Aldo Billingslea, Bay Area theatre, Bert van Aalsberg, Black actor, Black actress, Black American, Black artists, Black authors, Black characters, Black people, Black perspective, Black playwrights, Black theatre, Black woman, Black writers, Britney Frazier, Burial Clay Theater, Coeli Polansky, gentrification, Home, independent theatre, indie theatre, Kevin Myrick, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Myers Clark, racism, Samm-Art Williams, Samuel French Inc., San Francisco theatre, Sara Judge, theatre, theatre is dying, Theatre review, Tristan Cunningham, True, Vietnam War, White privilege
“At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1968 speech on White privilege in America
Just as I had to take a moment to adjust to seeing an Af-Am Shakes play not staged at The Burial Clay Theater, so too did it take me a moment to absorb the fact that I was in The Burial Clay Theater to see a play that wasn’t by Af-Am Shakes. Granted, if any company besides AAS were to take up residency at Burial Clay, I’m glad it’s SF’s very own Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. That company’s been bouncing around since losing its space in 2008, followed shortly by the deaths of its two founders. For them to now land at a San Francisco location dedicated to spreading awareness and education of Black art is not only encouraging, it’s actually appropriate.
Equally appropriate is the choice for their inaugural production in their new home. Samm-Art Williams’ 1979 play Home is about a man who – after the death of two patriarchal figures – finds himself uprooted from the birthplace where he did what he loved, only to find himself wandering aimlessly in search the comfort and security one can only find with a home to call their own. For LHT, that makes it more than a revival of a rarely-produced script, it’s practically the company’s autobiography.
Cephus Miles was meant to be a farmer. Though raised by an uncle and grandfather who encouraged him to become a lawyer or businessman, Cephus knows that his destiny is to care for the land on which he was raised. There are only two things to which he’s as devoted as much the farm: The Good Book and Pattie Mae Wells, the love of his life. When his devotion to the former – particularly the commandment “Thou shall not kill” – leads to his imprisonment for draft-dodging, he finds himself separated from both the farm and Pattie Mae.
Cephus’ life is now a journey – a journey towards freedom; a journey into temptation; a journey to find a place he can truly call “home”.
For the sake of disclosure, I should mention that I first worked with director Aldo Billingslea and LHT artistic director Steven Anthony Jones exactly ten years ago. We were all part of the cast of an ACT-produced staged reading of Marcus Gardley’s The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry. I played the younger version of Billingslea’s character and shared an on-stage kiss with a local actor by the name of Daveed Diggs (he later did some show about US history or somethin’). It was my first professional stage production, and therefore one I hold near and dear.
I mention that because, in spite of whatever connection I have to the folks behind this show, it doesn’t change the fact that LHT’s production of Home is one of the best shows I’ve seen this year. Williams’ script is a uniquely American coming-of-age story told from the point-of-view of people who are sidelined in that kind of story, if not left out completely. Its satirical take on farm life, imprisonment, and the fish-out-of-water take of a country boy in the city all run the risk of being dated (especially the specific mentions of the Vietnam War). Instead, it has the timeless feel of a Steinbeck piece, as performed in the stripped-down production style of Travels with My Aunt. It’s the specifics that make a piece of art timeless, as subsequent generations will connect with it in spite of whatever era-defining ephemera pins it as a product of its time.
That timelessness is aided by the production’s spartan set, as seen above. Consisting only of a few empty apple boxes, two chairs, and various articles of clothing strewn about, both the characters and setting change at the drop of a hat (sometimes literally) with nary a moment where one’s suspension of disbelief wavers. The minimal set pieces are aided by Kevin Myrick’s lights (which consist mainly of adjusting various shades of blue and orange) and Bert van Aalsberg’s equally minimal sounds (which the play mostly does without, only to occasionally chime in with the sound of object striking another, or a song playing a low volume in the background).
And, of course, the cast members bring a wonderful sense of life to these characters. Although Myers Clark is clearly well above the age of Cephus (who ends the play at age 25), he accurately channels the farm boy’s unwavering optimism and biblical sense of principal. Though he plays the one character, co-stars Britney Frazier and Tristan Cunningham make up the countless ensemble characters Cephus meets in his travels. When last seen earlier this year in Cutting Ball’s ill-advised “slapstick” version of Hedda Gabler, it was Frazier’s performance that was oddly subdued. Here, she lets loose her full chameleonic range, better showcasing just how talented she really is. From Cephus’ prison guard to his one-night stand to a nosy neighborhood young’un, Frazier makes each one distinct and identifiable, despite having no wardrobe variations other than hats and glasses.
Tristan Cunningham has long been one of the Bay Area’s best talents; so much so that we’re often afraid she’ll one day leave us for NY or LA. She continues that winning streak here, not only equaling Frazier’s number of characters, but also as Cephus would-be wife, Pattie Mae. When Cephus is imprisoned, Pattie Mae makes a life choice would come off purely heartless if performed by a lesser talent. Cunningham wisely makes the choice to allow the audience to sympathize with Pattie Mae, making a later development all the more satisfying. And Cunningham’s circus-trained movements gracefully guide her through the choreography like a jungle cat through high grass.
The sad truth about San Francisco – particularly for those of us born here – is that it’s getting harder and harder for many of us to call it “home” anymore. It isn’t just the influx of new residents, it isn’t just the sky-high housing prices, it isn’t just the disappearance of landmarks and institutions – it isn’t “just” any one of those things, it’s all of them. Whenever someone decides to pull up roots for greener pastures, a piece of what made this place special goes with them.
As a Black man, theatre artist, and SF native, seeing the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre find a new permanent home in this city fills me with hope. It means that we longtime residents and natives still have a place here, even with the unstoppable evolution taking place around us. Samm-Art Williams’ Home is a story about returning to what you know best when you feel most lost. The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre has done that with the first show of their new location. We’re all better off for it.
Home is scheduled to run until the 4th of June at The Burial Clay Theatre of the African-American Art & Culture Complex in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 90 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.