Intersection breaks walls, audience follows


Mirrors 3 - family
Pictured from left: Daveed Diggs, Traci Tolmaire, Margo Hall and Dwight Huntsman in the world premiere
of Chinaka Hodge’s
Mirrors in Every Corner at Intersection for the Arts. Photos by Pak Han


Watching the audience on stage at Intersection for the Arts was a stunning experience. Sometimes theater companies trying to push boundaries and break down walls really do get it right.

The show in this case is Oakland playwright Chinaka Hodge’sMirrors in Every Corner, and the companies involved in bringing it to life are many: Intersection, Campo Santo and The Living Word Project’sYouth Speaks theater company. They say it can take a village. In this case, it takes a community.

When you walk into the performance space at Intersection – sort of a bunker-like lecture hall – there’s something definitely different going on. The audience is milling about the stage as if at an art gallery. Wait – the stage is an art gallery. When artist Evan Bissell was asked to collaborate on the show and create a set, he didn’t quite know how to go about doing that, so he created a stunning art installation about families and racial identity and about community. There’s a giant mural of a Mission District family across the back wall, while on another there are seemingly hundreds of framed photos, collages, stories and poems all created by families in the Mission who came to Intersection for what turned out to be a hugely successful free family portrait day. Some came back to create art and write poems.
Mirrors 2 - Daveed, Margo

Intersection has always been a wall breaker, even if only because you have to cross the stage to get to the bathroom. The audience has always seemed part of the action, but this installation takes the concept even further.

By the time Hodge’s play begins, the audience is in an open-minded space ready to experience more art, and Hodge delivers in a big way. Her play – directed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph – is hilarious and deadly serious, outlandish and completely personal. She may only be 25 (and a product of the Youth Speaks program since her mid-teens), but this is a playwright to watch.

She tells the story of a black Oakland family with a secret. A mom (Margo Hall) and her three boys (Daveed Diggs, Dwight Huntsman and Traci Tolmaire) play cards and flip back and forth through time to tell the story of the family’s youngest member, Miranda aka “Random,” who for some mysterious reason was born white.

What that means to the family, let alone to the outside world, fills the play’s 80-some minutes with familiar warmth and humor, intense soul search and surprising violence. Hodge firmly grounds her play in a traditional family story, but she plays with all kinds of flourishes (some that work better than others) that imbue every moment with the tension of surprise and the delight of seeing a playwright flower.

As the matriarch, Hall is an intelligent woman caught up in a biological mystery. Hall also plays Random, and it is a testament to this actor’s tremendous skill that much of the play’s excitement comes from watching her slip effortlessly from role to role.

All the actors are terrific, but Diggs is especially vivid as Watts, the eldest child and the one with the wryest, driest sense of humor.

Mirrors in Every Corner reflects all kinds of wonderful things, most notably a young playwright making a sensational debut and a theatrical collaboration that doesn’t just talk about change but makes it.


Chinaka Hodge’s Mirrors in Every Corner continues an extended run through March 28 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 415 626-2787 ext. 09 or visit

Hip-hop theater gets Luckey

Ariel Luckey 1

For a long time, Oakland activist and hip-hop theater artist Ariel Luckey (above, photo by Amanda Salzman) suffered the same social, cultural and historical amnesia that afflicts many of us. But he cured his amnesia by paying attention. And using everything he learned, he created a show.

Luckey grew up amid the rich, multicultural diversity of the Bay Area and knew his ancestry had Jewish and Christian roots, but he wasn’t clear what his cultural identity was, as he says, “besides being a generic American whatever.”

“I was coming into consciousness as a young adult, striving to understand who I am, where I come from,” Luckey says on the phone from his North Oakland home. “Asking deeper questions led to an interest in my family history and finding out where they came from, when they immigrated and what they went through.”

His first step was to interview his last living grandparent, his mother’s father, who now lives in the Midwest but spent much of his life on a Wyoming ranch, which, in the 1920s, really was the wild, wild West, with no electricity or running water, where the buffalo roamed and the deer and the antelope played.

“I had heard stories about the famous cowboy childhood of my grandfather, but I had never really talked to him as an adult and gone into the deeper dynamics,” Luckey says.

Delving into how the family got the land for the ranch in the first place, Luckey learned that his great-grandfather had homesteaded the land, which essentially means the government had handed over land to the family. So Luckey asked his grandfather who had been on the land before their family had it.

“He said it had been empty,” Luckey recalls.

That sparked a whole lot of questions for Luckey, who was then 23. He returned home to Oakland and began researching intensely, and he found out that within 10 miles of his family’s ranch in 1876, there was a major battle between the U.S. Army and the Northern Cheyenne, who were in their winter camp. This was just after the Battle of the Little Big Horn (aka Custer’s Last Stand), where the Army had suffered a brutal defeat. Federal policy dictated that soldiers hunt down resistant tribes and kill them or send them to a reservation.

The Army attacked at dawn, killed a number of the tribe, burned the village and sent the rest off into the snow with no supplies. Though many members of the tribe died in the harsh winter, the survivors turned themselves in to a reservation in the spring.

Ariel Luckey 2

“A major turning point for the Northern Cheyenne had come, essentially, on land given to my family 45 years later,” Luckey says. “It was heavy when I found that out, and it makes this direct link between me and my grandfather and our family’s experience to a much broader, bigger experience of genocide of Native Americans. That was kind of a hard thing to sit with.”

Being an activist, a teacher, a poet and a performer, Luckey, now 29 (photo at right by Maryam Roberts), processed all this new information through art.

“It occurred to me that this is really a much bigger story than my family’s story,” he says. “Most white people have some version of this as part of their history. Studies say one out of three white Americans have at least one ancestor who homesteaded. This is really part of the nation’s legacy that is not talked about or acknowledged.”

A couple years ago, Luckey had taken part in Intersection for the Arts’ Alternative Theatre Institute, where he worked with noted Bay Area actor/director Margo Hall. When he started to create a show based on his family’s history, Luckey approached Hall about directing.

“What impressed me about Ariel is that this isn’t just a job. It’s his life,” Hall says. “He’s an activist, and I thought to myself, `Wow, look at this young hip-hop artist practicing what he preaches.’ The piece itself deals with white privilege, and I hadn’t really heard a lot about that. There was so much history in the piece I didn’t remember from high school. And he’s such a go-getter and such a hard worker, I knew we would be able to make a beautiful piece.”

After a number of workshops and test runs, Luckey’s solo show Free Land has its world premiere this weekend at Berkeley’s La Pena Cultural Center.

The 90-minute show, which features a score and sound design by Luckey’s brother, Ryan, that is scratched in onstage by DJ Sake1, begins with Luckey’s own story—a kid falling in love with hip-hop and learning about cowboys and Indians, learning about the Homestead Act in high school history and thinking it was boring as hell. He progresses through his experience of learning about his family’s ranch and the battle that took place nearby.

The battle itself is depicted in a rap song based on first-person narratives of people who were there, soldiers and natives.

“My intention with the piece is to critique the way history is taught in this country,” Luckey says. “I have to say that my wife is a history teacher at Berkeley High School, and I know there are some amazing teachers out there. But I think, systematically in this country, history is taught from a very European perspective and is pedagogically very boring and not for the iPod generation. I want to take history I think is important and fascinating and make it accessible to young people today.”

To that end, Luckey has developed an interactive workshop for schools or other groups that present Free Land in which he asks people to share information from their backgrounds, like where their great-grandparents were born.

“I’m amazed how many people don’t know the answer to that, let alone what native people lived on the land,” Luckey says. “People don’t know the names of their great-grandparents, let alone what their lives were like. It’s a broad generalization, but people around the world tend to have more connection to their histories, more honor for their ancestors than we do in our fast-paced, materialistic consumer society.”

Ariel Luckey’s Free Land is at 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday (May 1-3) at La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $7-$12. Call 510-849-2568 or visit for information. Visit Luckey’s Web site:

Here’s a sample of Free Land:

Theater review: `The Story’

The Story 3

The cast of SF Playhouse’s taut drama The Story includes, from left, Craig Marker, Ryan Peters, Kathryn Tkel and Halili Knox. Photos by Zabrina Tipton


Racial politics, lies, ambition and the rest of `The Story’

Writing about race it’s hard to do more than signify: this person is this color, therefore he or she must feel this way. The depth of real life, the complications of the actual people beneath the skin color is difficult to convey if you’re trying to relate plot points and especially if you’re trying to make a point.

One of the reasons Tracey Scott Wilson’s 2003 drama The Story is so satisfying is that she sets off a dramatic bomb, and just as we reach detonation, the play is over.

One of the key elements of good play writing is knowing when you’ve rattled your audience enough and it’s time to step away.

A co-production of the SF Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, The Story is a mere 75 minutes long, but playwright Wilson (currently represented in New York with the well-received The Good Negro) crams decades of civil rights action, unrest and unease into a play that also offers insight into why newspapers were in trouble long before the current economic crisis had doomed them to certain extinction.

Director Margo Hall knows that speed is of the essence here, and not a moment is wasted in the telling of Wilson’s tale, which is inspired by the story of Janet Cooke, a Washington Post writer in the early ’80s who won a Pulitzer Prize for a story she had, in large part, fabricated.

The Story 1

Wilson wants to know why an intelligent, ambitious woman like Cooke, here known as Yvonne Robinson (Ryan Peters) would pile lie up on lie in building a career in print journalism. Could it be that as a black woman, she felt she had to do whatever it took to convince people she was a viable reporter worthy of covering stories beyond the opening of a new community center in a primarily black neighborhood?

Or could it be the woman, after years of living her lies, could barely distinguish reality from the falsehoods?

Whatever, Wilson doesn’t offer any conclusions or pop psychology analysis. What she does is pile on the complications.

Yvonne is the new kid at a large metropolitan newspaper called The Daily. She’s aiming for the Metro department, where her blueblood boyfriend (Craig Marker) presides as editor. Instead, she’s relegated to the Outlook section, a community-minded department looking for positive stories to tell in the African-American community. The embittered Outlook editor, Pat (Halili Knox), has fought long and hard to integrate the newspaper to her liking. Her star reporter, Neil (Dwight Huntsman), takes an instant dislike to Yvonne, to her naked ambition, to her seeming denial of her cultural roots and to her sloppiness as a journalist.

For all her crankiness, Pat is the only character who seems to value the power of words and, consequently, the responsibility to execute journalistic responsibilities with care and precision. Were she working in the real world of journalism, she’d probably be unemployed.

Hall’s expert production clips along with help from set designer Lisa Clark’s sliding panels and Cy K. Eaton’s slick lighting design.

Secrets, lies and willful ignorance slide around the stage like those panels, giving us glimpses into the politics of newspapering and the racism of big city life. When a white man teaching at a mostly black inner city school is murdered, racial tension heightens in the city. That’s when two reporters, one ace, one novice, square off over getting the scoop on the murderer. Their duel is intense, and the results are frightening.

The scariest thing of all in this Story is the suppression of facts out of fear of political repercussion should the truth come out.

The Story continues through April 25 at SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40.Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information. For more on the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre season, visit


Review: `Sonny’s Blues’

Opened Jan. 8, 2008,Lorraine Hansberry Theatre

Word for Word scores with jazzy Blues
three [1/2] stars Musical and muscular

First we see snapshots, glimpses of lives we have yet to understand. And we hear music. First the trumpet, then the bass, then the sax and, finally, piano.

More than a short story, which is how Sonny’s Blues began life at the pen of James Baldwin, and more than a play, which is what Sonny’s Blues has become through the efforts of Word for Word, what we are seeing is a jazz tone poem about love and creation.

Word for Word is consistently the most interesting and adventurous small theater company in the Bay Area. What could be an intellectual exercise — adapting short works of fiction to the stage without changing a word of the original text — becomes, in this company’s capable hands, becomes thrilling, emotionally involving theater.

And with director Margo Hall at the helm of Sonny’s Blues, the experience grows even further. Hall’s understanding of Baldwin’s 1957 work, set in Harlem in the ’50s, includes a deep sensitivity to the musical aspect of both the subject matter and Baldwin’s jazz-influenced writing.

To enhance these Blues, Hall recruited local jazz great Marcus Shelby to score play, and Shelby’s work here (performed via recording) is extraordinary in the way it heightens the already intense emotions of Baldwin’s story.

Music is a key part of the relationship between two brothers. A man known only as Brother (Peter Macon) has gone to school, served in the Army and settled into a high school teaching career with a wife (Allison L. Payne) and three children. His younger brother, Sonny (Da’Mon Vann), younger by seven years, has had a more difficult time of it, feeling restless and unable to fully channel his creativity.

As time goes on, Sonny, a jazz pianist, falls in with the wrong crowd, and the brothers’ relationship fractures. Brother always feels a sense of guilt because he promised his mother (Margarette Robinson) before she died that he would always keep an eye on Sonny. But Sonny has turned to drugs — heroin — and Brother wants no part of that.

After reading about Sonny’s arrest in the newspaper, Brother reestablishes contact with his little brother, and when Sonny gets out of jail, the two men begin the tricky dance of actually being brothers to one another. This means that Sonny must somehow make Brother understand what it means to play and create music.

When Brother does start to come around, it inspires some of Baldwin’s most beautiful writing: “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations.”

Baldwin is wise enough not to offer a pat happy ending, but he does offer understanding and love and creativity at their most emotionally vulnerable.

Hall’s production is first rate. Her ensemble, which also includes Mujahid Abdul-Rashid and Robert Hampton, is fluid and capable of playing anything from a small child (Hampton) to a fireplug of a jazz player (Robinson).

In true Word for Word fashion, Sonny’s Blues is a triumph on all levels. The production itself — with a spare, efficient set by Lisa Dent and moody lights by Tom Ontiveros — is strong, the performances are solid and the text, already muscular and evocative, becomes even more so when brought to life.

But it’s Shelby’s music that puts the show over the edge. You can’t have Sonny’s Blues without real blues in your ears, and between Baldwin’s words and Shelby’s music, these Blues translate to bliss.

Sonny’s Blues continues through March 2 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$36. Call 415-474-8800 or visit or

Special event:
On Feb. 15, Marcus Shelby will perform live, with vocals by Miss Faye Carol. The event begins with a pre-show reception at 7:30 p.m. and the gala party afterward. Tickets are $95.

Margo Hall gets the `Blues’

You’re forgiven if you didn’t know quite how amazing Margo Hall is.

If you’re a regular Bay Area theatergoer, you already know that Hall is an extraordinary actor. Last year, for instance, she reprised the character Fe in Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts’ Fe in the Desert and gave one of the year’s best performances.

But Hall is also an accomplished director. She was one of the creative collaborators and one of the performers in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s award-winning docudrama The People’s Temple, and last year she co-directed Shotgun Players’ excellent Bulrusher at the Ashby Stage.

Surprisingly, Hall says she prefers directing to acting.

“I say that when I’m directing,” Hall says. “I do love acting, but there’s something so fun, so freeing about directing.”

And one of Hall’s favorite directing gigs is for Word for Word, the San Francisco company that does amazing work turning short works of fiction into fully staged theater pieces without changing a word of the original text.

With Word for Word, Hall has been both performer (Langston Hughes’ The Blues I’m Playing, Barbara Kingsolver’s Rose-Johnny, Zora Neale Hurston’s The Gilded Six Bits) and director (Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth, Greg Sarris’ Joy Ride).

She finds herself back in the Word for Word director’s chair for James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, which opens tonight at San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.

Baldwin’s story, published in 1957 and collected in the 1965 book, Going to Meet the Man, follows two brothers in 1950s Harlem. One is a schoolteacher and family man. The other is a jazz pianist with a troubled past.

Hall, who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Oakland with her husband, the actor L. Peter Callender, and their 12-year-old son, reread the story and responded to it immediately.

“Visualizing the piece wasn’t difficult,” Hall says on the phone from her home. “Ever since I’ve worked with Word for Word I can’t read a story without visualizing it. I didn’t visualize the story’s opening moment right away — that took some time. But I clearly saw other parts.”
The story’s jazz milieu was a natural for Hall, whose stepfather was a jazz musician.

“I was exposed to Sonny Rollins and a whole lot of other jazz cats,” Hall says. “I was familiar with the world of be-bop. My dad’s 15-piece band rehearsed in our basement. When I was rereading the story, this music, these people — Charlie Parker, Bird — I just knew it. It was familiar. I could hear the music and everything. It was really exciting.”

With jazz music so prominent in the story, Hall had to decide how to handle music in the production. Should there be live music? Should the actors play instruments themselves? At first, Hall considered casting her friend, the actor and beat-boxer Tommy Shepherd, but then she decided to go for the full jazz sound.

She approached her friend and previous collaborator Marcus Shelby, a prominent Bay Area jazz musician.

“I knew Marcus would know this story, this world,” Hall says. “The more we talked about the show and the score, the more I talked about the sounds in the show — the traffic, the subway — all being created by instruments in a very stylized way.”

Ideally, Shelby and his band would be playing live for each performance, but Hall says that would have required more time in an already crowded rehearsal schedule, so the score is recorded. But on Feb. 15, after the performance, Shelby will perform the music live at a gala reception.

One of the most extraordinary (and most consistent) things about Word for Word is the company’s skill at making literature come to life in surprising ways that enhance the story. The experience of seeing a Word for Word show is often as rich as reading and as thrilling as live theater because the show is, quite literally, both.

For Hall, the key to a good adaptation is transformation.

“It’s easy to put the story up, make it narrative and let the audience enjoy the beautiful language,” she says. “But capture the essence of the story is hard. We as the creative team have to go so deep that the audience can see the transformation and get a true, honest sense of what the story is when they leave.”

The more narration in a story, the harder it is to stage. Not surprisingly, if a story has a lot of dialogue, it’s fairly easy. Sonny’s Blues lands more on the narration-heavy end of that scale.

When Hall directed Friend of My Youth, another narrative-heavy story, she elected to direct her actors away from talking directly to the audience.

“This time, I went, `No, I’m gonna do it.’ The actors should definitely address the audience,” Hall explains. “This story is so universal — it’s about relationships and siblings. One is this conservative guy who went to school and became a teacher. Most of the audience will relate to him. Let’s have him talk to the audience, then get back into the scenes. This gives me as a director the opportunity to make bold choices.”

Next up for Hall: directing a solo show by Ariel Lucky, Free Land, about his family’s pioneer history and interactions with American Indians. She’s also continuing to teach at Chabot College (“I love my kids…they lift me up with their zaniness”) and being a mom.

“My son is a computer genius,” she says. “He has his own computer business and Web site. He fixes computers. He loves reading Shakespeare, but he wants to be a CEO.”

Sonny’s Blues continues through March 2 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $22-$36. Call 415-474-8800 or visit or