Playground is one of those local theatre things that seems to have been attended by everyone but me. I’ve known quite a few actors, writers, and directors who have taken part, but I’ve never had the opportunity to attend, perform, or take any other active role. I’ll admit it had something to do with my trepidation of attending another new works event (and yes, I know how hypocritical that may sound coming from me). It also had a lot to do with the fact that Playground was often performed on Monday nights at the Berkeley Rep, and on Monday I’d most likely spend my theatre time in SF; either watching, acting in, writing, and/or directing for another theatre company.
Now that the latter company is on indefinite hiatus, I’ve considered heading out to see Playground one of these days. As such, it should come as no surprise that I have friends involved in this year’s edition of the company’s annual “Best Of” showcase. I recently caught two of their full-lengths productions, both of which purportedly center on specific Bay Area neighborhoods. If nothing else, both plays confirmed and refuted several preconceived notion I had about Playground scripts.
“Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between.”
– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
The challenge of trying to comment on changing times is that they can occasionally change too fast for your words to remain relevant. Many-a-dramatist and would-be philosopher has tried to make The Definitive Statement of the societal (de)evolution they’ve witnessed each day, only for their specific complaints to be outmoded by the time they’re heard. But whereas some Bay Area-specific topics are no longer headline news (several months of inclement weather have, thankfully, wrestled the drought into submission), the housing crisis and widespread gentrification remain problems yet to be solved.
Although SF has long been the subject of the aforementioned woes, the past few years have seen them echoed all over the Bay Area. Perhaps the only local city close to matching SF’s focus on shifting demographics is its Bay Bridge neighbor, Oakland. What was once the place to go for those who “can’t stand or afford SF” will soon be home to Uber HQ, as locals are priced out of their homes. It’s a shift to which longtime Oakland resident (native?) Robin Lynn Rodriguez took notice. She previously covered the topic in the well-regarded I Hella Love Oakland, and has now returned with the Oakland-based Playground script Hedge. I haven’t seen or read the former, but I hope it addressed the issue better than the latter.
Jen and Jason are new. They have a new baby, they have new jobs & hobbies, and they’re new to this part of Oakland. They eased into all of those situations with the help their married interracial neighbors, White man David and Black woman Lily. The ethnicity of everyone involved is important when dealing with the long-time residents of the neighborhood, like Jen and Jason’s Black next-door neighbor, Craig.
In the spirit of getting to know her neighbor, Jen invites Craig to an intimate backyard dinner with David and Lily. As they sit under the shadow of the giant hedge that extends from Craig’s yard into Jen’s garden, everyone learns a thing or two about their fellow residents that may have been better left unsaid.
If I had to name the biggest problem with Rodriguez’s script, it would probably be the way each character so nakedly resembles an idea rather than a living, breathing human being: Jen and Jason (Caitlin Evenson and Louel Señores, respectively) are the ignorant optimism of upward mobility; David and Lily (Steven Westdahl and Kimberly Ridgeway) are the snooty old couple set in their ways; and Craig (Daryl Anthony Harper) is the riff-raff. This isn’t too bothersome until the dialogue (which is never very strong) becomes such a blatant a mouthpiece for the author’s ideals that I wouldn’t be surprised if I found a pamphlet with a lot of the same awkward wording.
The worst of it all comes during the climax in the backyard, when Lily and Craig argue over what constitutes a real Oaklander and a real Black man. Even if a Black writer had written this scene, it would have come off as incredibly forced, but the fact that a non-Black writer uses two Black characters as straw-man avatars for how Black people should and shouldn’t use the word “nigga” reaches new levels of hypocrisy.
The actors, at least, manage to breathe life into their paper-thin characters. Even when subject to some uninspired direction (most scenes, including the aforementioned “Lily vs. Craig” scene, tend to feature characters just standing in place, no matter how high tensions rise), they do their best to see the heartbeats between the lines. Caitlin Evenson (whom I’ve directed before and acted beside) continues to be one of the Bay’s most reliable actors, here playing new mom Jen just wanting to do right. Steve Westdahl and Louel Señores give personality to characters brushed aside during big moments. And despite my distaste for how the Lily vs. Craig scene is written and staged, Kimberly Ridgeway and Daryl Anthony Harper elevate the material in the best way. The characters each have set idea of what Oakland (and Black people) should be, and only through the work of these actors do we listen.
I was also impressed Kevin Landesman lights and Ian Walker’s sounds, though I was confused why the latter kept playing so much Eazy-E in a contemporary play? With no credited set designer or projectionist, I don’t know whom I should commend for the backyard setting, but it was well-done. Also good are the subtle costume choices of Tammy Berlin and the props of Andy Falkner.
I left the theatre that night angry. Not angry in the “I-want-theatre-to-make-me-feel-something-and-this-one-did” way, but in a “this-important-issue-was-reduced-mere-talking-points” way. The technical issues prove that it wasn’t a completely misguided venture, but it’s disappointing that the same care hadn’t been put into the script and staging as with the tech stuff. Hedge may have been created out of a love for Oakland and frustration with its rapid changes, but the play does no favors for its residents, old or new.
“And the Lord said unto Cain, ‘Where is Abel, thy brother?’
And he said, ‘I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?’”
– The Holy Bible (King James Version), Book of Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 9
Though born in San Francisco, I’ve spent just as much of my life in Daly City. As a kid, I lived in Daly City, but went to school in SF. As a teen, I went to school in Daly, but spent all my other time in SF. I’ve earned the right to call them both “my twin hometowns”. It’s not a shock to think almost no one has written a play about this fog-laden Peninsula suburb (or that I didn’t write it first), but it’s no surprise that a Filipino-American writer would be the one to do it. To live in Daly – to say nothing of growing up there – is to know off-hand that it has the largest Filipino population in the United States (possibly the world, outside of the Philippine Islands themselves).
Like all Bay Area locations, that ethnic demographic has shifted in recent years. Still, no one would be surprised to learn that a play subtitled “A Daly City Bible Story” centers on two Pinoy characters. After all, if Colma – the Shelbyville to Daly City’s Sprinfield – can get that goddamn musical movie (most of which was actually shot in DC anyway), surely the town that really gets Bay Area fog (SF just gets leftovers) rates a decent stage production, right? Does that mean Zulueta (whose scripts I’ve performed) has made the quintessential Daly City fable? No, he hasn’t – not even close. But it still has a lot of good things going for it.
Kano and Abe know they have biblical namesakes. That may be why their life paths were so similar: Abe, the upstanding Army vet; Kano, the renowned criminal. But Abe might not be as sin-free as everyone thinks, having returned to the US under AWOL status from Afghanistan. And until Kano forks over the $45,000 Abe gave him before shipping, the “good” brother will have to embrace the fact that he’s now just as much an illegal immigrant as Kano.
When Abe begins to find work as a day laborer – and rekindles his relationship with girlfriend Regina – it seems less likely that he’s found stability, and more that’s he’s found a way to delay the inevitable disaster.
I can’t really say this play is “the quintessential Daly City play” because, well, there isn’t a lot about distinctively Daly City. In fact, there’s almost nothing about it distinctively Daly City – no name-checking of landmarks, no mention of the fog, not even a single scene set at Serramonte. If not for the fact a Mexican day laborer throws “Daly City” at one of the Abe as an insult, you’d never know the story had anything to do with the city directly south of the San Francisco county line. But what the play lacks in a geographical signature, it makes up with a deliciously dark narrative.
Zulueta’s tale is about the way having predetermined roles – namely, The Good Son and The Black Sheep – can be simultaneously a prison and a sanctuary. By Kano being the subject of such low expectations, he’s given the freedom to succeed as both a criminal and, believe it or not, an amateur magician. By Abe constantly having to live up to such high expectations, he often finds himself at a loss when faced with a situation for which he has no frame of reference. This often leads to him taking drastic actions that have lasting repercussions. When those actions begin happening now that he’s home, it’s his criminal brother – the one’s who’s had time to consider the big picture – who figures out how to work the angles and (try to) minimize the damage. This includes exploiting loopholes in US immigration policy.
Though the story wavers at moments – some dialogue pieces don’t connect, and the “will-they-or-won’t-they” vibe between Abe and Regina is a cliché I personally hate – but it’s mostly a fine tale of how trying be “all good” or “all bad” is merely setting oneself up to fail. That, and the inherent hypocrisy of wanting to ban immigrants – illegal or not – when immigration is what makes every American industry – illegal or not – thrive or falter.
Now, I can’t objectively critique the work of director Colin Johnson, and the program listed the tech crew as being the same as Hedge above, so I’ll focus on the talented cast on display – all folks I can’t recall having ever seen before. As the titular brothers, Jed Parsario and Melvign Badiola (respectively) have good chemistry with one another. I didn’t always buy Badiola as an Army vet – he often lacked the “shoulder” quality that makes a military man easy to spot in a crowd – but he’s good at selling Abe’s inner conflict as well as Parsario enjoys playing the devil on his shoulder. Of particular note is a scene between Abe and the unnamed Mexican day laborer. The latter has been pushing Abe’s buttons all day. In Abe’s eyes, you see that a line has been crossed and that he’s about to take a step from which there’s no turning back. Without saying a word Badiola admirably sells Abe’s building rage.
Speaking of said day laborer, he’s one of many characters played with easy distinguishability by Carlos Aguirre. The other characters include an Army pencil-pusher, a ruthless CO in Afghanistan, and an almost supernatural-looking (and sounding) character in bandages who appears in the play’s prelude and epilogue, for reasons I won’t spoil here. Even without costuming, Aguirre shows each as a different person with their own temperament and varying senses of humor. And then, of course, there’s Jasmine Osborne as Regina, the dark horse in the brothers’ plans. “Will-they-won’t-they” aside, what makes the character watchable is that Osborne plays her as the only real adult in the story – having become landlord of the rundown building in which the brothers stay, and imploring Abe to make decisions that will improve him in long-term practical ways. That Osborne also served as the uncredited fight coordinator for a play that gets pretty macabre is just another feather in her cap.
The problem with having your life laid out for you from the day you’re born is the fact that you’ll eventually have to grow up. That means you’ll inevitably be faced with the choice to deviate for the road ahead. And that’s your choice. As long as you can live with that decision, then you can take solace in the fact that the decision is yours.
Kano + Abe: A Daly City Bible Story is about living with those decisions once you realise it’s too late to change them. Because some of them will leave marks that never heal. The play is an entertainingly dark look at the concept – and, by far, the better of the two Playground shows in rep.
Hedge is scheduled to run until the 17th of June, and Kano + Abe until the 18th of June. Both are running at the Potrero Stage in San Francisco.
Hedge runs roughly 90 minutes with one 10-min. intermission. Kano + Abe runs 90 minutes with a 10-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit each production’s official site: Hedge here and Kano + Abe here.
And what do YOU think?