper finds UnderCover at the height of its powers: multi-talented musician and certifiable Beatles junkie Joe Bagale directs a roster that includes everyone from the legendary pop vocalist Raz Kennedy to the Iranian classical composer Sahba Aminikia.

And UnderCover is just warming up for the summer. August 17-20, it will close out the SFJAZZ Summer Sessions with four concerts paying tribute to Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, and the Muscle Shoals Studio.

To get the scoop on both events, we joined Joe Bagale and UnderCover founder Lyz Luke in the studio, while they recorded the album for the Sgt. Pepper tribute.

48 HILLS UnderCover always takes on big albums, but with Sgt. Pepper, we’re talking about an album many people think is the greatest of all time. What allows you to take an album of this magnitude and say that the Bay Area has something to bring to it?

LYZ LUKE I had been reluctant to do The Beatles because they’re so iconic. But this album – 50 years of Sgt. Pepper – if I’m gonna do The Beatles, it has to be this time.

I think the spirit of this entire album is about being open-minded and accepting and trying to explore things sonically. You can just hear all of the different influences in this album, and you’ll see it in our lineup. There’s a strong Indian influence in there, but we also brought in Middle Eastern music. As far as diversity goes, the Bay Area’s got it, and I think that this project works so well here because of that diversity.

Lyz Luke of UnderCover. Photo by Gundi Vigfusson.
Lyz Luke of UnderCover. Photo by Gundi Vigfusson.

48H Why was Joe Bagale the right person to be the music director?

LL Joe Bagale is the biggest Beatles fan I know, hands down. He will geek out for hours and hours on end, if you let him. So I went to Joe and just told him, “Hey, this anniversary is coming up. You’re the only person I would ask to do this.” And he was very enthusiastic about it.

48H Joe, why were you so excited to take it on?

JOE BAGALE The Beatles are the reason I wanted to become a musician. The earliest memory I have of listening to this record is on these road trips that my family used to take.

Joe Bagale on the way Sgt. Pepper changed his life, video by Cristina Isabel Rivera:

48H I couldn’t help but notice that you perform as Otis McDonald, an alter ego, just like The Beatles did in Sgt. Pepper. Why did you want to do that in your own music?

JB When you put on the costume of a character, there’s a certain sense of freedom to experiment that comes with that. A big thing that I get from this psychedelic period of The Beatles is this willingness to experiment with speeds of tape, so when you hear a lot of Otis McDonald tracks, it’s got this sped-up vocal sound, or sometimes it’s really slow. I stopped caring about it having to be the way my voice always sounds, and just started experimenting – painting with sounds.

48H Do you think Sgt. Pepper is the best Beatles album?

JB At one point in my life, maybe Sgt. Pepper was, but I go through so many phases with The Beatles. My personal favorite is the White Album. But you ask me next year, it might be Abbey Road. It changes. There’s so much.

Members of Awesome Orchestra recording "When I'm Sixty-Four." Photo by Cristina Isabel Rivera.
Members of Awesome Orchestra recording “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Photo by Cristina Isabel Rivera.


48H Did you have a guiding principle when you were picking the bands in the lineup?

JB My first rule was that the music has to be high-quality. That’s a big prerequisite because, for me personally, The Beatles are the high standard that I’m always trying to reach. The second thing was I wanted to make sure we crossed so many different genres, the way The Beatles did, because by being willing to fuse together all these different styles of music, they brought so many people together.

48H What are a couple examples of bands or interpretations that you’re particularly excited about?

JB As far as what’s been recorded so far, Eyes on the Shore totally flipped “Getting Better” and made it their own. The melody is all still there, but they completely reinterpreted the harmony that goes underneath it and made it this lush, anthemic, rock song.

“Good Morning” is a really progressive tune for The Beatles because of all the time signature changes. I thought rhythmically that could lend itself to an Afro-Cuban group, and then Soltrón went even more overboard with it: all these different feel changes, yet it’s so cohesive.

LL We also have Sahba Aminikia, a very accomplished Iranian composer who recently collaborated with the Kronos Quartet. He’s doing a version of “When I’m Sixty-Four” that’s also a subversive political act: Iranian women are not allowed to sing in front of men they’re not related to, so he had a singer from Tehran named Mina Momeni record the vocals in a video, and he and members of Awesöme Orchestra will perform in front of it live.

And personally, I’m Indian, and it’s just really cool to be able to represent my people’s music with Rohan Krishnamurthy and the dance group Non Stop Bhangra.

48H Sgt. Pepper came out after The Beatles had stopped touring, so even The Beatles didn’t perform these songs live. Which song is going to be the trickiest to get right on stage?

JB If anything, it would be the transition between the two songs that I’m doing: the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise and “A Day in the Life.” The reprise has NonStop Bhangra, and “A Day in the Life” has my six-piece band, plus a 25-piece orchestra. Just having enough room for everybody might be really challenging. Plus my band is all multi-instrumentalists, so I have to choreograph how we switch instruments onstage, too.

Lyz Luke, Joe Bagale, Sahba Aminikia, and Awesome Orchestra post-recording. Photo by Cristina Isabel Rivera.
Lyz Luke, Joe Bagale, Sahba Aminikia, and Awesome Orchestra post-recording. Photo by Cristina Isabel Rivera.

48H This will be the first UnderCover show at The UC Theatre, a 100-year-old venue that re-opened last year after a big restoration. What’s your review of the space?

LL Every single detail is just lovingly thought through. The production people at UnderCover critique everything as soon as we walk into a venue, and we can’t do that with his venue. It sounds incredible. They also have an amazing youth program that teaches students the behind-the-scenes of the music industry, and they have a real family dynamic as a result of it.

48H Who are the other collaborators who are helping bring Sgt. Pepper to life?

LL A lot of people don’t remember that we do this whole album recording process. Most of the tracks are being recorded at Zoo Labs, and all of them are being mixed there. KPFA and KALX are co-announcing the show. And we have a really amazing new stage designer named Bridget Stagnitto. We’re trying to give a nod to the original album cover, but also to the Bay Area: she’s creating this giant, floral heart, and then a collage of Bay Area landmarks made out of welded metal panels that will hang behind it.

48H Switching gears to your upcoming shows at SFJAZZ: It seems like a pretty big deal for UnderCover to be closing out the SFJAZZ Summer Sessions. How did that come together?

LL After the Sly & The Family Stone show at the Fox, I got an email from Randall Kline, who’s the founder of SFJAZZ. He just asked me to meet up for coffee – no agenda or anything. So I went over to the SFJAZZ facilities, and I went into his office, and he’s like, “I’ve been hearing your name a lot, and I just want to know what it is you do, and why you do it.” So I started talking to him about UnderCover and all those magical moments and connections that are made backstage, and how diversity and community are so important to me, and how music is a great tool to make that happen. And as I was talking to him, he totally got choked up, and I even got choked up seeing him get choked up.

We didn’t talk about shows at all, but I think we made a connection. Then they were doing a series where they were combining a live concert with a film. We decided to do something for the Amy Winehouse documentary, and we wound up selling out two shows in one night really fast and just had a great experience, so Randall reached out to me about closing his summer series.


Joe Bagale discussing his arrangement of "A Day in the Life" with members of Awesome Orchestra. Photo by Joanna Ladd.
Joe Bagale discussing his arrangement of “A Day in the Life” with members of Awesome Orchestra. Photo by Joanna Ladd.

48H Why did you break away from the album model for your shows at SFJAZZ?

LL Doing the singles gives us the freedom to cover artists like Ray Charles and Nina Simone, who are iconic artists but don’t necessarily have that iconic album, and we can do creative things like the Muscle Shoals Studio. The only show where were doing a whole album is Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew because I wanted to get weird with it: it’s an instrumental, psychedelic, jammy album, and it would just be so challenging for the musicians. We don’t usually get to do that with UnderCover. With SFJAZZ, it’s a sophisticated audience, and I think they can handle it.

48H How did you pick the songs for your lineup out of all those classic singles?

LL We left it up to the artists. I reached out to the acts that are performing and asked them to send me their top picks. You’d be surprised how often they’re very different. The only artist where a couple people really wanted the same songs was Nina Simone. There, I gave a little bit of favorability to the Oakland School of the Arts students ‘cause there were some songs where it would be so much more powerful if a group of young musicians was able to sing them.

48H Plus, you love them [the OSA students].

LL I do love them! A lot. I would adopt each and every one of them if I could.

48H Why did you want to celebrate the Muscle Shoals Studio alongside Ray, Nina, and Miles?

LL You don’t know Muscle Shoals, but you know Muscle Shoals. It’s a very distinct sound, and you start seeing a common thread throughout such a historic time in music. It’s everything from Aretha Franklin to the Black Keys. And it’s really exciting for UnderCover to be able to have such a diverse range on one bill, with four artists.

48H Can you give us a preview of some of the acts?

LL I think Zakiya Harris is going to kill it for Nina Simone. She’s a powerful woman who speaks her mind, she’s confident, she’s a dynamic singer. And she’s going to bring all the issues to the table that Nina faced and address them, and I think even bring some closure to some things that Nina was struggling with.

I’m excited to see what Kev Choice does with Bitches Brew. Kev Choice is a classically trained pianist, which a lot of people don’t realize, and he’s also got this whole hip-hop background. I think that with four different songs, you’re going to see four sides of Kev Choice up there on the stage. 

June 2 and 3, 7pm, $20-$77.50

UC Theatre, Berkeley
Tickets for June 2 here
Tickets for June 3 here
Register to volunteer here for free admission

A powerhouse tribute to essential ‘Miseducation’

ONSTAGE For six years, UnderCover Presents has shaped the fortunes of local musicians by staging epic one-night music festivals that are equal parts tribute and showcase. The idea is deceptively simple: take a classic album, and reinterpret it with a different local band performing each track in their own style. You’ll hear a Balkan brass band rendition followed by a fusion of hip-hop and chamber music — and find yourself singing along to both because you already know the words.

That’s the magic of UnderCover: You may come for the album, but you’ll leave with six new favorite bands from genres you never knew existed. It’s several shows at once, augmented by a bit of stagecraft and a deep, infectious love for source material.

Next week, Feb 16-18, UnderCover takes on its first hip-hop album with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill at YBCA, and the team is bringing everything it’s got to do it justice. Fifteen bands from 15 genres will celebrate Lauryn Hill’s classic, one-and-only studio album, from 1998, under the music direction of Meklit, an Ethio-American singer-songwriter and globe-trotting powerhouse in her own right. Among many highlights, the lineup includes Oakland hip-hop legend Kev Choice, who has served as Hill’s music director in addition to fronting his own well-known jazz-funk big band. 

(The event is part of the Clas/sick Hip Hop Festival, a powerhouse double bill of UnderCover and choreographer Amy O’Neal’s breakdance-centered “Opposing Forces,” which runs February 16-18 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). You may want to get your tickets now.) 

We sat down with Meklit and UnderCover founder Lyz Luke to talk about the impact the UnderCover series has on local music, and how it’s managed to raise the bar again with Miseducation.

UnderCover founder Lyz Luke (left) and Music Director Meklit in conversation with 48 Hills.
UnderCover founder Lyz Luke (left) and Music Director Meklit in conversation with 48 Hills.

48 HILLS What about UnderCover makes it so different from other shows in the Bay Area?

LYZ LUKE UnderCover’s really unique because we don’t book the major headliners. Larger acts like Fantastic Negrito are not on our lineup. These are the underdogs who are usually playing the Red Poppy Art House in front of 50 people, but by being part of UnderCover, they get to be in front of 1200. It’s kind of a make-it-or-break-it moment.

MEKLIT All of the bands bring not only their passion for that music or their passion for a particular song, but also whatever was going on in their life when they were listening to that music, however they were transforming as people, however they were becoming the musicians that they are. All that comes into the show, and you realize that people are not just playing a song, they’re playing a piece of their life, and they’re playing an era. They’re playing a part of how we’ve redefined ourselves through music.

48H How did UnderCover get its start, and what explains its staying power?

LL The first time we did UnderCover, we thought it would be a one-off. We did The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Meklit was actually in the original lineup. It had that cool factor that a lot of New York shows have: There was a line around the block, people didn’t really know what was happening. At the last minute, we had Liz Phair and Stephan Jenkins join the bill.

Going backstage was the shocking part: People were introducing themselves to each other left and right. The musicians in all these different genres have so much respect for each other, but they never get in the same room. During that project, people started collaborating, both for the show and beyond. It brought together this sense of community and excitement I had not seen at a local bands show, or even a festival. I haven’t seen anything that’s even come close to it.

48H Give us some examples of the impact UnderCover has on the bands that participate.

LL I think Con Brio is a really great example. They covered an instrumental song [for the Stand! tribute show], and they wrote lyrics for it. I went to their next show after UnderCover, and people were singing along to that track. That made me realize this is working, when the whole front row were people who came from the UnderCover tribute.

Con Brio, Zakiya Harris, and Midtown Social all played the Stern Grove Festival almost immediately after they made an imprint with UnderCover. I feel good about playing a small role in getting them in front of the right people.

Meklit curated the lineup and will perform "Nothing Even Matters." Photo by Camille Seaman.
Meklit curated the lineup and will perform “Nothing Even Matters.” Photo by Camille Seaman.

48H How did the idea to do Miseducation come about?

MEKLIT I was involved in the first UnderCover, and even then I was like, “What album would I do if I were music director?” And this was literally the only album I could think of. It was so obvious to me that we needed to do it.

48H Tell us about the significance of Miseducation in your life.

MEKLIT It came out the month before I went to college. I got to university, and my life was turned upside down. It was a really hard year. When a song or an album hits you, and you’re 18 and struggling, you need that voice at your back. This album was that voice at my back because it said something that allowed you to be big in yourself, no matter what was going on around you. It reached for roots. As a woman, it let you define the stories that speak your own life. So I needed it, I needed this record.

48H Meklit, you’ve recently toured with other artists of East African descent as part of The Nile Project and crafted your own reinterpretations of Ethio-Jazz. How are you bringing that aspect of your work to Miseducation?

MEKLIT As I’ve travelled, I’ve seen that hip-hop is always open to whatever poetic tradition it touches. When you go to Egypt, they’re bringing a training of classical Arabic poetry to hip-hop. Or when you go to Ethiopia, they’re bringing wax and gold, the deep double entendre that is in the traditional poetry. I’ve seen Ms. Lauryn Hill recently, and she brought a lot of Afrobeat into her interpretations of her own songs. Kev Choice is one of the artists on [the UnderCover] record, and he was her Music Director for a year, and he said she was listening to tons of Ethio-Jazz — musicians who were my touchstones.

So I really wanted to think about the global nature of hip hop, and how the Bay Area is global in its creative voices. There are a lot of global voices in this lineup, and that was very intentional. It’s saying, “This is who we are, as the Bay Area.”

Kev Choice served as Ms. Hill's Music Director in 2007. He will perform "Final Hour."
Kev Choice served as Ms. Hill’s Music Director in 2007. He will perform “Final Hour.”

48H How was the lineup selected?

LL The music director always has final say, but UnderCover gives a few guidelines for picking the lineup. Number one is what Meklit said about this album transforming her life. We want that feeling for every single band because they do put that energy into the show. Number two: I want every single person in the audience to find someone onstage who they can identify with. I love the range of ages, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, and sexual identifications we see in our audiences, and I want to make sure we mirror that.

Another thing I want to highlight about the Ms. Lauryn Hill tribute: I am so proud of the badass females working on this production. Between the two of us, Art Director Rachel Znerold, Stage Manager Arielle DeLeon, and Piper Payne, who’s doing the mastering, there are some serious movers and shakers who happen to be women. And it goes back to Ms. Lauryn Hill being so fiercely independent at a time when we were establishing our independence as young women.

MEKLIT There are also so many female MCs on this tribute: Xiomara; Babii Cris, a 23-year-old MC who has produced two records, back to front, on her own; MADlines; Aima the Dreamer. And in terms of women bandleaders, there’s Shaina Evoniuk with Cosa Nostra Strings, myself, Faye Carol, and more.

48H Can you give us some highlights from the other artists who are participating? Any unexpected interpretations?

MEKLIT Inspector Gadje Balkan Brass is a 14-piece brass band, and they have this epic, cinematic interpretation of “Forgive Them Father” that features MC Sandman, who has totally reinterpreted the lyrics so that they’re relevant to right now.

The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol is doing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” If you’ve never heard somebody scat so you wanted to jump out of your seat — Faye will make you do that. What she does is hip-hop before hip-hop had that name.

LL Vocal Rush is a multiple-award-winning a cappella group from the Oakland School for the Arts, and they’re doing “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” None of them were born when this album was released. Some of them were probably conceived to it! That’s my highlight, I’d say.

MEKLIT And then I re-did the album’s skit-like interludes with them. I went to the school and asked them the same questions, so we had our conversations about love, and four female artists from the show are scoring them.

Kev Choice served as Ms. Hill's Music Director in 2007. He will perform "Final Hour."The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol will perform "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."
“The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol will perform “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”

48H Do you have any other collaborations to highlight?

MEKLIT This is the cornerstone of YBCA’s Clas/sick Hip Hop Festival, which investigates the impact of hip hop in the community and the world. YBCA has remade itself in the last few years as a citizen institution, thinking about the role artists play in coalescing communities and incubating social change. I do a lot of work with arts and culture organizations all over the US, East Africa, and the UK, and YBCA is really a thought leader in that.

LL Rachel Znerold is our Art Director. And if you’ve noticed that our shows are looking more and more high production — that’s her working on a shoestring budget.

She’s working with a 17-year-old filmmaker from the SF School of the Arts named Phil Elleston, II. He’s running around all over the Bay Area getting shots of a barbershop, the corner store, dancers, protests, and just feeling out where you get your education outside of school.

48H Is it getting harder to be a musician in the Bay Area? What is the best way for our readers to support local artists?

LL At UnderCover, we make everyone take a pledge to support local music by going to see live shows, buying merchandise, and telling people what a great time you had. We’re competing not just against nationally touring acts, but against Netflix and people wanting to be more inwards instead of outwards. Every UnderCover show without fail I stand at the edge of the stage or by the exit, and people are just sobbing. There’s a release because they haven’t felt that sense of community in so long. Just be open to community is the biggest thing, and honor how music builds community.

48H Does UnderCover have other upcoming shows you want our readers to know about?

LL In the first weekend of June we are doing a 50-year anniversary tribute to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at The UC Theatre.

I’m also working on an initiative to change the funding for Oakland arts organizations and individual artist grants. Over the past 10 years, the City of Oakland’s funding for the arts has been cut by 50 percent while applications for funding have increased by 50-60 percent in every category. So over the next few months, I’m mobilizing a huge roster of artists to speak up about the annual budget.

FEB 16-18, 9:30pm, $35-45
Tickets and more info here 
Register here for free admission.


Of singing lambs and serial killers

Scott Hayes and Anne Norland send up a serial killer in “Silence! The Musical.” Photo by Erik Scanlon

ON STAGE Broadway and Hollywood used to be frenemies. It was an accepted wisdom that film versions killed off the audience for a stage work — hence producers who bought expensive film rights to long-running musicals like South Pacific or Hello, Dolly! often had to wait many years before they were contractually allowed to produce the property they’d bought.

But things have changed. These days, it’s a given that a movie (even a flop like Rent) only enlarges a show’s demographic, roping in folks eager to see “the real thing” after watching it repeatedly onscreen. And beyond reviving familiar old hits, there’s no better recipe for stage success now than creating a live version of a popular movie, as Disney’s many Broadway incarnations of beloved cartoon features have demonstrated.

This has spilled over into a whole new (well, just new-ish by now) subgenre: The musicalized stage film spoof. Usually sending up something that was pretty campy in the first place, whether intentionally or not, these musicals have braved Broadway itself (Xanadu), but more frequently arise from and dwell in the realms of Off-Broadway and fringe theater, where tickets are cheaper and audiences suitably rowdier. No one’s going to shush you during Evil Dead: The Musical because Patti Lupone is having a golden vocal moment. She probably wouldn’t touch that show with a chainsaw, anyway. 

At the Victoria Theatre, which just months ago hosted the excellent Showgirls: The Musical, we’re now getting another successful such spoof, albeit from much less obviously readymade source material. If there is nothing about the original big-screen Showgirls that isn’t funny (that rape scene aside, of course), it’s hard to think of anything that is inherently funny about The Silence of the Lambs, which swept 1991’s major Oscars. It’s a poker-faced thriller about… well, you know. It works because we take seriously the creepy dynamic between Jodie Foster’s FBI trainee and Anthony Hopkins’ imprisoned (but not for long) homicidal-maniac-genius, and because the case she’s investigating with his Machiavellian “help” — involving an at-large kidnapper/killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” — is creepier still. 

It’s a lurid story that has duly entered the pop-culture canon, but is it satirize-able? Silence! The Musical (through March 17), which opened at the Victoria last weekend in a production presented by Cloud 9 Theatricals, Long Entertainment Group, and SF’s own adventuresome musical-theater specialists Ray of Light, definitely thinks so. And it’s spot-on — at least most of the time — in Jason Hoover’s mostly sharp and hilarious production. 

Its script written by Hunter Bell (who reached Broadway with a subsequent musical satire, [title of show]), Silence! started fifteen years ago as an “internet musical” comprised just of nine songs by Jon and Al Kaplan, with a stage incarnation following in 2005 and a slowly-escalating number of productions since. There will no doubt be more, for some time to come: The San Francisco edition has already done so well that its planned run was extended before the opening-night curtain went up. 

A hilarious Greek chorus of Lambs
A hilarious Greek chorus of Lambs. Photo by Carol Rosegg

It was an opening that found some of Hoover and choreographer Alex Rodriguez’s more clever and ambitious staging ideas not always yet executed with maximum finesse by a cast of 12. And sometimes the writers’ attempt to make Silence of the Lambs funny is just too strained. Try as you might to get laughs from a mother’s desperate plea that a serial killer spare her child’s life (“My Daughter Is Catherine”), those odds are not in your favor. 

But it’s surprising how much of Silence! does click, sometimes quite ingeniously. The story, natch, remains pretty well unchanged from the forms familiar from Thomas Harris’ original novel and Jonathan Demme’s film. Outwardly tough, inwardly insecure — though that gets somewhat reversed here — newbie Federal agent Clarice Starling (Anne Norland) is thrilled/nervous to be picked for a high-priority investigation. Her youth and gender will hopefully loosen the tongue of notorious Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Scott Hayes), whose diabolical expertise is sought in helping to track down a new serial slayer (Brian Watson’s Buffalo Bob) before he kills his latest abductee (Hayley Lovgren).

While the lambs of the title were just a disturbing backstory anecdote in earlier incarnations, here they’re a full-on singing, dancing Greek Chorus — a mildly funny idea that would probably wear thin faster if not for all the amusing business Hoover, Rodriguez and the five ingratiating performers themselves have contrived. Some production numbers will probably snap into sharper focus as the run proceeds: Last Friday, it took about a half hour before Bill’s introductory “Are You About a Size 14?” provided a sequence that the cast just knocked out of the park. A later highlight in both execution and very clever conception was “We’re Going In,” which has the FBI (sans perilously otherwise-occupied Clarice) triumphantly preparing to invade… the wrong house. The former’s snarky grotesquerie and the latter’s sendup of macho action-flick bravado provided two occasions when Silence! hits a satirical target just right. 

The gang's all here.
The gang’s all here.

Other bits work less well, especially when the show resorts to a routine raunchiness that feels not just uninspired but out-of-place — after all, Lambs isn’t Showgirls. (On the other hand, Bill’s blunt drag aria “I’d Fuck Me” works because it simply amplifies what the rather trans-phobic movie was too “tasteful” to do more than imply.) But there are so many ideas packed into the intermissionless 90-minute runtime, most of them funny, that an occasional misfired joke barely speed-bumps the high-spirited proceedings.

Though Jodie Foster’s earnest naturalism has never made her seem an easy target for imitation (let alone mockery), Norland locates mannerisms you didn’t even realize the actress had until you see them magnified x1000. Watson is commandingly ridiculous as Buffalo Bill, one part here that lends itself verrrrry readily to parodic caricature. The multicast support ensemble has a lot of bright moments, not least as a chorus whose individual members each express distinct personalities. (Kevin Singer is a standout.) The one disappointment is Hayes, who looks strikingly right as Lecter. Unfortunately, he trades Hopkins’ eerie stillness for a merely blasé air that too often feels like he’s giving the part a half-energy rehearsal walkthrough. 

Likely to go from good to great as the cast settles in (for one thing, it takes a lot of hard work to make a short Fosse spoof look easy), Silence! The Musical is already very good fun. What it doesn’t do for chianti and fava beans, it most definitely does for Silly String. Sorry, you’ll have to visit the Victoria to find out just how. 

Silence! The Musical continues through March 18. Victoria Theatre, SF, $35-55. www.silencethemusical.com

‘I want to be humble, but I want to be fierce’

Bill T. Jones. Photo by Christina Lane.

ONSTAGE “I certainly don’t mean to talk your ear off,” Bill T. Jones, one of the legends of contemporary dance and queer culture, says over the phone as he rockets through the city in his husband Bjorn Amelan’s car. But I could listen to Jones’ fabulously oaky eloquence for hours, especially as he expounds on his latest projects and our present political and artistic moment. He’ll be speaking Sunday, January 22 at the JCC’s Arts and Ideas series in San Francisco.  

Jones, who formed his renowned dance company Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance with his partner Zane in 1983, revolutionized dance by choreographing from a place of identity and the quest for self-representation, speaking out about marginalized experience, especially his own as a black gay man. He became synonymous with the downtown New York arts scene, although he and Zane were also former San Francisco residents (Zane died of complications of AIDS in 1988).

Jones still comes out once every two years or so to visit his sister, performance artist Rhodessa Jones. Besides his JCC talk, Jones is out here working on a collaboration with local writer Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who’s writing a libretto with Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Romain for a hybrid opera called We Shall Not Moved that Jones will direct.

Jones’ current NYC artistic base is New York Live Arts, a merging of his dance company with the historic Dance Theatre Workshop. Among the many, many things going on there is a humanities program, which in 2017 will be curated by beloved Bay Area “transgenre” performer Justin Vivian Bond. 

As befits his appearance at the Arts and Ideas series, Jones, in our brief but lively conversation, was bursting with both — including a few surprising opinions on the state of liberal politics and contemporary dance from one of the “architects of identity politics.”

48 HILLS The Arts and Ideas series is very wide-ranging. What will you be speaking about in your talk there?

JONES I think it will be about empathy, and time. It will be focused on the trilogy of work I’m doing right now. We’ve shown the first two sections of it. The trilogy is called ‘Analogy’ — as you know analogy means a comparison of two or more things. These are all built around entities or personalities close to me.

The first one is my husband Bjorn Amelan’s mother, Dora — a Jewish woman born in Stasbourg who was 19 when the Second World War broke out. We hear from her about what it was like to work at internment camps in the south of France. it’s a very lovely portrait of a young, great woman. Hers is called ‘Analogy/Dora: Tramontane.’ Tramontane is the wind in the south of France that she describes as she was working on this arid plane in the internment camps, one called Rivesault and one called Gurs. She was there working with people, many of whome ultimately were deported to Auschwitz and so on. Members of her own family were deported. Bjorn and I, who have been together 24 years, we both marvel at her stories and her life.

The second one is even more personal. It concerns the child of my sister, his name is Lance Theodore Briggs, or LTB. He lived in San Francisco during his formative years, a handsome young dancer, model, who was at the School of Ballet when he was very young, got involved in the sex trade, drugs, and although he kept having a career — he’s got an unbreakable body, the things he’s done to it — he is now a man paralyzed from the waist down.

He and I started doing an oral history three years ago, and I told him I wanted to make a work mirroring Dora’s work. He and I are two black gay men trying to speak honestly about our generational differences and the dysfunction that has informed our relationship. It’s very strong, driven by a sense of love — or at least a desire to love.

The third section is one that I’m working on now that will be premiered at the American Dance Festival, in June-July, and this character is actually a quasi-novelistic character coming from a great novel by W.G. Sebald. This is from the third of the four novellas which is from The Emigrants, and Ambrose is a working class German who came to this country just before the First World War. He is a mysterious man, who escapes his small town in Germany to work in grand hotels, having liaisons with mysterious personalities, living for a while on a floating house on a lake near Kyoto with a Japanese “unmarried” diplomat.

He then is hired by the Solomon family, a very wealthy Jewish family on Long Island. He’s been hired to be the manservant-companion-guardian of their dissolute, eccentric son Cosmo Solomon. And the writer treats this relationship with great delicacy and mystery. The family says that Abrose is of the “other persuasion” but they never go into what they meant. So he is the subject of the last section, which is called ‘Analogy/Ambrose.’

Every one of those stories to me is about a hidden life, and in some ways is about the question, “What is a life worth living?” And empathy — they are all exercises of empathy, and that will be my starting point for my talk at the JCC.

48 HILLS I write about nightlife, and a lot of club people were excited about part two, Analogy: Lance. It’s a spectacular-looking journey through contemporary nightlife, including hip-hop and vogue balls. It’s very evocative of the nightlife of the 1990s, especially. Did you draw on any of your own nightlife experience for this part?

JONES Oh no, no, I’m another generation entirely. At the time of life I describe with Lance, which for me would be the early 1970s, Arnie Zane and I were living on Potrero Hill here in San Francisco, on Rhode Island Street, and we were into exploring Krishna consciousness. I mean I’ve done my time at the bathhouses, I maybe did a turn a bit on the floor. But I’m very much from the counterculture.

But my nephew who always looked to me as an example of what the dance world was — I don’t think he ever really understood the type of avant-garde concert dance that I did. He knew that his uncle was a famous dancer, and he wanted to be like that. His take on that was pop music and clubs. I would have less problem with it if somehow club dance were more informed. If it had a kind of critical distance. But it was one big party. And there was the ever-present specter of drugs. And he’s wondering why his career never took off, and how he ended up flat on his back. And he’s been on his back for two years. Now in a wheelchair at least — so there is a kind of hopeful end to it.

Bill T. Jones painted by Keith Haring, 1983
Bill T. Jones painted by Keith Haring, 1983

48 HILLS You speak of empathy. Out of all the artists who’ve explored identity and the crossroads of being, art, power, politics, and economics, I think a lot of people are looking to you, and feel that right now we’re in a moment where we need these expressions more than ever …

JONES Oh you think so? You don’t think it’s a huge moment of mea culpa that identity politics folks are going through after the last election? People saying we spent all this time on talking about what bathrooms to use when we should have been talking to the disenfranchised poor white people in the Midwest rust belt, we should have been talking about what “other” lives matter?

I’m being facetious, but as one of the architects of identity politics — I was in those Mapplethorpe photographs, I was talking about being an proud gay black man when so few of those voice were being heard. Now, I look over my shoulder and think we should have been more balanced ….

48 HILLS This really surprises me. There’s so many gay leaders and others telling us right now that we should “drop the identity politics” — for me that’s almost shocking to me, and yet it seems that you may be having questions yourself…

JONES The only thing I will say is that I thought I was doing the business of art. And art, in my way of thinking, going back to James Joyce and the early 20th century, was about trying to understand the nature of self, the nature of the indiviual in the great and crushing pageant of history. I was trying to understand, what did Martin Luther King mean by ‘free at last, free at last.’ What was freedom? Freedom to be who you are. Freedom to see the world, to see aesthetics, to see politics through the glasses of my choosing, so we had to define what that was.

I don’t think we have anything to apologize for in that regard. I think going forward, right now, I’m an elder. What does it mean to be an older gay man? Is it enough to be constantly talking about my orgasms, or my battles with youth culture as an aging object of desire? I have to find a way to really talk about the business of living. I have to vote. I have to have a political opinion.

So I don’t dodge away from my identity. But I do think I have to grow up and mature to be a full-fledged member of the culture. That is a bigger discussion. It does hurt me sometimes when some young people don’t know what we fought for or that they don’t know what it took to be able to say now that they don’t identify as a man or a woman. They have this raging sense that you could say who you were. Well. Some of us went before you, and many of us had to die to get you to that point.

We’re talking about the gay culture, but there’s much paralleling with civil rights struggles. When young black people say that there’s a kind of ossified sense of black identity and we’ve moved past that – well wait, slow down, what do you mean ‘move past that?’ Are you sure that everybody’s right and secure? Are you sure that it doesn’t matter anymore what color you are? Well you can see that that’s obviously not the case.

So I want to be humble, but I want to be fierce. And one way to be fierce is to stand up for what you love. I happen to love beauty. i love the world if ideas. I love a fierce man, woman, transgender person who is able to tell me something that I don’t know. Don’t keep repeating the same things. Get some new information. Learn something.

Maya Angelou used to say that everyone, whether you’re Irish, a Jew, a Muslim — this is America, you’ve been paid for. So go on, she said. You’ve been paid for. Echoing James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket. So we owe it to ourselves to be political. And to be as beautiful as we can be as creative animals. I’m sorry I’m on my soapbox here, but you opened that door. Go out there and make your beauty. 

A talk at the Arts & Ideas series
Sun/22, 7pm, $28-$38
Tickets and more info here. 


Will the Thrillpeddlers meet their doom?

The Thrillpeddlers cast of 'Pearls Over Shanghai' in its 2011 revival. Photo by David Wilson

ONSTAGE From beloved annual Halloween tradition “Shocktoberfest” to hugely successful revivals of early Cockettes musicals like “Pearls Over Shanghai” (with stops in saucy Paris and a devilish Club Inferno on the way), the Thrillpeddlers stage troupe has been thrillingly hanging on as one of our last, lovely purveyors of the Grand Guignol theatrical legacy, albeit in a decidedly DIY way.

Now, the company has learned it must vacate its 13-year home in SoMa, the cavernous  Hypnodrome, at the end of February.

The Hypnodrome building has been sold to new owners: No word yet on what they intend to do with it, but scrappy underground theater that references old-school tropes in a campy, teasing style is apparently not part of the plan. 

48 Hills: Thrillpeddlers Club Inferno
Noah Haydon with Thrillpeddlers players in ‘Club Inferno.’ Photo by davidallenstudio.com

In a post on the Hypnodrome website date January 5, company director Russell Blackwood wrote:

I have some sad news for you today. After 13 wonderful years producing show after show, celebrating weddings, birthdays and memorials, and building a rich and loving artistic community, our benefactors Larry and David have found a buyer for 575 10th Street. They offered us this magnificent hideaway in 2004 for just two years, so I consider that a damned good run! Everyone who has ever walked through our back alley door has become a part of its notorious legacy! 

We’ll need to have everything packed up by the end of February. That said, we’ll still have plenty of opportunities for Thrillpeddlers and audiences to say goodbye to The Hypnodrome.

“It’s a miracle we’ve been here so long,” ever-affable Blackwood, who runs the company with his husband James Toczyl, told me over the phone. “That’s the only way I can describe the fantastic opportunity we’ve had to do so much for so long and still survive here. This location was so perfect for our needs — we’re not a black box theater company, we’re more a warehouse company, and here our productions had the freedom to really soar. 


“We are celebrating with a number of shows before we go, including ‘Amazon Apocalypse,’ composer Scrumbly Koldewyn’s new musical tour of Brazil and all things Samba” — which of course features singing insects, a malicious eco-devil, and a chanteuse named Carmen Piranha.

“Because we’ve worked so hard on the show, it’s been a kind of salve to the wound on hearing the news, that we were engaging so deeply in something we loved, all together,” Blackwood told me. ” “We’re staying committed to our original plan to bring “Amazon Apocalypse” to the stage, albeit as a semi-staged concert for just a single weekend.” 

So the Thrillpeddlers are actively seeking a new space to continue their ribald antics? “Who knows what magic we have left in us!” Blackwood teased, slipping into his sly ringmaster stage voice. “For now, please come to our shows to say farewell to our home, and stay tuned to our website and Facebook page to learn more. We’re all still just digesting this information and in a bit of a state of shock, but the shows will be better than ever!”

The final shows include ‘Amazon Apocalypse’ previews, a new installment of the popular “Naked Dudes Reading Lovecraft” series, and a special official farewell evening on Valentine’s Day. Take one (hopefully not) last look at a truly San Francisco thing. Learn more at the Hypnodrome website

Coming in FRESH

Afro-Futurist conjure-artist Amara Tabor Smith will perform at opening weekend of 2017's FRESH Festival. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

ONSTAGE The piece Bay Area dancer and educator Amara Tabor-Smith will perform this weekend at the 2017 FRESH Festival explores how capitalism seeks control of black women’s schedules. Tabor Smith tailored “BlackTIME”‘s message to account for the fact that it will be performed in front of audiences that may not be majority POC, she told 48 Hills in a recent interview, with a goal of “investigating blackness, but inviting people in.”

Exploring the ways that form and delivery affects art’s message has long been a part of FRESH, an annual festival of experimental dance, performance and music that features three weeks of performances, practices and community exchanges through Jan. 22.

The festival was started in 2010 by ALTERNATIVA, a company led by dancer Kathleen Hermesdorf and musician Albert Mathias. This year it will take place through Jan. 22 in venues around the Mission and SoMa, including Red Poppy Art House, where communal potlucks will be held in which attendees examine the crux of art and activism.

Brontez Purnell and Sophia Wang fling blooms during their piece "Fake Autobiographies" at FRESH's 2016 edition. Photo by Robbie Sweeny
Brontez Purnell and Sophia Wang fling blooms during their piece “Fake Autobiographies” at FRESH’s 2016 edition. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Tabor-Smith will take part in one of these potlucks on Jan. 11 with Cat Brooks and FRESH co-curator José Navarrete, but it will be far from the first time that her work has tackled social justice issues. She and co-conspirator Ellen Sebastian Chang’s ongoing “House/Full of Black Women” project revolves around public action addressing issues that affect black women in the Bay Area, like sex trafficking and displacement.

“House/Full” has featured recurring public interventions during Oakland’s First Fridays, in which Tabor-Smith and other black performers process past the town’s new upscale restaurants and art fans wrapped in white lace, eliciting strong reactions. The walks feature the Afro-Futurist conjure-art inspired by the work of Ed Mock and Ana Mendieta for which Tabor-Smith has become known.

It would appear that not all audiences are ready to accept this kind of powerful black manifestation. “There was a range of folks who as we pass by say things that are derogatory — we were called niggers,” Tabor Smith remembered, recalling the reactions of First Friday crowds.

As a San Francisco native, she said she’s had to deal with this kind of bigotry all her life. Nonetheless, she sees the atmosphere as having gotten “heavier” since the Nov. 9 elections. “Yeah, welcome to the real Bay Area. People saying ‘oh, that’s black magic,’ and saying that in a derogatory way. People ignoring us when we were in their midst.” 

The rite of performance: another Amara Tabor Smith piece. Photo by Robbie Sweeny
The rite of performance: another compelling Amara Tabor Smith piece. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

The FRESH team conceived of this year’s “empathy and destruction” theme as an examination of variant methods of survival. “It’s an instigation and investigation into how to transform relationships,” said Hermesdorf.

She and co curators Abby Crain and Navarrete wanted to reflect the juxtaposition of getting loud and finding tenderness for fellow humans as ways of striking back at forces that would divide us. Their six month selection process for the festival — no applications are accepted — sought to pull in as much diversity as possible.

This focus on daily survival is a fitting backdrop for “BlackTIME,” which will work along similar themes as “Black Women Dreaming,” another upcoming “House/Full” performance that will feature 80 women sleeping on communal beds for seven days. 

“In an age when we have the technology to give us more time, we have less,” Tabor Smith said. “There’s a reason for that. Structures of oppression thrive on the illusion that we don’t have enough, but that ‘enough’ is just ahead if we run faster. We’re hamsters on a wheel, reaching for something we never get to. The deficit of time is one of the clearest manifestations.”

“Anyone who has a consciousness or mindfulness cannot allow the fatigue of living in a hyper-capitalist society stop us from doing the work,” she continued. “That’s what this kind of social structure depends on, that you’re tired and you have a level of privilege that makes it so that you can go ‘hmm, maybe I can just not do this because I’m tired.'”

Attempts to navigate the mindfield that 2016 has left for us should figure prominently on this year’s FRESH program. Over the course of three January weekends, artists like Xandra Ibarra, Sophia Wang, Keith Hennessy, and Hermesdorf will present multimedia performance pieces in the intimate Joe Goode Annex. 

“With what’s going on in politics, it’s given permission for so much racism and nationalism and xenophobia, especially against immigrants,” said Hermesdorf. “It just seems like the perfect fit now, empathy and destruction being two ways to break us out of our comfort zone.”

Mon/2-Jan. 22
Various SF locations
Tickets and more info here