Bringing up daddy – and local nightlife history – in ‘Latin Standards’

Marga Gomez looks back at her family history -- and her own -- in 'Latin Standards.' Photo by Fabian Echevarria

ONSTAGE Marga Gomez has been one of San Francisco’s most beloved comedians since her time in legendary ’80s Latino performance ensemble Culture Clash — right through to her “Best Comedian” win in the 2017 Best of the Bay. (She’s also been seen all over big and small screens, from HBO to Batman Forever.)

Her lastest solo show, Latin Standards at the Brava Theater’s new Cabaret Center (Thu/11-January 28), goes beyond its “recuerdos of yesteryear” title, taking a nostalgic trip through Gomez’s family history to trace her dad’s career and personal path toward becoming a successful Cuban entertainer in the US — and bringing up parallels in Gomez’s own on- and offstage journey. It’s also a sharp-eyed view of the effects of  San Francisco gentrification, especially on comedy and nightlife (RIP Esta Noche and Josie’s Cabaret), and the ongoing challenges of being Latinx in the entertainment business.

The show was workshopped here in 2016 and then went on to win raves in New York, as a “loving, funny tribute” and “an engrossing portrait.” Now its back, through January, to inaugurate the Brava’s new cabaret space. I talked to Gomez about Fonomimicos, tip jars, stolen jokes, and more.      

48 HILLSThe show is partly about being “a ballsy adult child” of your father, a Cuban entertainer. Can you tell me a little bit about him?

MARGA GOMEZ My dad, his stage name Willie Chevalier, was born in Guanabacoa, Cuba. I’m not too sure about his childhood. But my guess is that his family wasn’t rich. Because he was super thrifty and would freak out when I’d drink half my milk and pour the rest down the sink.

He started performing when at age 17, in the pre-Fidel cabarets of Havana. Back then he was a “Fonomimico” — meaning he lipsynched to popular Spanish songs and made them funny, but in guy clothes. Unimaginable! He also told jokes, probably half stolen.

One night a talent scout from Johnny Walker scotch “discovered” him and bought him a one-way ticket to NYC. My dad promptly divorced his wife, who was also a teenager, and flew to New York. Two marriages later I was born in Manhattan and dad was an established comedian, powerful producer of Spanish language variety shows, and closet songwriter.

This story is framed around his three songs that made the Latino Billboard charts. But “Latin Standards” has other meanings, including how jealousy can wreak havoc in a life. Telenovelas come from somewhere. 

Marga’s parents, cutting up for the camera. 

48H You’ve lived through such a significant time in the San Francisco arts scene. Latin Standards doesn’t just reflect on the story of your family, but on the meta-story of “launching a hipster comedy night at the struggling legendary Latino drag club, Esta Noche, in the midst of San Francisco’s gentrification crisis.” Can you tell me a little bit about that hipster comedy night, and how it may represent a unique moment in San Francisco history, especially since Esta Noche is no more?   

MG Esta Noche looked and felt exactly like one of my father’s hangouts in Manhattan except instead of posters of busty Latina babes in halter tops and hot pants, this joint plastered images of bare-chested hombres in jock straps everywhere and proudly displayed a life-size oil painting of the actor Joe D’Allesandro, naked, his schlong pointing down at the happy hour snack table.

My comedy career started in San Francisco at Josie’s Cabaret, a popular gay venue. I sold a lot of tickets there. Then in the late ’90s I moved to LA and New York to get more famous- LOL. When I moved back to San Francisco in 2006 everyone could see comedy for free, and if they were feeling charitable, throw money in a fucking tip jar. The comedians were often telling jokes in dim light with no stage and shitty sound. I was not pleased with this downgrade. However my father taught me to adapt in this business, so I searched for a place to run a “tip jar” show with, at least, a stage and decent lighting — which led me to Esta Noche. It was opened in the ’70s by two gay Latinos as a safe haven for queer Latinos.

The club was humble at best, but they built a stage four-foot high, so even if you were standing with a drink you could see all of the drag queens in their finery. There was even a stage spotlight. It was shabby and smelled but it was Carnegie Hall compared to other comedy tip jar venues.

My first year at Esta Noche was slow-going, attendance-wise, with many tech mishaps. More than once I had to personally throw out a drunk or run across the street to buy another microphone battery at Walgreen’s. But after a year we had full houses every week. The last year of its existence, Esta Noche was selected as a venue for Sketchfest and the short-lived, but genius, Comedy and Burrito Festival. The greatest benefit from my two years there was becoming friends with the drag performers, or as they were known “Las Chicas de Esta Noche.”

Sadly the club owners were secretly planning to sell the bar to rich white folks. In 2014, they took the money and adios. For decades Esta Noche existed along with another queer Latino bar “La India Bonita” just a block away. At one time there were three queer latino bars on or near 16th street in the Mission. All gone now. “Latin Standards” is a love letter to my father and to the gay latinx dives of memory.   

48H You’ve been working on this show for a little bit. Where have you performed it, and how has it changed significantly as it develops?   

MG  I didn’t realize when I booked Brava in January that my first show will be exactly one year from when Latin Standards made its world premiere Off-Broadway at The Under The Radar Festival. This has never happened before and may never happen again but I got an almost full-page great review from The New York Times and a “Critic’s Pick.” I hope the San Francisco press likes it but I can take a hit. I’m just glad we still have theater critics and my fate is not up to Yelp. So much of this show’s path has been guided by an unseen hand. Maybe it’s my dad micromanaging from the sky.

Anyways, Latin Standards began as a mixed media project that incorporated music and archival family photos. The pre-New York workshops at Brava in November 2016 included non-stop projections behind me. I learned that projections can misfire and undermine the story. Projections make tech week extra hellish and sometimes are used as a crutch. I want the audience to have the pleasure of visualizing the characters and locations I’m creating on stage. 

As I toured the show in 2017  we dropped the projections and the audience laughed and cried just the same. Since New York, I still update the opening monologue because I am telling stories from childhood, recent past, and present day — so I must follow the news, reflect it, and make it funny. Latin Standards was developed during the 2016 presidential campaign and I expected a more festive world to perform in. Dammit! 

My Brava run will be the first show in their new cabaret space. In two days I will see the stage for the first time and the new lighting set up. Any challenges from a cabaret setting will bring new discoveries. I will adapt the script as needed based on the original direction by my beloved director David Schweizer. I’m the canary in the cabaret, and like any trouper will expect the unexpected. I can’t think of a better way to kick off 2018.   

48H This is your twelfth solo show — but a teaser on the Brava website says this is “perhaps” you final solo show. Say it isn’t so!  

MG Latin Standards is my final solo show. That doesn’t mean I won’t be doing standup or front a Shakira cover band in the future. I’ll be teaching how to create a solo show, but I won’t be writing a new one. Come say good bye!

January 11-28, $20-$30
Brava Theater Cabaret Center, SF.
Tickets and more info here

FRESH Festival, bigger than ever, electrifies January

A performance by Christine Bonansea lights up weekend four of the Fresh Festival. Photo by Sigel Eschkol.

ONSTAGE “We want to overstimulate people. I love the idea of making people make choices,” said Kathleen Hermesdorf, over outdoor brunch on lt warm winter’s day, at Chloe’s Cafe in Noe Valley. Hermesdorf is founder and director of the FRESH Festival (Jan 5-27), a vibrant monument to experimental dance, music, performance, and artistic expression of all kinds, that lights up January with more intriguing choices than you can shake an electrified divining rod at. 

Now in its ninth year and boasting more than three dozen participating artists and companies, this is the biggest FRESH, with three solid weeks and four weekends of performance, workshops, classes, exchanges… even a celebratory party or two. The festival has moved a couple times in its evolution — including a stint at the late, great Kunst-Stoff arts space — and this year’s main performances happen mostly at the spacious Joe Goode Annex, with conversations, potlucks (a festival favorite), and other events at Poppy Art House, which Hermesdorf says she loves for “its living room feel: We can cook there, there’s a little bar, it just brings everyone closer.” 

FRESH founder Kathleen Hermesdorf. Photo by Chani Bockwinkel.

Included on this year’s roster? Everything from Brontez Purnell’s “Chronic: A Dance about Marijuana” and “Cappaghglass,” a work about the refugee crisis in Europe by Tara Brandel, to ALTERNATIVA’s GUT Motive dance classes exploring corporate-reality and the very varied RIPE [raw + intimate performance experiments] series. A string of happy hours featuring the exploratory music of Albert Mathias and various guests will take place at F8 nightclub, as well. 

Hermesdorf founded the festival in 2010 with Mathias, her partner in ALTERNATIVA, the dance and music company they launched in 1998 after working together in Contraband, the legendary Sara Shelton Mann‘s dance company. 

“January was such a typical dead month, internationally, for performance, it proved the perfect chance for us to do something where we could have everyone come together,” Hermesdorf told me. “We can have students and faculty come, performers who aren’t scheduled anywhere else can come, and they can inter-relate and cross-pollinate. It’s an enormous opportunity for people to collaborate, find someone new to work with, even find someone to live with — because that’s the filter now, isn’t it? Who can afford to come live here.”

The festival is a networking phenomenon in its very structure as well. Hermesdorf is a curator of curators, in that she and her team choose artists to curate their own events during the festival. “I think what contributes to the feeling of FRESH operating as a strong community is that, unlike many other festivals, we’re not simply application-based,” she said. I’m not just looking for the next hot young thing or rising star. I want to know enough about the work so that I can stand by it, or know enough about those curating the events. But I’m thinking that may change, so that we can take a chance and be more egalitarian. 

“But for now the artists are mostly hand-picked. I work with two or three co-curators. This year it’s José Navarette and Abby Crain, who’s been with us throughout. And through them we find the artists to curate events. That’s such a different way of discovering what’s out there. Like, ‘Oh, let’s see who the SALTA collective is interested in’ or “Who can we have come lead a potluck discussion this year”? It’s truly a collaboration in that way.”

Brontez Purnell will perform “Chronic: A Dance About Marijuana” at the FRESH festival.

And despite the global draw, FRESH remains very Bay Area-based. “Even people on the roster who aren’t local are people who have lived here or who have been based here in the Bay Area. Tara Brandel lives in Ireland, but she lived here for a long time in the ’90s and now she’s getting her Master’s from Davies. Christine Bonansea, now she lives in Berlin and was also in New York for a while, but she lived here for many years and has been a collaborator.”

And the festival still fulfills one of its original functions, which was to provide Hermesdorf and Mathias’s ALTERNATIVA company with a showcase for its own season, and to help them find support in the larger arts community. “In some ways FRESH is super community-based, and in others it’s super-selfish on my part. I’m a working artist, I want to present my work, and I want to be surrounded by my allies, other artists in the city, and to expand my community at the same time.” 

Kinetech Arts performs on weekend three of the FRESH Festival. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

This year’s theme, as topical as it may ever be, is ANTIDOTE. As festival materials state, “Pandora’s Box is open and we are in the thick of destabilizing destruction and deconstruction, extraordinarily influenced by nature, history and politics. We are in constant recovery, restructuring or reconstruction, trying to make sense of things, make a difference, make a life, make a living, make a family, make friends, make art. We need to seek new means and methods of resilience, healing and problem solving.”

Hermesdorf elaborated: “The festival starts with the artists and then a theme is developed, since people seem to like a theme to work around. The theme this year was almost going to be about space, but then the world went absolutely mad last November, everything flipped upside-down,” she laughed ruefully.  

“So this theme of ANTIDOTE or a tonic came out in relation to a toxic world. It’s also about turning inward and taking care of each other, the feeling of, yes, we’re all on our own and we have to figure things out, but when things really come down to the wire, how are we going to co-exist and survive and collaborate? In my world it’s how we share resources; in the bigger world it’s seems to be how much we want to isolate and act like other people are onsters. Art is such the great bridge in that regard.”

Larry Arrington performs on weekend three of the FRESH Festival.

I asked about the somatic aspect of antidotes, how many of us particularly felt the last year hitting in the pit of our stomachs, how many of us scrunched ourselves up in a defensive posture, and how movement might help. “I think it’s really important that we look at how all this happens in the body. In my experience, it’s how I take in information and perceive the world: in motion and through tissues and our own matrix. I think it’s really crucial to perceive your body in terms of finding a truthful response to what’s going on, and to find agency and action. You can sit and talk forever, I love that, but to make something happen you need to move.

“In a broader aspect its also about this form of continuity,” Hermesdorf said. “It’s about not letting us as artists get stopped in our tracks, or giving up on the possibilities of community. We have to let the art do its work.”

January 5-27
Tickets and more information here.

‘Watch on the Rhine’ chimes uneasily with our moment

Caitlin O’Connell, Jonathan Walker, and Kate Guentzel in Lillian Hellman’s 'Watch on the Rhine' at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne

ONSTAGE In 1941, when she wrote Watch on the Rhine (playing at Berkeley Rep through January 14), Lillian Hellman would have had no idea of the mass murder of millions that would follow the ascendance of fascism in Europe.   

Today, we know about the Holocaust, but we don’t know about tomorrow. As each day’s headlines bring news of a ban on Muslims, militarization of local police forces, immigration raids, and mass deportation, and a power-hungry president who threatens journalists who expose his lies and hurls invectives at African American athletes who dare to dissent, we can’t help but wonder where it will lead. As Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone explains, “A new level of anxiety has embedded itself into our DNA… looking for the right moment to explode into our everyday reality and destroy any illusion of normalcy.”

The choices that Hellman so poignantly portrays in this 75-year-old play — whether, on one extreme to stand by and assume that this too shall pass or, on the other, to commit a most heinous act against one person to save the lives of many others — still resonate powerfully today. Under the skillful direction of Lisa Peterson, associate director of Berkeley Rep, the excellent ensemble, including the three children, create a vivid, compelling picture of a world on the eve of disaster.

At first, the two moral poles seem to be set by two men: Kurt Muller (Elijah Alexander), a German engineer who has risked his life in an attempt to join the partisans trying to block the advance of the Nazis, and Count Teck De Bracovis (Jonathan Walker), a Romanian aristocrat with ties to the Nazi regime. These two immediately distrust each other, carefully scrutinize each other’s movements and eventually come to blows.

But the predominance of that match between good and evil is deceptive.  Hellman prefers to plumb the grayer areas.

Jonah Horowitz, Emma Curtin, and Elijah Alexander, Sarah Agnew, and Silas Sellnow in ‘Watch on the Rhine.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

The real opposing pole to Muller’s militancy is matriarch Fanny Farrelly, played with a unique combination of wit and éclat by Caitlin O’Connell. The wealthy widow presides with an iron hand over her splendid home in the suburbs of Washington, DC. The set by Neil Patel oozes with inherited wealth, from the recessed wooden ceilings to the brocade upholstery to an eclectic mix of vases, clocks and decorative lamps. Farrelly is the unlikely hostess to both Muller and the Count. Muller, because he is married to her daughter Sara (Sarah Agnew) who has returned to her childhood home after a 20-year absence, and De Brancovis because, well, Farrelly has a soft spot for European nobility, “who play good cribbage and tell good jokes,” even if they are delinquent with their bills. 

It is late spring 1940. Europe is already gripped by the Nazi onslaught, but the US has not yet entered the conflict, and the clouds of war seem quite distant, especially in this affluent home where breakfast is always served at 9am. When the Muller family arrives with battered suitcases and shabby clothes, they stand in sharp contrast to the elegance of Farrellys’ living room with its French doors that open to a plant-filled verandah. The children, Joshua (Silas Sellnow), Babette (Emma Curtin), and Bodo (Jonah Horowitz) are precocious, polite and fluent in several languages — but they are also hungry, having had only a warm bun and a glass of milk on their train journey.  Even the servants, Anise, the efficient and clever housekeeper played with style by Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, and butler Joseph (James Detmar) are dressed far smarter than the Muller family. 

Sarah Muller, well-aware how insulated by privilege her mother and brother David (Hugh Kennedy) are, tries to gently explain how distant her current life is from the cotillions and society teas she once knew. She doesn’t know how long they will stay. The Muller children, who are clearly loving towards their parents, despite their unconventional and precarious upbringing, slowly make themselves at home in their grandmother’s house, taking delight in the plentiful breakfasts, the sanitary plumbing, and the luxurious hot baths. Kurt explains to his children they are on holiday and that they “will have plans when the hour arrives to make them.”

Kurt is energetic and bursting with ideas. He has crossed many borders, taken part in clandestine acts, and endured blows and bullets, which have left their mark, so he walks slowly and his hands tremble. He tells his mother-in-law that he has given up engineering to become an “Anti-fascist,” a “job” he cares passionately about even though “it doesn’t pay well.”  After he saw 27 men murdered in street clash with Nazis, he tells her, he could no longer stand by and watch.

“My time,” he says, “has come to move.” 

The dapper, conniving Count De Brancovis is not only freeloading off the Farrellys and cruel to his wife Marthe (Kate Guentzel), but he is also on intimate card-playing terms with Nazi officials in the Embassy.

Fanny’s role is more nuanced than either of these two men: her dilemma is the one that is the most familiar today. Her life is more than comfortable, she wants for nothing aside from wishing her rather unimaginative son were more like his deceased father. Though her daughter’s arrival brings her closer to the realities of war, her solution is to keep that family safe in her mansion where she presumes the war can’t touch them. When their shielded life is threatened, her instinct is to buy her daughter and granddaughter fancy new dresses. 

Kurt has made his decision: he has no choice but to sacrifice his time, his work, and even his children’s well-being to fight fascism. Fanny’s opulent home has been immune to the terrors of war, but when she finds the conflict right under her roof, she faces the central moral dilemma of the drama.  

How long can you ignore the thundering march of the jackboots?  When do the offenses get so strong that you have to take action? Fanny hasn’t seen the victims the Nazis murdered in the street, but is there a moment when it will be her “time to move?” And what action do you take? Is providing sanctuary enough? Money? What if there is a risk of endangering your daughter or your grandchildren? Or someone else’s grandchildren?  

If the title of play seems familiar, it may be because “Watch on the Rhine” or “Die Wacht am Rhein” is the song from Casablanca that the German soldiers sing in Rick’s bar, before they are drowned out by the French patriots’ rousing “La Marseillaise.” It was a German battle song from the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, all the way up to World War II.  We learn from Kurt that when he was a member of the German unit of International Brigade fighting Franco in Spain, they changed the words to an anti-fascist anthem: “This time we fight for people, this time the bastards will keep their hands away.” 

Hellman won the New York Drama Critics Award for this play when it was produced on Broadway in 1941, but it has been rarely produced since. She is perhaps most well-known for her response to the House Un-American Activities Committee when they asked her to name names of political subversives she knew. She refused their request, stating: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

In this prescient drama, she clearly answers the question, “When is it time to move?” Sometimes, Hellman’s characters discover, we have to take the risk – no matter what the cost. 

Though January 14
Berkeley Rep, Berkeley.
Tickets and more info here.

‘The Secret Garden’ blooms with wonder and beauty

Katie Maupin as Mary Lennox in 'The Secret Garden." Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

ONSTAGE The Secret Garden has been on Broadway, in the movies (since 1949!), and performed at probably every regional theater in the country at least once. But 42nd Street Moon’s production (Through December 24) is still full of brilliant surprises –- not least of which is the dazzling performance of 12-year-old Katie Maupin in the lead role of Mary Lennox, the orphaned girl who comes from India to live with her distant uncle Archibald Craven (Brian Watson) in England and changes the life of everyone around her.

As a young actress, Maupin expertly portrays a wide range of emotions, from a sullen child who is taken 6,000 miles away from her home after her parents die of cholera, to frightened girl listening to “wuthering winds” and mysterious crying in the cold mansion “with something wrong inside it,”  to a tender companion when she discovers she has a cousin, the bedridden Colin (Tyler Groshong), whom no one has thought to mention to her.  Maupin even goes wildly over the top with great flair, as she does when her uncle’s brother Neville (Edward Hightower) tries to pack her off to boarding school. In a hilarious scene, she whirls around shouting in tongues, feigning madness to keep from being sent away “to a filthy rat hole full of brats and dirty beds.”

As is to be expected from 42nd Street Moon, a company that excels in musicals, the singing and dancing are superb all around. The play’s original book and lyrics are by Marsha Norman and the music by Lucy Simon; it was the first Tony-winning show with both music and lyrics by women. This production is also creatively led by three women: director Dyan McBride, musical director Lauren Mayer, and choreographer Robyn Tribuzi. 

Michael Mohammed, Anjali Blacker, Ryan Henry, Amanda Johnson, Terrence McLaughlin, and Corinne Rydman in 42nd Street Moon’s ‘The Secret Garden.’ Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.

Tribuzi weaves in diverse dances to accentuate the mood of the moment, including stately waltzes by British colonial army officers and their wives, a hearty Yorkshire jig, and a graceful Indian-inspired duet with Mary and Ayah, the bright, animated Anjali Blacker.  

All of the voices are terrific, some are outstanding. Maidservant Martha’s (Heather Orth) robust solo, “A Fine White Horse,”  brings down the house. Martha’s good humor, compassion and delicious disobedience help guide Mary through her loneliness. Her flawless command of the north country accent places us solidly in Yorkshire (others are not so consistent). Mary’s Aunt Lily (Sharon Rietkerk) appears both as a living young fiancée and as a ghost. In both astral planes, she is so loving and lovely, it is easy to understand why Archibald is still obsessed by her, years after she has died in childbirth. Her duets with her son Colin, “Come to My Garden,” and with her widowed husband, “How Could I Ever Know?” are heartbreaking. 

Katie Maupin as Mary Lennox and Heather Orth as Martha in ‘The Secret Garden.’ Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.

The best theater, as Aristotle taught long ago, involves transformations — and The Secret Garden has them in abundance, some predictable (though no less moving) and some metaphorical. The bed-ridden Colin, who is convinced (because he has been told by his doctor uncle) that he is about to die, rises from his bed, and then from his wheelchair to walk in his mother’s garden and into his father’s arms. His father, whose heart has been so shut down by his wife’s death that he cannot even bear to greet his niece though he knows she is the only relative she has, eventually learns to love again.   

The secret garden, behind a locked gate overgrown with ivy, also transforms. When first discovered by Mary with the help of Martha’s brother Dickon (Keith Pinto) it is overgrown with “loose grey branches looped around the trees like ropes or snakes and dead roots and leaves all tangled on the ground, still and cold.” Only a robin’s song offers a trill of hope. “Wick,” Dickon’s optimistic duet with Mary  — “When a thing is wick, it has a life about it …a way of knowing when it is safe to grow again” —  is another high point of the production.

Scott Hayes as Ben Weatherstaff and Katie Maupin as Mary Lennox. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.

I suppose this often-told story (originally a 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett) has endured because, at bottom, it is about what makes a family and a home. When Archibald asks his niece what she wants, she eschews his offers of books or dolls and tells him she would like “a little bit of earth.” In the first act, he regards her request as a cruel reminder of his own despondency: “How can she chance/To love a little bit of earth/Does she not know/The earth is old/And doesn’t care if/One small girl wants things to grow.”

By the time he and the ghost of Lily reprise the song in Act II, beneath a fountain of roses and accompanied by the songs of birds, it becomes a hopeful tribute: “She wants a little bit of earth/She’ll plant some seeds/The seeds will grow/The flowers bloom/But is their bounty/What she needs?”

This musical, in the hands of this cast and production team is definitely “Wick,” brimming with life and making hearts grow.  Grab your children — and their grannies — for this beautiful show.  It will be the high point of their holiday season!

The Secret Garden
Through December 24
42nd Moon, SF.
Tickets and more info here 

A philosopher and a drag queen meet on a dance floor …

Judith Butler and Fauxnique on stage at CounterPulse. Photo by John Hill.

ONSTAGE “Why is Fauxnique making Judith Butler dance?”

Trying to head off any audience confusion, Fauxnique (Monique Jenkinson) has posed the question herself.

“Because we intend the conversation to be embodied,” she clarifies.

“I guess we’re queering the conversation?” asks Butler politely.

“I guess so,” affirms Fauxnique.

Thus a philosopher and a drag queen met on a dance floor recently and, without further ado, and while busting perfectly respectable moves amid the whirling dappled light from a disco ball, started to talk.

That scene opened two weekends’ worth of new work and conversation, and it can serve as a lightly comic yet enthralling distillation of the aim behind Hope Mohr’s Bridge Project: the Bay Area choreographer’s annual series of multidisciplinary performance, master classes and residencies that, as the mission statement has it, “approaches curating as a form of community organizing to facilitate cultural conversations that cross discipline, geography, and perspective.”

By sparking encounters like this one between the acclaimed San Francisco–based dancer, faux queen and performance maker and the world-renowned philosopher, activist and gender theory trailblazer—or, to take an example from the 2015 series, between Bay Area dancemakers and visiting luminaries like Deborah Hay or Jeanine Durning—the series has been a boon to the local arts scene for four years now.

boychild in the Bridge Project. Photo by John Hill

Bridge Project 2017, “Radical Movements: Gender and Politics in Performance,” which ran November 3 through 12 and was co-produced by Counterpulse, offered a roster of premieres, including a duet between boychild and Jack Halberstam; Peacock Rebellion’s first full-length show, You Really Should Sit Like a Lady (or how I got to Femme); a solo piece by Maryam Rostami; and a collaborative performance installation by Julie Tolentino at the Joe Goode Annex. An audience salon and a reception with Tolentino and company were also on the program. In all, an often heady but inviting menu. (Indeed, this year’s series came complete with an audience reader, which provided some stimulating context, but there was no penalty for blowing it off.)

Opening night’s program at Counterpulse was a case in point. Turning to practices of the radical body, the conversation took its casually embodied course from the disco icebreaker through a specific set of physical exercises (likely familiar to the performance and yoga practitioners in the audience). It’s probably fair to say there’s been nothing in theaters recently to quite match Judith Butler talking about the politics of precarity and vulnerability while she’s prone on the stage with her head cradled in her interlocutor’s hands.

Lisa Evans in the Bridge Project. Photo by Jacob Marks

(That said, let’s acknowledge here Dancers’ Group and Counterpulse for first luring Butler onto the stage and into direct conversation with local queer performance-makers back in 2013 as part of Dancers’ Group’s long-running Dance Discourse Project.)

On one level, the evening served up an accessible and stimulating blend of sophisticated queer theory and radical politics alongside personal anecdote and a modest but sincere lovefest across the disciplinary divide—one which the audience was eventually invited to physically join as the conversation ended, the disco ball twirled once more and the dance floor opened to all. 

On another, the finessing and even flagrant shrugging off of the usual disciplinary borders put the whole thing on an unsettled footing—not a bad thing at all. In the air were more than ideas, fanzine bio-bits, or the strains of Chic and The Supremes. There was an unspoken but palpable sense of disorientation, along with the slightly giddy wonder at what might happen, when two mutually admiring representatives of two mutually exclusive worlds (art and academe, for short) let their respective guards down. Queering the conversation, for sure.

‘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