Monday, September 25, 2017

New Works From Local Playwrights

Writers don't become fully-developed wordsmiths overnight. It takes years of building a vocabulary, observing life, and finding a means by which to express one's feelings before a person starts to show any signs of having a genuine talent. Parents proudly put their children's crude artwork on the refrigerator door without any delusions that, at such an early stage of expression, these works of [extremely] primitive art will sell for record-breaking prices at trendy galleries. The presence of such pictures in the kitchen gives these drawings more sentimental than monetary value.

By the time children enter middle school they will have been exposed to sufficient storytelling from television, films, and video games to be begin formulating stories of their own. Those who become precocious readers may show signs of being able to string more than 140 characters together in order to express themselves (children whose minds stay afloat in the raging seas of anti-intellectualism have a better chance of developing good communication skills).

While there may be hints of talent, writing is like a muscle that must continually be flexed in order to gain strength. Just as doodlers display an artistic skill that shows potential, the strength of one's writing improves over time. The only proof required is to see how writers react to samples of their earliest work. Some will be amused, others will be embarrassed. Some might feel a tinge of nostalgia for their lost innocence, others will see no need for improvement.

The good news is that it's no longer necessary to live under the tyranny of "Publish or perish!" Thanks to the ability to self-publish one's work on a blog, many writers who would have received a steady stream of rejection slips from traditional publishing houses are now free to build their own brands online. E-books can be marketed to Kindle users through and other online channels. Nike's slogan ("Just Do It") now applies to writers as well as runners.

Last week I attended the world premiere productions of new works by two Bay area playwrights. Although each play was filled with carefully conceived characters and conflicts, the dramatic glue holding one play together demonstrated a mastery of craft; the other did not.

Due to calendaring issues, I was only able to attend the official opening night of one of these plays, which reminded me of a curious occupational hazard for theatre critics. Whether attending a season opener or the world premiere of a new work, audience expectations can be higher than usual. For those who have a financial investment in the success of an event (or an emotional investment in the success of friends involved in the event), there is a palpable nervous energy that can easily be magnified by celebratory pre-performance drinks and/or the anticipation of a post-performance party.

As a result, one often witnesses overly enthusiastic and occasionally shrill audience reactions (including standing ovations that can have a claque-like effect on compensating for less than stellar work). In a phenomenon similar to what happens after last call at some bars, those who are cold sober may have a noticeably different perception of the performance they just witnessed.

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I was unable to attend the opening night performance of Kheven LaGrone's first full-length play, The Legend of Pink, that is being presented by Theatre Rhinoceros at the Gateway Theatre. Directed by Aejay Mitchell, LaGrone's drama focuses on some hot-button issues familiar to Bay area audiences: racism, transphobia, gang violence, income inequality, and the challenges of living a closeted versus an out-and-proud lifestyle. The action takes place in 1989 in West Oakland as local drug wars continue to wreak havoc on the neighborhood.

Bradford (Maurice André San-Chez) is a young African American whose father is a respected judge and whose family lives in San Francisco. As he tours some local nightspots, he finds himself being regarded as a "good black" rather than a genuine black man. Is it the color of his skin, the expensive clothes he wears, or the fact that he's driving his father's Mercedes that sets him apart from the people he encounters in his nighttime pursuits?

One thing is clear: Bradford's not meeting the kind of people he yearns for. In a phone conversation with a close friend, he relates how his car "just seemed to drive itself" over the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and find its way to a rundown neighborhood that reeked of excitement and potential danger.

Charles Peoples III stars in The Legend of Pink
(Photo by: David Wilson)

In order to seem authentically ghetto, Bradford chooses the alias DeShawn and tries to go with the flow. While exploring the neighborhood, he meets Pink (Charles Peoples III), an ebullient and self-sufficient drag queen who lives in the basement of a crack house but maintains high standards with regard to the men she dates. Before they part, Pink gives him her business card and invites him to come visit her sometime.

Charles Peoples III (Pink) and Maurice André San-Chez (DeShawn)
in a scene from The Legend of Pink (Photo by: David Wilson)

Pink's closest friends are her butch lover, Ace (R. Shawntez Jackson), and the catty Nikki (Phaedra Tillery). Though Ace may still be confused about his sexuality (thinking that he "does his job" whenever he has sex with Pink), Nikki is the play's sarcastic truth teller. While Ace, Pink, and Nikki are all graduates of the School of Hard Knocks, DeShawn is a privileged college student with little in the way of street smarts. He naively accepts a joint from one of the local drug dealers without ever thinking that it might be laced with PCP.

The results aren't pretty. DeShawn begins to hallucinate, has a panic attack, strips off all his clothing, and starts running through the streets stark naked. When shots ring out, Pink and Ace understand that they need to make a quick exit in order to avoid a jail sentence (or worse). In his program note, John Fisher (the artistic director of Theatre Rhinoceros) writes:
"Kheven LaGrone's beautiful play about West Oakland in 1989 speaks to the changing natures of real estate, identity, and desire. I have ridden my bike around this neighborhood for three decades and the changes are startling. I have in the same time redefined my own identity and refocused my own desires. Maybe this is why the play spoke to me when we had a staged reading of it in the spring at the LGBT Historical Society. The things that spoke to me most about that experience were the immediacy of the language, the rich, fascinating characters, and the beauty of the relationships. Kheven and I are both devotees of Tennessee Williams and I hear in The Legend of Pink echoes of Williams' gorgeous dialogue and the complex, often troubled, always desperately needful relationships of his characters. It strikes me as a very Williams play except that, and this is what I love so much about it, Pink is about the Bay area, performance, and queerness, three things so important to me and so absolutely in need of constant portrayal. For if we don't put them on stage, who will?"
R. Shantez Jackson (Ace) and Charles Peoples III (Pink) in a
scene from The Legend of Pink (Photo by: David Wilson)

With costumes by Kitty Muntzel and a unit set designed by Bert van Aalsburg, the Wednesday night performance I attended generated far less excitement than people may have experienced on opening night. Some of this is due to LaGrone's script, which is in sore need of tightening. Too many moments seemed to implode due to some clumsy acting.

Whenever this happens, I ask myself one simple question: "Do I care about these people?" On many occasions, the answer is no. With regard to The Legend of Pink, there's no question that LaGrone's deeply-conflicted characters are desperately trying to live out their fantasies:
  • Pink would like to believe that, with the help of women's beauty magazines, a keen eye, and a determination to be her true self, she has created a colorful personality that can rise above the squalor of her surroundings.
  • Ace would like to believe that he's only having sex with a transgender woman because "it's his job" (and not because he actually likes to suck dick).
  • Brandon/DeShawn would like to believe that he's a whole lot cooler than his privileged background suggests.
All three of these people are deluding themselves. Unfortunately, LaGrone's weakly-conceived epilogue (in which the respectably married Ace and Pink return to their old neighborhood 20 years later to see what it looks like) ends the evening with a whimper. Top honors for acting go to Charles Peoples III (who scored a nice success earlier this year as Adam in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and Phaedra Tillery for her robust portrayal of Nikki.

Phaedra Tillery as Nikki in The Legend of Pink (Photo by: David Wilson)

Performances of The Legend of Pink continue through September 30 at the Gateway Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's some footage from rehearsals:

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If one wanted to identify a promising, prominent, and prolific Bay area playwright, the obvious choice would be Christopher Chen. A graduate of U.C. Berkeley who earned his Master of Fine Arts in Playwriting from San Francisco State University, Chen's plays have been performed throughout the Bay area, starting with 2009's The Window Age at Central Works, 2012's A Game at the Bay Area One Acts Festival, 2016's Caught at the Shotgun Players, and 2017's You Mean To Do Me Harm as part of the San Francisco Playhouse's Sandbox Series for New Works.

In addition to receiving the 2017 Obie Award for Playwriting, Chen was co-winner of the 2017 Lanford Wilson Award. He currently holds commissions for new plays from San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as well as New York's LCT3, Manhattan Theatre Club, and Playwrights Horizons. As Chen's career has blossomed, he has become known for the complexity of thought matrices that link his characters as well as his gift for producing scripts that derive a great deal of dramatic strength from the musicality inherent in his use of language. In describing his 2009 play (which premiered at Berkeley's Central Works), Chen wrote:
"The Window Age captures a period of transition reminiscent of our current age of change and explores the ambiguities that surface when an old order is replaced by a new one. One of the play's primary questions is: In an era of breaking old structures apart, how do we create order out of the chaos that remains?"
Playwright Christopher Chen

Currently serving a term as resident playwright at San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theater, which has staged two of his plays (2012's The Hundred Flowers Project and 2014's The Late Wedding), Chen recently premiered an impressive new drama that deals with sociopolitical power grabs. Like many of his works, A Tale of Autumn has an acute timeliness that challenges audiences to examine how conscious choices can lead to shocking consequences.

The action takes place in and around Farm Company, a theoretically benevolent corporation whose founder and CEO has just died. Liv embraced the extremely progressive philosophy that a company could profit from providing sustenance and synergy through a policy of "ambitious citizenship." With its adherence to "The Way," FarmCo treads a fine line between being a corporatized cult like Scientology or a corporation like Apple, that has inspired a cult-like following.

Although FarmCo's seemingly altruistic stance ("We are united in a combined passion and purpose: that all citizens will have access to food and water under our watch") seeks to use the food it produces as a substitute for money, some of Liv's most devoted followers prove vulnerable to the age-old temptations of greed, power, market domination, conformity, and control over peoples' lives.

Chief among these is San (Nora el Samahy), an ambitious woman whose amorality starts to clash with FarmCo's altruistic philosophy as she becomes increasingly addicted to power. Despite the more rational influence of Marianna (Mia Tagano), the titular head of FarmCo's Board of Directors, San's ability to ruthlessly manipulate and intimidate people can barely be contained. As she vies with Dave (Lawrence Radecker) to become the company's next CEO, San plots her path to victory with carefully cloaked malice aforethought.

Nora el Samahy (San) and Christopher W. White (Xavier) in a
scene from A Tale of Autumn (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Dave's ambition is egged on by his boyfriend, Gil (Shoresh Alaudini), who makes no bones about the fact that he will leave Dave if he doesn't become CEO. In a moment of desperation, Dave inflicts multiple bodily injuries on Xavier (Christopher W. White). Perhaps that's because one of San's first steps was to call in a favor from her old friend, a chemist who discovered how to use his botanical knowledge to undermine Dave's crops.

Michele Apriña Leavy (Gesalm) and Maria Candelaria (Rena)
in a scene from A Tale of Autumn (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Meanwhile, an independent farmer named Gesalm (Michele Apriña Leavy) has been living a contented life without succumbing to FarmCo's corporate demands. When interviewed by the young and idealistic Rena (Maria Candelaria) who is posing as a journalist, Gesalm and her tenant, Yul (Skyler Cooper), demonstrate that there are ways of leading a life with integrity without being dominated by a corporation.

Lawrence Radecker (Dave) and Shoresh Alaudini (Gil) in
a scene from A Tale of Autumn (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

It doesn't take long for Rena and Yul to find themselves sexually attracted to each other (or for David and Gil to make peace with the handsome financial settlement they've received from San). But then things start to go wrong. Along with 20 other villagers, Gesalm suddenly and inexplicably dies from food poisoning.

With our nation careening toward more aggressive displays of corporate personhood ever since the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, “the systemic dominance of corporate power” became a likely subject for Chen to explore.
“It wasn’t difficult to conclude that corporations are the power sources of our modern society. In the Bay area, where our personal commerce guru (Steve Jobs) helped ease a relentless capitalism into the modern age by infusing his consumer products with an almost moral religiosity, our mindfulness movement sometimes seems like a cover for selfishness and complacency. We are often driven by values we claim to despise. I took this play as an opportunity to look closely and frankly at some of the most foundational values that guide our lives and motivations, even if they at times take on more benign, even altruistic forms.”
Nora el Samahy (San) proves that knowledge is power
in A Tale of Autumn (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)
“I’ve been interested in forging a play language that is nimble and flexible enough to more instantaneously react to up-to-the-moment dialogue around the social dynamics I see around me. I’m experimenting with creating a minimalist, timeless fable world where characters speak in disarmingly contemporary language. The fable trope is useful in that ideas can be explored with an almost primitive bluntness that is tempered by an easygoing naturalism. The idea behind this juxtaposition (fable realism) is to create almost scientific experiment conditions where characters can debate current issues stripped of associations that could cause prejudgment in the audience. In order for this dynamic to function correctly, the audience must be willing to genuinely think (in real time) about their own relationship to the questions being posed.”
Skyler Cooper (Yul) and Maria Candelaria (Rena) in a
scene from A Tale of Autumn (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Working on a unit set designed by Adeline Smith (with costumes by Miriam R. Lewis, lighting by Ray Oppenheimer, and sound and video design by Theodore J. H. Hulsker), Mina Morita has directed A Tale of Autumn with care to reveal the hidden agendas motivating Chen's characters as San continues to eliminate anyone who might block her path to glory. Judging by the play's surprise ending, her lust for power proves that when it comes to corporate backstabbing, the ends justify the means.

Performances of A Tale of Autumn continue through October 7 at the Potrero Stage (click here for tickets).