The wildly pop-ular Pop-Up Magazine (Fri/20 in San Francisco, Sat/21 in Oakland) is a Bay Area wonder that’s grown to appear in cities all over the country. It’s also, as many hundreds of attendees can attest, not quite a magazine at all. Rather, it’s a wide-ranging, multimedia evening of storytelling, presentations, reportage, art, performance, and other hijinks—extremely well-curated: a live magazine, if you will. In the past, I’ve been brought to the edge of both tears and my seat at Pop-Up nights, and left humming a few good tunes (from “contributors” like the great Thao Nguyen and Kronos Quartet) to boot.
Now, the Pop-Up Magazine event is formally collaborating with an actual magazine, California Sunday, for the first time, and presenting its first ‘themed issue,’ called ‘Escape.’ Featuring Jordan Carlos (writer for HBO’s Divorce), poet Sarah Kay (founder of Project VOICE), musician Left at London, SF-based photographer Lucas Foglia, and more, it promises to expand upon the notion of getting away that’s taken hold of the culture—from corporate escape rooms and digital detoxes to not-so-sci-fi trans-humanism.
In advance of this week’s Bay Area Pop-Up events, I spoke with senior producer and co-host Aaron Edwards about how the theme came about, how contributors are selected, and what we can look forward to on a night “devoted to escapes big and small, daring and mundane, physical and mental.”
48 HILLS Hi, Aaron! This is the first themed Pop-Up Magazine—what made you decide to take on a theme this time around?
AARON EDWARDS Hey, there! So, this show was co-produced with The California Sunday Magazine. Pop-Up Magazine and California Sunday to me are like really tight but independent siblings—we share a family and an identity, but also do our own thing.
I’m based in New York, but in our San Francisco office the editors for both teams are always in the same room. Ideas flow naturally between them. And stories that end up in the magazine might also end up in the show, or vice versa.
After several years of growing alongside each other, it felt like the right time to dive into a full collaboration. A unifying theme for both entities was an ideal way to set the stage for intentional crossover. Anita Badejo and Raha Naddaf, the executive editors for Pop-Up and California Sunday respectively, came up with a theme that lent itself to a wide range of stories. And then we were off!
48H What inspired the “escape” theme, and how is it particularly relevant to our moment?
AE This feeling of wanting to escape from something or to somewhere is so core to life today. We’re approaching a major election and many of us would love to take a breath from the barrage of political discourse. As technology continues to usurp aspects of our lives, the impetus to break free of it grows stronger. Just think of the boom of apps created with the sole purpose of getting you to…stop using your apps. And when was the last time you went on a vacation that really felt like a vacation?
There’s truth and intensity to the ways people go about their escapes, either out of necessity or desire. There’s humor and sorrow in the ways people succeed or fail while in pursuit. And nestled within each of those emotions and driving factors is a story. The theme presented opportunities for a ton of angles. And in the context of a print/online publication and a live show, it satisfied needs for a mix of seriousness and levity that both teams value.
48H What was the process for choosing participants—was it different with a theme?
AE There’s a lot more focus when it comes to story selection and ideation with a theme. When I’m approaching people for Pop-Up, our conversations around ideas might begin with us talking about their personal interests and obsessions, and seeing if there are stories of any ilk buried in there.
This time around, as a producer, I wanted to make sure potential contributors were at least in the sandbox of the theme in our brainstorms, while also giving them free range to come back to me with unusual or off-beat ideas. Escape is a malleable theme because in so many ways a lot of good stories are about movement and getting out of one circumstance into the next.
Crafting this issue, and the ideas we landed on, felt like an exercise in intention. The word escape conjures some clear touchpoints for people. Going into this collaboration, we were constantly asking ourselves: How can we make a show and magazine that leans into that familiarity but also subverts it in delightful, challenging, and unexpected ways?
Jon Tracy says the first time he read Annie Baker’s play, The Flick, (which he is directing at Shotgun Players, through October 6) it felt like a piece of music to him.
“It’s like she scored each scene independently, but together it felt like it was creating this tapestry,” he said. “And each piece of music shows the inner workings of the characters and also how they work with each other and against each other.”
The Flick, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014, is about three movie theater employees. This may not be the usual set up for drama, but Tracy, who grew up in Vallejo, says connections weren’t always so easy to find when he was young and the interactions in the play felt deeply moving and personal to him.
“In this piece, there are three souls who didn’t get to seek out soul mates, but they find connections because there’s such great need,” he said. “There are these unlikely friendships. Everyone is a little broken and sometimes we figure out something in this fragile space and call it community, and with The Flick, that’s right on the page.”
The Flick—a three-hour play with plenty of pauses—has already extended its run here and garnered rave reviews. Tracy isn’t surprised by audience’s enthusiasm for a long play sprinkled with silences. And he has a response to the idea that you’re just watching movie theaters employees go about their jobs.
“It’s never about watching mopping,” he said. “You’re watching people coping and connecting or not connecting and everything is so inconceivably loaded. It’s not a guffaw comedy piece, but it’s comedy. One time someone told me the truest definition of comedy is to triumph over adversity. Here you’re watching individuals perceive an adversity and work in their skill sets to try to triumph over it.”
Watching The Flick, Tracy says we’re allowed to really sink in to the stories and the characters. Having the cast he does—Chris Ginesi, Justin Howard, Ari Rampy, and Rob Dario—allows that to happen, he says.
“This play grabs little moments of things you had no idea you needed to connect with,” he said. “And it can’t do it without the right actors who really deeply understand what experience they are giving the audience.”
The play shows how we all put on a persona, Tracy says.“We keep protecting this inner self,” he said. “There’s this maintenance of self and these actions of reaching out or defending, and the moment to moment chess game of that is what I think we call life.”
Adam Niemann has a monologue in Exit Strategy at the Aurora Theatre (Through September 29) that he “feels like going down on a ramp on a skateboard and gathering speed.”It’s this type of thing that makes Ike Holter’s play a joy to work on, he says.
“It’s great fodder for an actor,” Niemann says. “He has a way of using punctuation and certain verbal tics with a lot of repetition that immediately grabs you.”
Niemann plays a vice principal of a crumbling high school in Chicago on the verge of closing. In Exit Strategy, he, a group of teachers, and a student try to save the school.Tre’ Vonne Bell plays the student, Donny. He says he’s enjoying the challenge of creating a character so different than himself.
“I was a bit of a recluse in high school,” Bell says. “Donny is the most popular kid in school, and he’s tech savvy and an activist who can rile the crowd up. He has apersuasive way about him. I can safely say that was not me in high school.”
Bell, has appeared at productions at TheatreFirst, Golden Thread, and Custom Made, and was nominated for best actor in a leading role by Theatre Bay Area, feels thankful to Garcia. “I credit a lot of what I’m doing to him—he believed I could do it,” Bell says. “It’s surreal thinking you get paid for doing what you love to do.”
Bell says the cast (which includes the acclaimed Margo Hall) has a close relationship, and he likes talking about the play and about the role of teachers in society with them and the director, Josh Costello.He never thought of his teachers as real people when he was in high school, Bell says, but the play is making him realize how important they are.
Niemann teaches acting at different schools and his wife is an English teacher, so he knows first hand about the work teachers do.
“The level of commitment required is wild,” he says. “When the school day is over, you need to be planning for the next day and you need to be emotionally ready because you’re dealing with people all day long.”
Some members of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers have been offering feedback on elements of the play, like the contract negotiation process. This is part of Aurora’s new Community Partners Program. There will be discounted tickets for Berkeley teachers and a free student matinee performance for Berkeley High School students. To have input from people who know the subject so well is helpful, Niemann says.
“It’s helped clarify a lot of details,” he says. “It’s great that Aurora is reaching out more.”
His character, Ricky, is a vice principal, and Niemann thinks part of the reason the school is failing is due to Ricky’s inaction.
“Ike Holter has done a great job revealing the nuances of this guy,” he says. “He’s a figure of authority in a space where he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he’s not listening to people who are being affected. They’re offering solutions, and often he is not hearing them and not seeing them as real people.”
The play deals with the tension between the personal and the political, Niemann says, and he thinks Ricky can only see the personal.
“Everything is through the lens of how will this benefit me,” he says. “As a white person, the tricky thing about privilege and whiteness is not recognizing it. It’s a challenge I try and reflect on myself, and this character feels like someone absolutely not doing that work.”
Charo has always prided herself in her innate ability to entertain audiences—whether performing her inimitable disco dance hits “Stay With Me,” “Dance A Little Bit Closer,” and “Cuchi, Cuchi” in concert or appearing on TV shows like The Love Boat, The Tonight Show, and Dancing with the Stars.
But earlier this year, after her longtime husband, Swedish-born businessman Kjell Rasten, committed suicide, she had little left to give. Even getting out of bed and having simple interactions with friends and family was too challenging.
“The first weeks, I locked myself in my bedroom and couldn’t speak,” Charo told 48 Hills.
But once the Spanish entertainer (born María Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza) took to Instagram to share her painful story in a series of revealing posts, she realized just how many others are struggling with similar issues.
That’s when the queen of “cuchi, cuchi,” a flamenco guitar virtuoso credited with creating the bilingual salsa style that’s since been emulated by artists like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez, found her new calling as an advocate for those struggling with depression.
“After five weeks, I looked to my son, my sister, my family, and I said, ‘I gotta be strong and I want to choose life, and in that process make sure that some people can benefit from the catastrophe,’” she said.
The therapy worked both ways and Charo found that she healed as much from her fans’ supportive comments as they did from her confessional posts. The conversations that ensued over social media gave her the courage to get back to the studio and the stage.
Charo even developed an all-new touring show, simply titled Charo! (Fri/20 at the Herbst Theatre), a mix of celebratory dance music and more meditative Flamenco guitar numbers, which she’s eager to debut in San Francisco.
She shared her excitement about returning to The City by the Bay for the first time in over a decade with me—as well as the pain of losing her late husband and how performing helped her survive the devastating loss.
48 HILLSWhy are you excited to return to San Francisco?
CHARO San Francisco is like a lucky charm. The audience is caliente and has a great sense of humor and is also sophisticated enough to understand my type of show. Because of the sophistication and love from the audience, I am able to switch to another type of entertainment outside of “cuchi, cuchi” and play my guitar masterpieces.
It’s my first time back to the audience in a few months because in my personal life I have a tragedy. I was not ready to entertain audiences because I was not in the moment of happiness that you need to be in to go onstage and say, “Good evening, let’s have a good time. Let me entertain you.” But I’m healing fast with the music and really very much looking forward to seeing how this beautiful audience welcomes the new show.
48 HILLSWhat can you tell me about the great tragedy you endured last February?
CHARO My husband put a bullet through his brain and nobody will ever understand why. But I watched a very successful, handsome, and strong man becoming a victim of depression, created sometimes by medication and sometimes by depression and anxiety, after we found out he had a skin condition called bullous pemphigoid.
The only medication available is the anti-inflammatory steroid Prednisone. It’s necessary, but at the same time, there are many cases where in the long-term and especially in withdrawal, that it can provoke the intention to suicide.
48 HILLSHow did you survive the days just after he died?
CHARO Very bad. In my case, I was very young when I came to America, and kind of young when I met my husband. My life was so together with his—every minute of every hour—and life was very beautiful with him.
48 HILLSYou soon went public with your story with a heartfelt Instagram post and have since become an advocate for those suffering from depression.
CHARO Yes, depression can kill people, but we hide the depression because it’s taboo to talk about it. But when people talk, you can then help someone who was afraid to talk.
With the response from Instagram and the emails I got thanking me for going into the open about the problems in my family and being strong, I learned that there are many people right now thinking about suicide and, to my surprise, a lot of young teenagers. But I think that I helped a lot of people who were very young that were seriously considering terminating their lives.
So I continue to choose life and help people and remind them that life is beautiful. I’m healing myself by doing that.
48 HILLSDid music play a role in helping you to get through the pain?
CHARO Yes, my husband is the love of my life and that’s why I went to the studio and played “Besame Mucho” on the guitar for him. I played my lead guitar in one hand and in another, I accompanied myself with Bossa Nova [on the classical guitar]. It’s just playing a beautiful, romantic song from my heart.
But I will never talk about it from the stage. That’s why I took six months to heal and come back to what I really love—music. Music saved me, and when they see me in San Francisco, they’ll see someone who’s celebrating life.
48 HILLSYou’ve done so much in your career. What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of?
CHARO Let me take you back in the time machine to when I first came to America and the William Morris Agency president, Norman Brokaw said, “You cannot only have one name. No one in show business has only one name.” I said, “That’s my name and if you don’t want to use it, I don’t care.” Now, everybody does it, and I’m still having so much fun with just one. That also gave me the confidence to say I want to sing in Spanish and English.
I’m also gonna take you to 1979 when I was the first one to bring [the bilingual salsa style] with the song “Dance a Little Bit Closer” and then went a little further when I took a chance with a song called “Borriquito,” which broke records all over.
48 HILLSWhat’s the most valuable lesson you learned in your career?
CHAROIn the beginning, money was very important, so my family can survive. But I learned many years ago that money isn’t very important. The day that I said, “cuchi, cuchi,” it was fun. But the day that I said, “I want to play the guitar,” they said, “Your image is going to be destroyed, because ‘cuchi, cuchi’ is what you’re selling.” I said, “No, the guitar is my passion.”
They were wrong and I showed them that there was an audience that accepted the other person. But that’s what I do. I want to do my best and keep it going. So what I learned early on is that the best thing I can do is be myself.
LISA GEDULDIG & KUNG PAO KOSHER COMEDY™ PRESENT…CHARO! Fri/20, 8pm, $50-$100 Herbst Theatre, SF More info here.
ONSTAGE It is the waning days of the Mughal Empire. The Emperor’s rebellious son is leading an uprising. Famine stalks the land.
But you would never know any of this disaster from inside the walls of the House of Joy, the heavily guarded home of the Emperor’s harem. There, food and luxuries are plentiful. Women are robed in lavish silks and jewels. No one, not even the servant girls, go hungry.
This is the world depicted in Madhuri Shekar’s new play, House of Joy(through September 1), which is having its world premiere at the California Shakespeare Theatre. Cal Shakes Artistic Director Eric Ting discovered the play at the 2018 Bay Area Playwrights Festival and immediately scheduled it as part of the theater’s New Classic Initiative.
Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian, who has previously collaborated with Shekar, explains in the program notes, “The title of the play is to be taken literally, there is a lot of joy in it.”
But from the very first scene, we learn that beneath the glitter and opulence, all is not joyous. Chief Queen Mariyam (Rinabeth Apostol), disguised as a servant girl, is attempting to escape with her young son in the dead of night. When she is discovered by two palace guards, Hamida (Emma Van Lare) and Roshni (Sango Tajima) Mariyam faces severe punishment if reported. Roshni is ready to turn her in. The big-hearted Hamida is more reluctant to subject her to a brutal penalty.
When Mariyam realizes she is trapped, she quickly pivots from desperate escapee to domineering ruler. Apostol plays her “Chief Queen card” with great aplomb and authority. After all, she is the sovereign who holds the fate of these palace guards, mere servants, in her hands.
They let her go, but she is caught again, this time by the Emperor’s sister Princess Noorah (Lipica Shah), a woman who cannot and will not be intimidated.
From there, the palace intrigue unfolds. Those who think they know all that goes on behind the walls, like Noorah and the eunuch Salima (the magnetic Rotimi Agbabiaka) are cleverly tricked by underlings. False rumors spread. Escape plans are hatched and then abandoned. Loyalties are tested. Secrets are shared.
As the nature of the harem is revealed, each character—royal and servant alike—has to make a choice: whether to stay in the gilded cage, with all the security it promises, or to opt for freedom in an uncertain outside world. Mariyam has already made her choice. Noorah, Salima and the commander of the guards Gulal (Nandita Shenoy) seem determined to stay and uphold the Empire, despite the death and deception required to do so.
Hamida wrestles with her decision. As she tries to figure out the right thing to do, she attempts to enlist support from her confidante Roshni and her new crush, the palace doctor Thermometer (Raji Ahsan). Director Sandberg-Zakian writes that Hamida’s dilemma reminds us that we have a choice: “We can feel despair as the forces of history work around us or we can ask ourselves, as Hamida does, what kind of human do I want to be in the middle of this?”
Shekar’s exploration of the harem is complex: though it was an inherently oppressive institution, it also cultivated the prowess of women, especially as formidable fighters and guards, since no men (except the emasculated eunuchs) were allowed inside the walls. Even the male doctor had to “examine” his patient the Chief Queen from behind a screen, without touching or seeing her.
House of Joy imagines the lives thousands of women with a wide variety of skills who were forcibly enslaved from Africa, Japan, India, the Philippines, and Mongolia. The playwright draws on the medieval text of The Jahangirnama, which describes a harem of 15,000 women maintained by a Sultan in central India in a site he called “City of Joy.” Among them were hundreds who became experts in wrestling, archery and the art of warfare.
“House of Joy is set in a time and place that is very different from our own,” Shekar writes. “But history repeats itself, and these characters face the same challenges, fears, and dangers that we experience here and now. But much like Hamida and her friends, I refuse to give up hope and the possibility that things will change.”
The elaborate costumes by Oona Botez are worn with elegance and ease by the actors as if they were their every day clothes. Especially effective is the bejeweled silk outfit worn with great delight by the imperious eunuch Salima, accessorized with sparkling gold eyelashes and fingernails. When Hamida falls at his feet to beg his understanding, he pushes her away. “You’ll rumple the silk,” he chastises.
The set by scenic designer Lawrence E. Moten III is spare, but evocative. Two huge brass doors are framed by a latticework wall of Asian symbols, which also conveniently serves as a ladder for the descent and ascent of the palace guards. Four thin poles become a dungeon cell, when accompanied by the clanging of doors and the jangling of keys. This is just one of the brilliant uses of sound by music and sound designer Arshan Gailus.
The combat scenes with the elite palace guard are especially engaging, drawing on rarely seen Indian martial arts, which are among the oldest in the world. Van Lare, Tajima, and Shenoy, who trained for months with resident Fight Choreographer Dave Maier, are both fierce and graceful.
The first fight scene is a staged contest between Hamida and Roshni, using long, slender poles. The winner gets to choose her guard shift—but only for one night. Roshni later instructs Hamida in rougher street fighting techniques that she learned just to survive on the “outside” when she and her sister were starving. Later, both methods serve Hamida, when she battles her commander Gulal in the sewers beneath the palace—and the stakes are much higher. It is a fight to the death.
Though the physical combat on stage is intense, Shekar urges us to look at deeper sources of strength. She writes, “As we fight for a better world, let’s hold our joy and love and anger close, because they are the best weapons we have.”
ONSTAGE For the past three and a half years, Drunk Drag Broadway has been bringing its original parodies of memorable Great White Way musicals to SF Oasis.
Starting with “Wicked-ish” in 2016, the local live-singing drag theater troupe has gone on to earn a quarterly spot on the Oasis schedule on the strength of its successful productions of “HairSprayed!,” “Greased,” “MAnnie,” “Little Shop of Whores,” “Beauty is a Beast,” and “Gays and Dolls.”
The performance troupe’s “Drunk Drag Dizney on Broadway” (opening Thu/15 at SF Oasis) extravaganza, which returns to Oasis this week, is told in two acts, beginning with an all-new Princess Party Cabaret, written by and starring drag Miss Star Search 2019, Snaxx. In the show, Alice in Wonderland (Snaxx) invites popular Disney princesses Belle, Cinderella, Snow White, Megara, and Elsa, all played by drag queens, to her birthday party in SOMA, where things go off the rails quickly.
Then the second act, adapted and directed by Drunk Drag Broadway’s founder and creative director Jimmy Moore (also known as Chyna Maykit), is a raucous parody mashup of popular Disney on Broadway musicals, The Lion King, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid. Featuring Maykit and Peggy L’eggs as narrators, the cast is rounded out by a slew of drag performers acting the story out, lip-syncing the dialogue, and singing the songs live.
It’s important to note that in these performances drag is used not only to enhance the existing gaiety of Broadway musicals and, in the case of the current show, Disney stories, but also to critique their racist, sexist, and homophobic plotlines and characterizations.
Disney characters have historically been straight and, if human, mostly white. Heroes have traditionally been men, and women have mostly been relegated to supporting roles. Villains are typically portrayed with affected gay mannerisms. King Candy (Wreck-It Ralph), Jafar (Aladdin), Governor Ratcliffe (Pocahontas), Hades (Hercules), Scar (The Lion King), and Shere Khan (The Jungle Book) are just a few of these.
While Disney has made strides toward inclusivity—Oaken’s “coming out” scene in Frozen, Disney’s first gay kiss in animated kids’ series Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and the announcement that Ariel would be played by a black actress in the new live-action remake of The Little Mermaid…. Progress has been slow.
As Moore prepared for this week’s return of “Drunk Drag Dizney” on Broadway (opening Thu/15 at SF Oasis), he spoke to 48 Hills about the original inspiration behind his shows, why musicals are ripe for drag parody, and about using his platform as a performer to chip away at all the racism, misogyny, and homophobia in traditional Disney stories.
48 HILLSHow did you come up with the idea for Drunk Drag Broadway?
JIMMY MOORE I saw Shoshana Bean, who would serendipitously become a friend years later, on YouTube do Drunk Wicked, a Drunk History version of Broadway’s Wicked. She told the story and others in cheap costumes lip-synced to her drunk dialogue. I thought this would be the perfect kind of material for drag parody.
Also, I absolutely love the art and social commentary of drag and I am a huge fan of live-singing theater, so I really wanted to bring them together more. Many drag performers sing live, but lip-syncing is the standard. I mentioned the idea to a few people and they lit up, so I pitched it to [Oasis owners] Heklina and D’Arcy Drollinger and they gave us the space to try it out.
Since then we’ve grown into a two-week run every quarter at Oasis and we have a budget, so we can pay all of our performers and techs.
48 HILLSWhat makes Disney musicals ripe for the Drunk Drag Broadway treatment?
JIMMY MOORE I am not far from the little gay boy in me who grew up in Disney’s renaissance in the ‘80s and ‘90s who wore out his VHS copy of The Little Mermaid, so I thought it would be fun to mash up the hero’s journey we often see in these types of shows and in Drunk Drag Broadway-style lovingly point at the flaws in the fairytales, such as Ariel’s trade for a man.
So, in this case, we merged elements of The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin among a few other nods for a celebration and takedown.
48 HILLSDisney, many would argue, has been historically homophobic toward the gay community. What are your thoughts on this and how did that play into your decision to focus on Disney musicals in this show?
JIMMY MOORE It’s funny because it depends on who you ask. Some people think Disney is too gay and others find it homophobic. Both can be true simultaneously. What we do is drag parody. That gives us room for commenting on both aspects, as well as misogyny, racism, and other social injustices.
I always say our show is perfect for people who love Disney and Broadway and for people who hate them. We are somehow balancing celebrating the things we love and taking a funny look at the issues within while putting our own queer spin on the characters and plots.
For example, Simba’s journey to adulthood includes a stop at Burning Man for enlightenment, and instead of chasing a man, Ariel has a different dream, Oh, and Aladdin, he definitely wants a palace, but it’s for a whole different reason. I will also say that we did cast a white performer as Ariel despite the fact that everyone knows that Ariel is Black.
48 HILLSWith so much drag out there, from traditional shows to theatre to concerts to now story hours, tell me how you keep your event singular.
JIMMY MOORE It is such a flexible art form. From the campy to the glam and grotesque, drag is the medium, not the product. There is always room for more art.
We’ve built a following over the last three years and have continued to improve and raise our production value and talent. We are currently expanding in Atlanta with a former company member and have taken the show to Guerneville for Lazy Bear Weekend. Who knows where we’ll go next?
48 HILLSSpeaking of Drag Queen Story Hours, what are your thoughts on all the recent controversy swirling around them?
JIMMY MOORE I think [Drag Queen Story Hours] are awesome! We could learn a lot about acceptance from young children. They don’t reject differences. They learn to do that. As for the controversy, it’s deeply rooted in all of our bigger social problems that we are chipping away one gender joke at a time.
If you have a platform or a voice that can be heard, I believe you have to use it for good, and that is what we are doing.
DRUNK DRAG DIZNEY ON BROADWAY Thu/15-Sat/17 and Thu/22-Sat/24 7pm, $25-$50 SF Oasis, SF More info here.
ONSTAGE Bay Area writer-performer Dan Hoyle, with his smart and poignant brand of journalistic theater, is at it again with his latest solo show, Border People (extended through August 30 at the Marsh). The 75-minute piece takes us on a journey into the lives of 11 characters who are straddling borders of culture, geography, and socio-economic class.
The characters in the show, all played by Hoyle, tell stories about the borders they’ve crossed, willingly or unwillingly, throughout their lives. The characters include an African American Navy vet who owns a food cart in Manhattan and tries to appease both white and Black communities by dressing in business casual while rocking Jordans; a deported HIV+ Mexican man who must choose between a dangerous attempt to get back to the US or dying closeted in Mexico; a temporarily US-situated teenager from Kabul who reflects on how the sunrise after his American high school prom reminds him of a sunrise the morning after he lived through a bombing in Afghanistan; and a gay, pagan farmer who lives off the land without electricity in Southern Arizona and occasionally helps Mexican migrants survive the border-crossing journey.
In a plain t-shirt and a pair of jeans, Hoyle fluidly morphs from one character to the next, sometimes speaking Spanish, other times taking on a strong accent or dialect, the portrayals so authentic that he seems to be channeling his characters rather than performing at all. In part, that’s because the characters aren’t fictional—they’re based on people he’s met in his travels; in part, it’s because, when it comes to performing, he’s simply that good.
Border People is Hoyle’s sixth solo show that’s premiered at the Marsh Theater, all of which have been based on live interviews he’s done with people from all walks of life. While he calls his work journalistic theater, it goes beyond both journalism and theater. He’s not simply telling people’s stories; he’s creating cross-cultural connection in a disconnected world, and asking us to do the same. I spoke with Hoyle, 39, to talk about his latest show, his life’s work to date, and his own experience with crossing borders.
KAREN MACKLIN You were introduced to theater at a young age through your dad, Geoff Hoyle, who is a prominent Bay Area actor. Is theater what got you interested in cross-cultural exploration?
DAN HOYLE Actually, it was growing up in the city and taking buses. We lived in Portrero Hill, so we’d take the 48—by the end of the ride, we’d be the only white kids in the back of the bus. Or when I would go to the park and play pick-up basketball. That’s the great thing about growing up in a city. Before you even know what’s happening, you’re all doing ethnographic research. You’re making friends and figuring out how not to piss each other off on the basketball court. I’ve always been more comfortable in environments where everyone didn’t all look like me.
KM So you decided to make theater out of your experiences?
DH When I was at school at Northwestern, doing straight theater didn’t seem as interesting to me as the theater of the street that I was locking into at the time. Northwestern is in Evanston, which is a suburb, and I missed city life. So I would take the train to Chicago at night and get off at some random stop and just kind of talk to people. It was my way to feel connected to something beyond the bubble that is any college campus.
KM Is that when you started creating the kind of solo shows that you do today?
DH Yeah. On Howard Street in Chicago, there was this basketball court I would go to play on, and I was the only white guy. At first, people would call me Dan Aykroyd and Wayne Gretzky, super generic white guy names. But then once I proved myself as a player, I started to get called The Professor. The guys were really cool and I ended up hanging out there a ton. That experience turned into my first performance. It was a 20-minute performance piece called Stuck Up: Hoops on Howard. “Stuck up” is slang for the ball getting stolen. That show was a big step for me. After that, came Circumnavigator, which was based on a trip I took around the world, and then Tings Dey Happen, which I developed after getting a Fulbright to live in the oil delta of Nigeria for a year.
KM It seems you’ve made a life out of intentionally placing yourself in situations where the culture, language, or societal norms are different from the ones you were brought up in. What’s important to you about having that experience? Does it feel like a spiritual calling, in some way?
DH I’m not really religious, but the longer I do it, there is a spiritual dimension to it. There’s something profound about the way I’ve been able to connect with people from massively different backgrounds on a really intimate level, and I want to encourage other people to do that. I think getting out of your comfort zone is one of the treats of being a human being. I’ve been doing it professionally for almost 20 years now. Also, I know everyone can’t just go out and do this, so I’m happy to give people that experience through my theater pieces.
Audience members often tell me they are moved to reach out in their own communities, or dive deeper into social justice or social service work, from seeing my shows. During one run of Each And Every Thing, we raised $3,000 in post-show audience donations to help a guy featured in the play to get secure housing and pursue his career in stand-up comedy. So that’s the point. To expand the empathy within us.
KM As a white guy portraying folks from all ethnic backgrounds in your shows, do you ever feel concerned about misrepresenting a culture or offending someone unintentionally?
DH As a white guy, I have a choice. Only portray my type, or portray a very diverse group of folks I’ve met. To me, the more interesting and inclusive answer is the latter. In order to do that well, you have to really do the research, you have to put in the time. It’s a real honor and it’s ethically complex to do this work, and I work hard to do it right. This involves being very transparent about what I’m doing with the communities and people I interact with, getting their permission to tell their stories, and developing relationships that often continue past the process of creating the show.
There’s a lot of conversation right now about cultural appropriation and I think that dialogue is important. And this type of work certainly can be done poorly and be a problem. But I do sometimes fear that people are so worried that they can’t understand each other’s experience that we don’t even try to understand each other’s experience. To me that’s not progressive. It’s a political and cultural tribalism that is happening on both the right and the left. I don’t think it’s healthy and it’s just not true to my experience. I hope my work shows that there’s another way to have cross-cultural interactions that are interesting and dynamic, and have value.
KM How do people react to your wanting to tell their stories on stage?
DH They’re often very excited. They feel pride and dignity in having their lives, which are often overlooked or ignored by our culture, held up onstage and acknowledged and celebrated as being meaningful. Several of the people whose stories I tell have been inspired to write their own story. An ex-militant in Nigeria, who is now a close friend, wrote his autobiography after seeing my show Tings Dey Happen in Nigeria.
KM Do you consider your work political?
DH Obviously, everything about what I do is tied up in political, socio-economic, and cultural questions. But it’s also about the humanity. I try to portray people in all their complexity. Like in Border People, one minute I’m talking to an older Black guy in the Bronx about police-involved shootings and the legacy of racism in America, and it’s super intense. Then the next moment, he’s laughing, saying he’s gotta go because his wife wants to get a fourth Teacup Yorkie. You don’t always see that in political theater. The complexity, the messiness.
KM Your last show, Each and Every Thing, asked timely questions about whether technology is robbing us of human connection. And your show before that, Real Americans, took us through the heartland of our country to better understand the diversity of views and opinions during political upheaval in the US. What inspired Border People?
DH I was an artist in residence at Columbia University between 2016-2017. Basically the charge was to create a new solo show. Then Trump got elected on my son’s first birthday. We’d hung up a happy birthday banner on the TV and it was still there as the votes were coming in later that night. I felt like I had to respond to this new reality.
KM Were you concerned about his immigration policies with Mexico?
Yes, but also all of the borders people cross every day in our country. First, I met Jarrett, the Navy vet who grew up in upper middle-class New Jersey and now lives in the projects. He was talking about the way he has to code switch by wearing khakis and Jordans. Then I read about the refugee safehouses on the Northern border of the US and learned that’s where people who were scared about their status were going, to try to flee to Canada, now that Trump was elected.
And I had been hanging out in the Andrew Jackson projects in the Bronx for a couple of years, too, and thought of that as another border because most people who aren’t from the projects don’t go into the projects. My exploration of the Southern border was last. I have a lot of love for all of the characters. They’re interesting, funny, and surprising. And I feel like I’m a border person, too, a culture border crosser.
KM You were born and raised in San Francisco. Do you feel like your work has been influenced by the city, itself?
DH As a kid, it was all mixed up here. I remember from a young age people would talk about their ethnicities. I had friends who were Mexican, Black and German, or Filipino and Irish. There was a strength and an honesty about it. San Francisco is a way different city today. I live in Oakland now and it feels more like San Francisco did in the ‘80s and ‘90s when I grew up, and I’m glad my son is going to experience that. But yes, there’s a kind of a fearlessness in the Bay, a hybridity and cross pollination of cultures that has always existed in a very organic way, and has always been understood as part of the culture. That’s huge and intrinsic to my work.
KM How has your work—and the stories of people you’ve met—affected you?
DH I carry all of these stories with me. I think about my friend See Know on the South Side of Chicago every day. I think about Okosi in Nigeria, about my Vietnamese translators in Vietnam, about the coal miners in Kentucky. After 20 years of doing this, all I know is that the only way to move through the world is to be more curious, open, and empathetic with everyone you meet.
ONSTAGEIsn’t trampling other people exhausting work? The vein on your forehead bulges from the strain of being greedy.
This is the question that Shen Te, a prostitute with a heart of gold, poses when confronting evil in Bertold Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan(at Cal Shakes through July 21).
But she has also shown us how exhausting it is to be good.
“What does it mean to be a good person?” is the central question of this play.If you have any doubts about that, the backdrop ofMichael Locher’s set, will dispel them: Huge letters outlined in electric lights spell “G-O-O-D.”At key moments, the lights blink, sometimes they flash, sometimes they go dark, leaving us with “O” or “G-O-D.”
The question is as timely now as it was when Brecht first wrote the play, as an exile from Nazi Germany.
This is the first time that a Brecht play has been produced at Cal Shakes, and if Brecht was bold to write it in 1943, Artistic Director Eric Ting is equally as bold in putting it on a 21st Century stage, which is not always welcoming to agit-prop theater.
Yet after seven decades, Brecht’s play, translated by Wendy Arons and adapted by Tony Kushner, is surprising, at times uproarious, and always riveting, even as the underlying question nags at your conscience.
The play opens with Wang the water-seller (Lance Gardner) frantically seeking lodging for a trio of gods (Phil Wong, Lily Tung Crystal and Monica Ho) who have traveled to a remote, poverty-stricken town in the province of Szechwan.Wang knows they are gods because “They’re well-fed, they don’t look like they do any work, and their shoes are dusty which means they come from far away.” All the residents ignore or refuse his plea, except for the indigent but generous Shen Te (the versatile and engaging Francesca Fernandez McKenzie).She even forfeits a paying customer so the gods can sleep in her tumble-down shack on the edge of town.
The gods reward her goodness with a sack of silver dollars—but instead of ending her troubles, their money catapults her into a sea of new ones.She purchases a tobacco shop, and is soon besieged by those who demand she share her good fortune: creditors, former landlords, and freeloaders of all sorts, with huge families in tow.
Dubbed the “Angel of the Outskirts,” Shen Te tries to provide for them all, but the destitute conditions of the town impose a harsh reality.Her funds run out and her little space is jammed. No matter how good she is, she cannot overcome the demands of the world around her.“How can I stay good when everything is so expensive,” she laments. “The little life raft is instantly pulled under. Too many drowning people, greedy, grab hold.”
As she struggles to be good, she falls in love with an out-of-work pilot, Yang Sun (Armando McClain) and Shu Fu, a wealthy, well-fed barber (a perfectly pompous Phil Wong) falls in love with her.
Shen Te attempts to solve her dilemma by impersonating her stern cousin Shui Ta, who is as heartless as Shen Te is kind. His way of offering the poor and hungry a better life is to force them into backbreaking work in his factory.
Ting has assembled a star-studded creative team.The cast includes Bay Area favorites playing multiple roles: Margo Hall is both a compassionate neighbor and the manipulative mother of the pilot, Dean Linnard is hilarious as the earnest but bumbling policeman, and J Jha moves easily between roles as a bossy neighborhood busybody and an addled grandfather.
Other versatile cast members include Anthony Fusco, Sharon Shao, Victor Talmadge, and Lily Tung Crystal, the founding director of the Lotus Theatre Company. They all sing and dance, and many play instruments as well.
The original score by Min Kahng uses both Chinese and Western instruments, and the musical numbers range from hip-hop to heroic anthems where dancers strike frozen revolutionary poses, reminiscent of Chinese opera during the Mao period.
As dramaturge Phiippa Kelly explained in a pre-performance talk (talks are held each night and are well worth attending), Brecht, although he had never been to China, was influenced by the style of Peking Opera.
The innovative playwright was drawn to the way that characters directly addressed the audience, not via soliloquy as in Shakespeare, but by facing them and posing difficult questions.And though he was in exile in Hollywood when he wrote this play, Brecht’s style was in stark contrast to the naturalism of American theater of the time—think O’Neill, Miller and Williams.
Using stylized gestures, dance, and mime, Brecht wanted to arrest the audience’s attention. One especially moving scene is all in mime, as Shen Te imagines the child she is carrying as a young boy playing in the field, picking cherries, and hiding from the police. Particularly poignant lines or aphorisms, are marked with a gong.
Brecht is known as the inspiration for American agit-prop theater—from El Teatro Campesino to the San Francisco Mime Troupe—and this production shows why. As Ting notes, “In Kushner’s extraordinary hands, Brecht’s exploration of human decency becomes something delightful, something contemporary, something deeply searching and deeply human.”
Though neither Brecht nor Ting provide the definitive answer of what it takes to be a “good” person in troubled times, their work answers the question what it takes to be a gutsy one.
ONSTAGE In 2014, playwright Carol Lashof and director Elizabeth Vega wanted to put on a play, Just Deserts, that Lashof had written.
“We connected because of unusual commonality of interests – a love of classical literature and drama, and we’re both inveterate feminists who love great stories,” Lashof said. “We were frustrated trying to get our stories made, so rather than rant and rave we started making our own theater.”
The play was about the trial by jury system from the point of view of the Furies and was based on Aeschylus’s Oresteia. They produced it for the St Mary’s College Great Books Program and ended up starting their own company, Those Women Productions.
The company is dedicated to exploring issues of gender and power, and previous productions include Unquestioned Integrity: the Hill-Thomas Hearings, Shifting Spaces, and The Lady Scribblers. Their most recent play, Witch Hunt(Fri/12-August 4 at La Val’s), opens this month.
Several years ago, Lashof started reading about the Salem witch trials, which took place in colonial Massachusetts in 1692 to 1693. Nineteen people were executed and more than 150 imprisoned. Tituba was a key figure in the panic, enslaved in the house of minister Samuel Parris, and one of the first to be accused of witchcraft.
“The main thing I thought I knew came from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. One of his characters is a real historical character, Abigail Williams, and he portrays her as a 17-year-old tramp. In fact, she was an 11-year-old girl,” Lashof said. “I came across a book about Tituba [Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasiesby Elaine Breslaw], who was widely portrayed as African and a practitioner of witchcraft, but scholars research strongly suggest she was a South American Indian woman kidnapped as a girl by English traders and enslaved in Barbados.”
Lashof says that her reading of history totally contradicted the view she and most people she knew had about the witch trials.
“Myself and my friends were seeing it as a result of the repressed sexuality of teenage girls frustrated and fooling around in the woods,” Lashof said, referring to Miller’s play that has the girls and Tituba dancing naked in the woods. “I did think there were records of people practicing voodoo and girls running around naked in the woods. But it was one of most bitter winters in history, and the arrests started in February. Believe me, nobody was taking off their clothes and running around.”
“In Northern New England there were ongoing Indian wars, and she was absolutely convinced that the witch trials had a lot more to do with fear of Indians than a fear of sex,” Lashof said. “The more I read the deeper I got into this complex web of causes and it was hard to figure out how to write a play about it.”
Vega and Norman Johnson, an associate artist with the company and the dramaturg on Witch Hunt, encouraged Lashof to try. When she started, she was pulling from primary sources like the transcripts of the trial and the Parris’ notebooks, but eventually she dropped that idea and began to make up scenes. Johnson and Vega thought she should introduce the character of Tituba, who historical records say was a great storyteller, early on in the play.
There are a couple reasons Witch Hunt has resonance now, Lashof thinks.
“One obvious superficial thing is we keep talking about witch hunts, and every time I pick up the paper, the president is complaining about witch hunts, and we’re arguing about whose truths get to be heard,” Lashof said. “Then in a deeper way the United States government and some people living here are demonizing folks they think don’t belong. Tituba, even though she’d been Christianized and assimilated, would never be accepted into Christian culture and there are clear parallels to what’s happening now with immigrants.”
ONSTAGE Coming in at number eight on “New York Magazine”’s “The Most Powerful Drag Queens in America” list meant next to nothing to Bob the Drag Queen.
“It didn’t mean a whole lot, to be honest,” said the RuPaul’s Drag Race season 8 winner and current host of MTV’s web series “Drag My Dad.” “I wasn’t like ‘Wow, I’m so honored that this random group of people value me. You really can’t base your worth as an artist off how much people like you. You can base the worth of your tickets on that, but not your worth as an artist.”
This life lesson was one that Torrance Shipman, the insecure, validation-hungry cheerleading captain character, in the 2000 film classic Bring It On, had to learn the hard way.
In the campy comedy, the newly promoted “cheer leader” (played by Kirsten Dunst) must learn to believe in herself as she grapples with a squad and a boyfriend who doubt her every move as well as the knowledge that her predecessor has been lifting their winning routines from a competing inner city school team, led by Isis (Gabrielle Union).
A longtime fan of the movie, Bob the Drag Queen, who was most recently seen in the 2018 Berkeley Repertory performance of Angels In America and on Netflix’s Tales Of The City, will next be seen opposite “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” season 4 winner Monét X Change and San Francisco scream queen Peaches Christ in the premiere of “Bring It On, Queen” (Sat/13 at Castro Theatre, 4pm and 8pm).
In Christ’s live, dance-heavy musical film parody, Bob and Monét play captains of two rival drag queen cheer squads competing for a national championship trophy.
I spoke to Bob the Drag Queen and Peaches Christ about the enduring appeal of “Bring It On,” the story’s socio-political relevance in 2019, and why it’s perfectly ripe for the Peaches Christ treatment.
48 HILLSWhat do you love about “Bring It On”?
BOB THE DRAG QUEENBring It On is my Mean Girls. You know how people love Mean Girls? For me, that’s Bring It On. I love the campiness of it. It’s very much of that era, with the long opening credits, kinda like Legally Blonde, and it was really great to see all the talent in the movie, like the singing group Blaque. They were so big at the time, especially in Atlanta where I was from.
It also cracked me up, the real-life age difference between Gabrielle Union and Kirsten Dunst. Kirsten looks 18 and Gabrielle looks 28.
PEACHES CHRISTBring It On is one of those teen movies that came out long after I was a teenager that I enjoyed from the first time I saw it. I think the film is really well-written, very funny, and it was a fresh look at the teen genre film when it was released, which is why I think kids embraced it so much.
One of the most refreshing parts of the film is that it’s one of the first teen movies to feature a lead that’s not white, as well as an openly gay character who’s not presented as a joke.
48 HILLSWhat makes it an LGBTQ classic?
PEACHES CHRIST I think for a certain generation of people it is indeed an LGBTQ classic because of the unapologetic queerness that’s presented in the film as well as the message of “doing better.” And besides that, it’s a film about cheerleading! That alone makes it of special interest to loads of queer folks.
BOB THE DRAG QUEEN Yes, it’s cheering and it’s got boy cheerleaders, great music, campiness, bitchiness—a lot of really fun elements to it.
48 HILLSIt seems so perfect for the Peaches Christ treatment.
PEACHES CHRIST I think that if there’s a cult audience out there that loves a movie and really knows all the lines and can sing along to the opening cheer, it’s ripe for the Peaches Christ treatment. I rely on fans of the movie and fans of drag to come and celebrate this film they love so much. And people have been asking me to do Bring It On for years.
48 HILLSOutside of making the characters drag queens, how did you make the story your own?
PEACHES CHRIST I’d say the biggest change I made was that I added a bit of storyline about the East Compton Purses (not Clovers) that’s not in the original film. I wanted to showcase their team equally with the rival team, The Sponges. I think the audience will appreciate some of the additions we’ve made to flesh out their journey to get to Nationals.
48 HILLSBring It On is chock-full of memorable catchphrases. Which are your favorites?
BOB THE DRAG QUEEN I have so many. I really like the cheer: “Awesome! Oh wow! Like totally freak me out. I mean right on!” I also like when she says, “I transferred from Los Angeles. Your school has no gymnastics team. This is a last resort.” That always pops out in my mind. That whole scene has great lines, like “You’re a cheer-tator, Torrance, and a pain in my ass!”
PEACHES CHRIST I love the line “This is not a democracy, it’s a cheerocracy.” And, of course, the “Oh, I’ll bring it. Don’t worry,” with the reply “I never do.”
48 HILLSSilliness aside, the fact that a white team is stealing routines from a Black team in the story adds a socio-political relevance to the story.
BOB THE DRAG QUEEN The idea of people coming into more maligned cultures and lifting what they want and then kinda leaving and going back to the comforts of their culture is certainly a story that’s still relevant today. It’s something that I’ve experienced not only as a black person but also as a queer person.
PEACHES CHRIST We’ve talked a lot about that as far as the casting of this show goes, which is why I think it might be addressed a bit more overtly in our show. Monét is playing the newly nominated Black cheer captain of an upper-middle-class mostly white high school who doesn’t know that the former cheer captain was stealing routines. Of course, when she finds out, she’s able to articulate how fucked up it is, but she’s also seen as a traitor by the other school.
48 HILLSWhat keeps “Bring It On” relevant in 2019?
PEACHES CHRIST I think the biggest thing is that it’s still a very funny and entertaining movie and the fact that the underlying message about appropriation continues to make it relevant.
BRING IT ON, QUEEN Sat/13, 4pm & 8pm, $20-$140 Castro Theatre, SF More info here.