Rough neighborhood, extraordinary theater

Tenderloin 2

Leroy and Kathy Looper (Rebecca Frank and David Sinaiko), Tenderloin community activists and owners of the Cadillac Hotel, describe the Tenderloin as a “containment zone.” Below: Filipino Health and Wellness Director Ester Aure (Tristan Cunningham) gives a motivational talk in Cutting Ball Theater’s World Premiere of Tenderloin. Photos by Rob Melrose

Waiting for a friend in front of the EXIT on Taylor theater, where Cutting Ball Theater is in residence, I had what you might call a Tenderloin experience. On Taylor between Eddy and Ellis, right smack dab in the middle of what some consider one of the least desirable neighborhoods in San Francisco (certainly in downtown San Francisco), the theater is not exactly in a prime tourist spot. There’s always a lot of activity in the neighborhood, much of it the kind that makes an outsider keep eyes averted, head down and feet moving quickly.

So there I was, pacing the sidewalk. Across the street, a man in some sort of state was speaking loudly and doing a sort of dance with a parking meter. With some difficulty, he got himself out of his jacket, which he draped over the meter and then sort of danced with it. Well, danced and held himself up with it. The shouting continued and quickly began to be directed more toward me. The man stumble-walked across the street, and because there’s a downhill slope, he ended up on my side of the street a little further toward the corner. But the shouting was definitely directed at me, something about how he’s a veteran and could kill me and who did I think I was. He tried spitting for emphasis, but mostly spattered the right side of his shirt.

I must admit a little relief when my theater date arrived, and we were able to move on. The irony is that the show we were seeing, Cutting Ball’s world-premiere Tenderloin, takes as its subject this neighborhood and its denizens. I felt like my own personal version of the show had already begun on the sidewalk outside the theater.

You may think you know the Tenderloin – drugs, poverty, violence, crime – and certainly those impressions are valid, but Tenderloin challenges audiences to think more deeply about the neighborhood, its history, its significance and even its beauty. Director and head writer Annie Elias and her team of actor-journalists – Tristan Cunningham, Siobhan Doherty, Rebecca Frank, Michael Kelly, Leigh Shaw, David Sinaiko and David Westley Skillman (who is not in the show) – spent more than a year collecting interviews, conducting workshops and shaping a theater piece out of the real life happening on the other side of the theater walls.

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The result is a compelling and compassionate piece of documentary theater in the best tradition of Tectonic Theater Project and Anna Deavere Smith. You walk out of the theater with a fresh perspective, not just on the Tenderloin but on the wider world, all of which could be more interesting if you spend some dedicated time – like the 2 1/2 hours of Tenderloin – listening to people with stories to tell and important information to impart.

Of course it helps to have someone as skilled and humanistic as Elias doing the shaping of the stories. She mixes humor into the drama and finds fresh and surprising perspectives from her extraordinary range of characters, all of whom are played with integrity and admirable realism by the actors, all of whom also did the original interviews. I was especially delighted by Cunningham’s ebullient portrayal of Ester Aure, the director of Filipino Health and Wellness, and I was thrilled every time the action shifted to Kathy and Leroy Looper, played with beguiling cross-gender skill by Sinaiko and Frank.

As rich and rewarding as Tenderloin is, it still feels somehow unfinished. Like it’s one story short of brilliance. The show left me wanting more, but then again, it made me realize how much better I could be at finding and listening to stories on my own.


[bonus interviews]

I talked to director/writer Annie Elias, actor/journalist David Sinaiko and photographer/character Mark Ellinger for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.



Cutting Ball Theater’s Tenderloin continues an extended run through June 10 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 415-525-1205 or visit

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