The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, actor, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
“America Hurrah doesn’t work because the trick is no trick at all. Juxtaposing the ugly realities of America doesn’t heighten the reality – not when the reality is already unbelievable. Black humor is having its finest hour in the black headlines every day, and poking fun at television, which America Hurrah does quite effectively, doesn’t alter the fact that the candidate with the brightest smile and straightest teeth will win. Once a log cabin was enough for a winning start. Now it’s the orthodontist. Make the world safe for videocracy!”
– Herb Caen giving his thoughts on a then-new SF production,
“Few guffaws in ‘America Hurrah’”, San Francisco Chronicle, (4 July 1967)
*[NOTE: This piece doesn’t include my choices for “Best/Worst of 2019”. I’m leaving those for my annual “Year in Review” piece, which should appear in the next week-or-so. This is just an observance of Bay Area theatre from someone who sees a lot of it.]
I try not to endorse, well, anything on this, my personal slice of the interwebs. I’ve never done it before and, now that I’m aware people are actually reading my long-winding ramblings, I consciously don’t in an effort to maintain objectivity. Sure, I have my favorite companies and performers that I wish would get more attention. But when I shill for them, it makes it awkward when I inevitably go off on something they do that I hate (happens to best of ‘em).
The podcast revolution has pretty much passed me by. Like YouTube videos, there’s simply too much of it and my life is short. Still, I have become a genuine fan of podcasts that – wouldn’t’cha know it? – are hosted by people I know. These include:
What, you may ask, has any of this to do with Bay Area theatre over the past 12 months? Glad you asked.
On the most recent episode of FMKLit, hosts Claire Rice and Neil Higgins briefly turn their sarcastic sights away from romance novels to a pair of how-to guides for aspiring authors of the genre. When they play the titular “Fuck/Marry/Kill”, one of the options is critics. This leads to the two contemplating the necessity of critics, particularly those of the Bay Area theatre community (from 1:09:00 – 1:13:00):
With the above likely being the last podcast I listen to this year (nay, decade), it’s a great one to finish on. Especially since I’ve actually spent a lot of this year arguing the importance of critics. I know I’ve written about it before, but it’s no less true: critics are a vital part of the artistic process. Despite what Brad Bird or M. Night Shyamalan may think, critics – the good ones, anyway – don’t exist as paid purveyors of schadenfreude. What we do is hold art to a standard. A critic’s job is not easy, nor do we thrive on negativity. What we do is experience so much work – yes, often for free – that we have a better idea than most as to what represents the best and worst of the medium. For us to praise the new is not “a risk” (seriously, fuck Anton Ego), but rather that for which we strive to discover. We choke on a lot of coal in the hopes of finding diamonds.
The above clip makes me proud to call myself a critic, something I’ve be hesitant to do. Despite my having reviewed films and plays for years (both on this site and published nationally), it was just last year that a local theatre publicist invited me to join an official press list. This led to me being given a “press” distinction by nearly every notable theatre in the Bay Area. Several companies – indie and major – send me unsolicited invites to come see their shows. My reviews are quoted on press materials. When someone asks me if I have my notepad because I’m a critic, I finally feel comfortable enough to say “Yes”.
And that doesn’t put me above anyone in Bay Area theatre – hell, I still audition, act, write, and direct when I’m not seeing shows. My work is no more safe from critique than anything I see. I’ve gotten into a few beefs with directors over my reviews, but I stand by those reviews – every single word. I have a mental list of people and companies with whom I will never work (most of whom I never want to even see) again, and I’m sure I’m on plenty of their mental lists. I would never do this out of some unearned sense of superiority. No, I do this because I love theatre and love seeing it in the Bay Area. It’s because I consider myself a part of it that I’m willing to add my 2¢ into the discussion of a project’s artistic merit.
And so, as 2019 and the decade it caps both draw to a close, here are some of the moments that stayed with me over the past year.
I’ve always had a great deal of respect for Lily. I doubt that respect is mutual, but it still exists on my end. In fact, you wanna hear something funny? I almost had her job. When the Chronicle’s Rob Hurwitt announced his retirement in 2016 (via a Chronicle post written by Lily) the late Dave Wiegand e-mailed me – yes, me – to come in for an interview. When Lily eventually got the job, I was glad to lose to her. She’s a critic I’ve always respected because – like Chronicle colleague Mick LaSalle, one of my favorite critics ever – she’s intelligent, well-versed in the medium, and not afraid to get under someone’s skin.
Just ask Simon McBurney. He brought his show Encounter to the Curran in 2017. Lily’s review praised the tech, but not much else. When McBurney was interviewed by KPFA days later, he infamously went on an (off-air) anti-Lily rant that may or may not have been recorded, depending on whom you ask.
As glad as I am to have Lily’s voice in Bay Area theatre, her Yale-educated eyes can occasionally fall victim to blind spots. That’s what appeared to happen this year when her review of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty was accused of whitesplaining and victim-blaming. I first heard of the controversy as I was rehearsing for another show. It was the talk of nearly everyone in attendance. (Not being on FB anymore, I’m the last to hear these things – if ever.) I remember one important member of Bay Area theatre saying, “Oh, she has to respond – how can she not?” My knowledge of Lily being what it is, I assumed she’d just stay silent and let it blow over. Which is what she did.
But… should she have? I became a critic by choice, but I’m a Black man by birth. As such, I can’t outright dismiss another PoC’s claims of having their voice diminished by a White member of the media, even one I respect. Hell, one of the reasons I take my critical status so seriously is because I may very well be the only goddamn PoC critic for any Bay Area art form (feel free to tell me I’m wrong below, I’m on the lookout for others). In fact, Lily herself has often championed the need for more diversity in theatre – not just on stage, but in critique as well. None of that changes the fact that Lily’s words were fucking disturbing! Her question of “Why would someone who is [X] be with an abuser?” is the same argument that’s been used to dismiss victims of abuse for, well, ever. The fact that she says this about a Native American woman – a group so frequently victimized that it ranks as an epidemic – is all the more unsettling.
I get why Lily didn’t respond: as a member of the media, she knows all too well that replying to every dissenting response is a fool’s errand; a rabbit hole of “I said/you said” that pushes people further apart. But if we really want to fix this fractured society, people have to be willing to listen to the other side. White people in particular have to open up to voices not their own, the voices of the people they’ve marginalized time and again. Had Lily simply tweeted out something akin to “My review contained a statement that was, unfortunately, dismissive of the experiences of abuse victims. For that, I apologize.” That, at least, would have been something. But she said nothing.
I still plan to read Lily’s reviews and acknowledge her when I see her at openings. I don’t know her well enough to meet over coffee or anything, but still value her voice in our community. If nothing else, I truly hope that she’s learned from this experience, even if she won’t acknowledge it outright. As for me, my Black ass will remain the critic whom White directors hate when my reviews call out their racism. (Y’all, I have so many e-mail threads I could show you of them whitesplaining “It can’t be racist!!”) Because if this whole thing has taught me anything, it’s that my voice is desperately needed now more than ever.
I love The Flight Deck. I used to be Box Office Manager at The Flight Deck. I know that place has a reputation for having some of the cleanest restrooms of any Bay Area black box theatre. Those restrooms are clean because I used to clean them, and I’d like to think I set a standard. In addition to being a cool building and performance space, The Flight Deck was also the stage for one of the best shows I saw this year. I know the names on the stairs, I know the staff by sight, I’ve frequently encouraged local companies to rehearse and perform there. Oakland – nay, Bay Area theatre – needs The Flight Deck.
That’s why it sucks to hear that we’re losing it. This coming March, Ragged Wing Ensemble – the local theatre troupe that runs the space – will not be renewing their lease, citing high costs. I love SF and the fact that you can throw a stone and find a black box available (there’s a reason the EXIT is the heart Bay Area indie theatre, with PianoFight becoming a close second), but not everyone is willing to cross the bridge. Oakland and Berkeley need places like that, spots where shows lacking budget but overflowing with ambition can thrive.
It’s also prudent for folks in SF to do a bit more travelling to find shows. I’ll admit that I’m not one to make it out to Marin Shakes or down to San Jose, but when a place is BART-accessible, there’s very little excuse for not trying to make it out. SF theatre patrons tend reflect the changing face of The City rather than the diversity they claim to want. Hell, a lot of SF theatre folk seem to think “White people theatre” is all that’s available in SF, despite Af-Am Shakes, Yugen, and Bindlestiff (to name but a few) putting on regular work. There’s an abundance of diverse work to be found both in- and outside of SF proper.
The Flight Deck was one of those places. I know the temptation is there to further sound the alarm of “The Death of Art in The Bay Area”, but it’s the aforementioned show I saw is one of the reasons why I won’t. The very theme of that show is hoping still springing in the face of the nigh apocalypse. I’ll miss The Flight Deck. If I had the cash, I’d buy the space myself. But I know too much about Bay Area theatre to call this the end. A setback, yes. The finale? Hell no.
Annie Baker’s The Flick is a terrible show. I know that’s harsher than the merely-below-average grade I gave it, but that’s because I’ve soured to the Shotgun production even more since then. Everyone has been praising it to the high heavens and it’s already made a few “Best of 2019” lists. One thing I’ve noticed: everyone who’s praised it to me has been White. Every. Single. One. Annie Baker wrote a bloated, self-congratulatory play about making White people feel better about themselves, featuring one of the worst-written Black characters I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen a lot of ‘em. There are ways to talk about the subjects she addresses (gentrification, racism, sexual consent), but Baker picks the wrong ones over three interminable hours.
It’s all the more pronounced because, so far as the racism goes, Shotgun put on an infinitely superior play right before it. Their production of James Ijames’ Kill. Move. Paradise. sticks with me like the terror it dramatizes. It perfectly captures the indescribable terror being a Black man and looking at every passing cop car with the thought “Is this the day?” lingering in the back of your mind. Baker’s show is exemplary of someone who thinks, “I brought up this important topic, and bringing it up is more important than getting it right.” Ijames’ show is about getting it right.
Some other great examples:
The above are examples of how taking on important topics requires more than just the ability to research them on Wikipedia. If you’re going to speak on a topic, know what the hell you’re saying. Surround yourself with experts, delve into the lives of those who’ve most experienced it, open your mind to the possibility that your life is experience isn’t universal. Some of the worst theatre I saw this year was that which otherwise intelligent people (dramatically) spoke out of their asses. Shows like those listed were a welcome relief.
The Flight Deck wasn’t the only landmark to shut down this year. Although musical company Ray of Light has no plans to stop singing, they had to put an end to their annual Rocky Horror Hallowe’en production. Not because of high rents or rising ticket costs, but because the ACT will have the only SF production of it next year. The scrappy annual indie production has to stop because the Big Man on Campus with corporate sponsors wants to give it a go. Mind you, ACT’s production might actually be good, only time will tell, but there’s something obscene about a major thinking themselves superior just because they’re a major. Rocky Horror, in particular, has a dodgy history of producers trying mainstream it. The ACT’s attempt doesn’t pique my interest all that much. (Poor Yella Rednecks on the other hand…)
Also packing it in will be The Speakeasy, the year-round Prohibition-era theatre/casino that rose from the ashes of Boxcar Theatre. As with most things to which Nick Olivero attaches his name, I’ve heard just as many bad things about it as I have great things. Many’s the time I’ve sat drinking with cast members who would praise the friendships made amongst the cast, but lament the business practices. Promises were broken, schedules were changed on a whim, and I’ve heard that payment would occasionally be an issue. These are the anecdotes told me that I’ll write about publicly, but I’ll definitely say that I don’t know which former Speakeasy folks were more pissed: former actors or former writer? And yet, there were plenty of cast members and customer who loved the show beyond measure, often bragging to their friends who couldn’t afford the hundred-dollar-tickets. The Speakeasy is quintessential SF theatre because it’s a quintessential SF start-up: when it went under, there were just as many people around to praise it as to bury it.
And… of course… there’s the one we can’t ignore. It’s the one that has defined the City for decades. It’s the one I’ve used for the photo at the top of this peace. This New Year’s Eve will see the final performance of SF’s own Beach Blanket Babylon, the longest-running musical revue show in the world. And it also isn’t closing due to being priced out, because the creators are exhausted. That’s what happens when you do a show year-round for 40+ years, you get tired. Even when the show evolves with every iteration, there eventually comes a time when you have to decide whether to pass it onto someone else (which they had no intention of doing) or close it for good. They chose the latter. We should all be so lucky as to have that option with our artistic ventures.
I see that I’m already some 3,200 word into this piece and I haven’t even touched on topics like Stephen Beucher’s discrimination lawsuit against the ACT, SHN becoming BroadwaySF, or how the Marsh solo show Jap Box was forced to change its title by people who didn’t understand the significance of said title. And those are just things off the top of my head.
Instead, I’ll leave you with this: Lucky 13. If you don’t know it, it’s a dive bar in SF – been there for 19 years. You can spot it by its red exterior and angry kitty logo. There have been quite a few times I’d head there with folks like SF theatre’s own Megan Cohen and drink as we discussed whatever topic over raised voiced. This year, the bar evaded its umpteenth attempt at being bought out and replaced by condos. It’s a battle it can’t fight forever, but it does.
I’ve mentioned quite often that I was born in San Francisco. I’m not just one of the few Black people who can still say that, but one of the few people, period. The Sword of Damocles that is possibly being kicked out hangs over my head every moment of ever day. If it comes down, so be it. Because I won’t leave by choice. I don’t fault my friends who’ve left for the (supposedly) cheaper pastures of LA, Chicago, Austin, or where ever. But I do know that those places are now just as expensive. Hell, the only place in the US more expensive than SF is New York. How many places can you run until you find that you’re just running from the same problem? When do you decide to dig in your heels, confront the problem, and fix it? I don’t stay here to make a statement, but my staying here makes a statement.
I’m an artist – making statements is what I do. The San Francisco Bay Area makes artistic statements unlike anywhere else in the world. As long as I’m here, I will make that statement and appreciate the privilege I have of experiencing everyone else’s statements. I may not love them – I may not even like them – but I will tell you the truth. So, let’s see what this new decade has in store for my favorite City.
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