About Chad Jones

Chad Jones is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist and theater enthusiast. He was a theater critic and features writer for the Oakland Tribune/Bay Area News Group for 10 years. He is a member of the Will Glickman new play award committee and served as the San Francisco correspondent for London-based magazine Plays International. He is the executive director of the San Francisco Arts Education Project (www.sfartsed.org), a nonprofit started in 1968 that provides hands-on arts experiences for children in public schools. Contact me at chiatovich@gmail.com

Superstar heralds return to holy place (aka the theater)

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The cast of the North American tour of Jesus Christ Superstar (featuring Aaron LaVigne in the center as the title character) has a light last supper. The show is at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. Below: James T. Justis is Judas. Photos by Matthew Murphy


Hosanna, hey sanna, sanna sanna ho! It sure feels good to be back in a big theater seeing a big Broadway show. This must be the way some people feel going back to church. You might even call it a religious experience.

Except when the show in question is Jesus Christ Superstar, that spiritual uplift quickly turns into confusion. With only a limited knowledge of the Bible, I’ve always found JCS to be a mediocre show with occasional thrills in the score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. I can fully understand why this show became such a sensation more than 50 years ago when the concept album was released (and nothing fires sales more than cries of “Sacrilege!”). Here was a rock opera/Passion Play that really rocked and yowled like the music of the day but also had some orchestral heft to differentiate it from other emerging rock musicals (like Hair).

I can also understand how audiences might have been baffled when the show opened on Broadway Oct. 12, 1971 (50 years ago this week!). If you don’t already know the story of Jesus’ last few weeks or who Judas or King Herod were, the show doesn’t do much to help you out.

Over the last five decades, JCS has become a mainstay, and it seems revisions and revivals and re-imaginings have kept this show resurrecting nonstop. I have yet to see anyone make a case for this being a great show, and the 50th anniversary North American tour now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season is more interesting than many productions I’ve seen, but it still falls significantly short of miraculous.

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Director Timothy Sheader, who first staged this production for London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2016, aims to rediscover the zeal and youthful cheekiness of the original two-disc concept album by training focus on the music and making this show feel more like a concert than a traditional musical. And the music (not necessarily the voices) quickly emerges as the best part of this touring production. Music director Shawn Gough leads an 11-piece ensemble that expertly captures that unique Lloyd Webber sound blending the symphonic with rock, most notable here in the horns and the guitars.

Set on what looks to be the naked girders of a ruined building (set design by Tom Scutt, who also designed the hair and the costumes), the band occupies the upper levels while the ensemble scampers all over the stage, with a lot of concentrated action on the cross-shaped platform.

Actors in this show don’t have a lot to work with when it comes to characters. They get one act and 95 minutes of nearly nonstop singing that fails to provide much in the way clarity or emotional connection. Aaron LaVigne only really makes an impression as Jesus during “Gethsemane.” Otherwise he just seems like a nice, man-bunned hipster who gets caught in a violent sci-fi story with a mean friend (James T. Justis as Judas) and a sex worker friend who doesn’t know how to love him (Jenna Rubaii as Mary Magdalene). Pilate and the Roman soldiers look like murderous aliens, and King Herod (a fun Paul Louis Lessard) seems to be visiting from an entirely different, much campier and more enjoyable planet.

There’s a weird blend of the realistic and the mythical here. For instance, when Jesus is arrested and is heading toward execution, he emerges shirtless and drenched in blood. Then, when it’s time for the 39 lashes, the whip is replaced with golden glitter bombs. By the end of the lashing, he looks like a terribly abused Academy Award crossed with a disco ball. Probably not the vibe you want when you’re about to watch someone die slowly on a cross.

The thing about Jesus Christ Superstar is this: if you get carried away by the original album (and it still sounds remarkably vital), there is likely never going to be a production better than the one in your head. But isn’t it interesting that the theater where JCS premiered 50 years ago, the Mark Hellinger Theatre, is now the Times Square Church? Hosanna indeed.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jesus Christ Superstar continues through Nov. 7 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$226. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com

BroadwaySF COVID policies are here.

A joyful circus bounces into Club Fugazi

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Ruben Ingwersen (left) and Jérémi Levesque hit remarkable heights in Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story, the exuberant new show at Club Fugazi. Below: Devin Henderson jumps through the hoop. Photo credit: Kevin Berne


If it were possible to actually see the heart of San Francisco, it might look like the beautifully diverse group of awe-inspiring acrobats bouncing around the stage in Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story. And this is not just any stage: this is Club Fugazi, the storied North Beach theater built in 1913 where Beach Blanket Babylon ran for most of its nearly five-decade run.

That’s a tough act to follow, but you know what? COVID is even tougher. And the glorious artists behind this enterprise rise to the challenge and then some. As Bay Area theater slowly begins to wake up from its 18-month imposed nap, it’s positively bracing to be in the presence of not only the wonderful performers of Dear San Francisco but also the loving, funny, thrilling show itself.

Co-conceived, created and directed by Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider for their company, The 7 Fingers, this is a circus show that aims to share what’s lovable, what’s quirky and what’s annoying about San Francisco. Such a show could run for six hours at least, but this one runs around 90 minutes, and, happily, it doesn’t get hung up on SF stereotypes or get too sappy or silly about what makes this place unique. It takes an open-hearted approach and embraces these 7×7 miles by creating a portrait of a city that feels as wonderful and exciting as it feels unknowable. This isn’t a schmaltzy show built for tourists, but any living, breathing human (tourist or not) would be inclined to enjoy it and its robust portrait of the City by the Bay.

Carroll and Snider come to the world of the modern circus through San Francisco’s own chapter of circus renown, specifically through the Pickle Family Circus (Carroll was a trapeze artist and Snider’s parents founded the Pickles when she was 4). We tend to think of modern circus in terms of Cirque de Soleil, but I have to admit a certain weariness for that empty corporate spectacle. Give me a pulsing, human troupe like The 7 Fingers any day, and in addition to reveling in the performers’ skills, I’ll also enjoy their camaraderie, the light in their eyes and the magic they can create with their bodies and very little else.

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The nine-person cast is charming, sexy, funny and gobsmacking. If you’ve ever been to Fugazi, you know it’s not a very big theater. How Beach Blanket managed to get those giant props and hats onto that small stage is one of the wonders of the world. And 7 Fingers goes even further toward making this an intimate experience by putting audience members on the stage. Those folks almost end up with acrobats in their laps several times, but it’s hard to imagine anyone complaining.

There’s a poetic fluidity to the sequence of events, and the acrobatic acts themselves are woven into captivating vignettes about, for instance, falling in love in Golden Gate Park (which involves a trapeze and, apparently, a deal with gravity to take some time off). Or there’s the unicyclist who seems to be dancing and taking over the city on one wheel. It’s aggressive and beautiful at the same time (and the effect often appears more like rollerskating than unicycle riding).

Diving through a twirling hoop is set against recitations from the Beat poets, and the magnitude of an earthquake is measured by two men on a teeterboard (and it is seismic). Even Sam Spade and an enigmatic, truth-challenged client get in on the act with white balls (sort of like smaller volleyballs) that allow for a startling blend of film noir and juggling.

Tech folks get a mild skewering in a bit called “Privatize This,” and a hand balancing act becomes poetry in motion involving the beauty of redemption. My favorite act – the one that literally made me hold my breath – takes place on the stage-to-ceiling poles with a level of strength and control that is mind boggling.

Dear San Francisco really is a high-flying love story. There are people in love mixed into its portrait of a beautiful city, but it’s really a love story between us and the city itself. At one point, performers read postcards written by audience members (and some famous folk), and at Tuesday’s opening-night performance, one postcard said something to the effect of, “San Francisco, you have broken my heart and filled it over and over again,” which makes this place almost impossible to quit. How do you capture a historic city in flux? With a pile of irresistible acrobat performers, that’s how. This living, breathing love letter of a show finds joy in every leap, razzle-dazzle in every flip and absolute joy in every moment.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tickets for Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story are on sale through Dec. 30. Tickets are $35-$89. Call 415-273-0600 or visit clubfugazisf.com. Club Fugazi is at 678 Green Street., San Francisco.

COVID Protocol
Club Fugazi requires proof of full vaccination with valid ID upon entry for all guests 12 years and up. Acceptable forms of proof include your physical vaccination card, a photo of your vaccination card, or a digital vaccination record. (California residents can request a digital vaccination record at https://myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov/). Masks will be required for all patrons (including children) at all times. Unvaccinated children between the ages of 5 – 11 will be able to attend with vaccinated adult(s).

Only neo maxi zoom dweebies won’t enjoy BratPack

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For the Record Live and Feinstein’s at the Nikko present BratPack, a nostalgic fusion of ’80s movies and music that feels part musical, part concert, part vintage video from the age of MTV. Below: Zahan Mehta channels John Cusack in Say Anything. Photos by Kelly Mason courtesy of Feinstein’s at the Nikko

Feinstein’s at the Nikko, one of San Francisco’s last great cabaret rooms, is coming out of its pandemic slumber in day-glo colors, acid-washed denim and a new show that moves way beyond the traditional piano-bass-drums behind a singer idea.

We all love a cabaret diva and a set of songs from the Great American Songbook, but BratPack, which has transformed the room (and especially the stage) at Feinstein’s, is the high-energy, nostalgia-fueled fun fest we need right now.

And by “we” I really mean any GenX-er who graduated high school in the ’80s (greetings from the Reno High School Class of 1985) or who has a deep and abiding love of the John Hughes ouvre. And if you have to ask “what is a John Hughes ouvre?” this show may not be for you.

Hughes was the writer/director who tapped into the ’80s zeitgeist with the kind of generation-specific ferocity that has hardly been seen since. The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink comprise the holy Hughes trinity, and those are the three primary inspirations for BratPack, which takes music from the soundtracks and dialogue from the scripts to craft something in between a musical adaptation and a revue with hints of a really great wedding band and a ship-rocking cruise show thrown in for good measure.

Co-creators Shane Scheel and Anderson Davis take the five basic character outlines from The Breakfast Club – the Athlete, the Basket Case, the Criminal, the Princess and the Brain – and set them loose on the plots and music from Hughes films (which also include Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, Weird Science and Some Kind of Wonderful) as well as other ’80s teen flicks like Say Anything, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and St. Elmo’s Fire (not actually about teens but still feels like teens from a Hughes movie playing grown-up).

The fun is in the mash-up and all the surprises thrown in to delight and amuse ’80s devotees (relics?) throughout the show’s 90 minutes. There are only two dedicated musicians on stage (including musical director Matt Grandy on keyboards), so it’s up to the cast – Rachel Lark (Basket Case), Michael Martinez (Jock), Zahan Mehta (Rebel), Bryan Munar (Geek), May Ramos (Princess) – to add bass, guitar, drums, keyboards and percussion. Scott Taylor-Cole gets to play the enjoyably mean “adult” who takes the form of Ferris’ vengeful school principal and the sadistic detention monitor, Richard “Dick” Vernon. “Don’t mess with the bull, young man. You’ll get the horns.”

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The performers sound great – ’80s power with some contemporary singing competition cascading – and the music is appropriately LOUD as they build an all-encompassing teen story about secret crushes, proms, graduation, locker rooms, detention and fantasies. Their building blocks are songs like “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (the song we hear the most throughout the evening), “True,” “In Your Eyes,” “If You Leave” and “Melt with You.” There are also non-’80s tunes that factor significantly into some of the movies involved like “Try a Little Tenderness” (Pretty in Pink) and “Twist and Shout” (Ferris Bueller) as well as a pair of David Bowie greats – “Changes” and “Young Americans.”

It’s basically an ’80s-themed party with great music, favorite lines from the movies and re-creations of some of those iconic moments (think kisses over a birthday cake and boom boxes held aloft) – and it’s a whole lot of fun. Even the drinks are a kick – inspired by Capri Sun juice pouches, the brightly colored cocktails come in pouches with straws (there are traditional drinks available as well as food). Everything is ordered and paid for on your phone – one of the nice service improvements that COVID has given us.

Speaking of COVID (sad to even have to talk about something that didn’t exist in the ’80s), Feinstein’s requires proof of vaccination and masks when not eating or drinking. Cast members, who are vaccinated and tested regularly, are all over the room, belting and dancing their hearts out. Those who don’t want “Rebel Yell” sung in close proximity or who don’t want to sing-along with the Simple Minds’ “laaaa, la la la la la” might not be comfortable here.

Otherwise, this high-voltage exercise in cinematic and pop music nostalgia is the perfect place to revel in and re-live nearly 40-year-old memories that only seem to (day)glow brighter with time.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
BratPack continues through Nov. 7 at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $79-$104. Call 415-394-1100 or visit www.FeinsteinsSF.com.

Who’s Zooming who in ACT’s Communion?

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Stacy Ross is the star and the host of Communion, a new play presented on Zoom by American Conservatory Theater. Photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater


For almost 30 years now, I have enjoyed performances by Stacy Ross on Bay Area stages. From Shakespeare to comedy to drama, Ross is masterful in everything she does – incisive, direct and full of surprises. She is reason enough to see Communion a new Zoom play by San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen commissioned and produced by American Conservatory Theater through June 27.

Unlike a lot of Zoom plays we’ve experienced in the last year or so, this one uses the format to its fullest, weirdest, wonkiest effect. That means a certain degree of audience participation, but don’t let that scare you. How can you expect a play called Communion not to ask audience members to commune, albeit from their homes via the Zoom grid? Some people are asked to contribute more than others, but Ross, who is our Zoom meeting host as well as the star of the play, will make sure you’ve experienced pinned Zoom boxes, grid views, muted/un-muted microphones, breakout rooms and a camera that remains on for the duration of the play’s 70 minutes.

Chen, working with director Pam MacKinnon, happily blurs the lines between where Ross ends and the play begins. She is, ostensibly, playing herself and broadcasting from her home. She and Chen, or so she tells us, want to experiment with this unique moment in our history when we’ve been separated for so long, to see if we can experience true communion through this thing they have created: a play. We can’t have the usual 3-D, flesh-and-blood, wood-and-paint theater experience, but we can experience each other in real time and do things that may or may not make us feel bonded as an audience.

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If that sounds rather ordinarily aspirational, don’t forget that Chen is the architect of this experience, so it’s going to elevate into something smart, funny and unique in ways that may surprise you. The medium is the message here, and it can all get very meta, with Zooming about Zoom and thinking about thinking and communing over communion. Chen is constantly peeling back the layers, exposing the infrastructure and still asking us to stick with him, open-hearted but wary in order to make the play’s title come to fruition.

Ross is a beguiling host as she skillfully bridges her own life with glimpses into her past and her craft as an actor with her performance as a character in a play who may or may not be improvising even while she follows a script. We trust Ross, Chen and MacKinnon to take us someplace interesting, someplace we haven’t been on Zoom, and they definitely fulfill their end of that bargain. It’s ultimately what we go to the theater for in the first place: the illusion of reality that becomes real if you let it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s Communion continues through June 27 with live Zoom performances. Tickets are $41-$55. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Brilliant Mind artfully blends live, digital, interactive

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Denmo Ibrahim as Dina and Ramiz Monsef as Yusef in Marin Theatre Company and Storykrapht’s live and interactive premiere of Brilliant Mind by Denmo Ibrahim. Below: Dina and Yusef deal with the aftermath of their father’s death.


Samir El Musri texted me more than two dozen times the other night while I was watching an online play. Rather than tell Samir to stop bothering me while I was otherwise engaged, I eagerly awaited each short message or photograph.

Samir, you see, is not a real person. He’s a character in Denmo Ibrahim’s world-premiere show Brilliant Mind, a presentation from Marin Theatre Company and Storykrapht that revels in the digital realm rather than treats it like a stopgap until theaters reopen.

Before the 80-minute show begins, we’re invited to explore a virtual 3-D replica of Samir’s apartment in which there are a number of items that will trigger additional information. We’re also invited to allow Samir to text us and to put his name in our address book so the texts actually come from Samir (and heightens the reality of the experience).

Unlike many digital plays, Brilliant Mind begins at a proscribed time because, as it turns out, there’s a live aspect in addition to the interactivity, and that live aspect involves Samir himself (as played by Kal Naga aka Khaled Abol Naga, who has died this very day and exists in a sort of limbo while he observes his grown children, Yusef (Ramiz Monsef) and Dina (Ibrahim) sort through what he has left behind – physically, culturally, emotionally.

Dramatically speaking, this live aspect combined with previously filmed segments involving Ysef and Dina, could be gimmicky at best and technologically glitchy at worst. Happily, Ibrahim, working with director Kate Bergstrom and digital/interactive designer Marti Wigder Grimminck, folds this idea meaningfully into the narrative, making Samir an observer – as we are – of the unfolding action and giving him a touch of magic realism in that he is able to use his phone to text us (his fellow observers) and make his presence felt in the world his children occupy.

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Yet another interactive component allows viewers to choose the play’s path at certain moments, which frankly made me a little anxious because of I have FOMO and am always certain I choose the less interesting option (and if you don’t choose rather quickly, the system chooses for you, so there’s that).

All the technology aside, the story of Brilliant Mind is intriguing in its own right as it explores the lives of Yusef and Dina, first-generation Arab-Americans, and how their lives have been (are being) affected by the lives of their immigrant parents and how a family forms its identity through cultural roots, geography, secrets and the politics of history (and the history of politics).

Ibrahim has long been a Bay Area actor of note, someone to rely on for depth, intelligence and emotional realism on stage. She and Monsef are marvelous together as their scenes crackle with the fraught chemistry of siblings who want to do better by one another but mostly fail to rise to that challenge. This period following their father’s death is sort of an emotional crucible, which is, of course, an excellent time to check with them from a dramatic point of view.

The richness of the characters and the bells and whistles of the presentation can’t conceal certain lags in the script (which would probably be more effective on stage than on screen) and a reliance on clichés (especially for Samir), but it’s all so well acted and produced that there’s still a great deal to enjoy, savor and ponder.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Denmo Ibrahim’s Brilliant Mind continues performances through June 13. Tickets are $30. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

Spectacular Animal Wisdom conjures spirits & raises the roof

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Composer/performer Heather Christian stars in the original streaming film adaptation of the Bushwick Starr’s production of Animal Wisdom. Below:Christian and her cast/band connect with another realm.


In the last year, we’ve seen some splendid streamers and some snoozy streamers. We’ve seen filmed productions that get an A for effort (and that’s about it) and Zoom productions that somehow transcend those little boxes. Theater just hasn’t been theater for a while, and we’ve done the best we could, as audiences, as performers, as producers, to keep the spirit alive as best we could.

Then along comes something like Animal Wisdom, a filmed version of Heather Christian’s Bushwick Starr theater experience from the 2017/2018 season. This concert/play/séance/requiem, originally directed for the stage by Emilyn Kowaleski and now filmed by Amber McGinnis, emerges as one of the most searing and satisfying of our pandemic entertainments.

Filmed in March 2021 at Wooly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., and presented by Wooly Mammoth and American Conservatory Theater, Animal Wisdom is, as Christian puts it, “something else.” It’s not theater, it’s not a TV show. It’s in between (like some spirits), and her unique spin involves interactivity (you stand, you sit, you hum). Early on in the two-hour show, she stops the action and sends you on a scavenger hunt around your house. The things you collect will help create a “ritual space” because this is a show about the dead.

Since she was a child in Natchez, Mississippi, Christian has been able to see and communicate with ghosts. Animal Wisdom is about putting some of those ghosts to rest, and so she creates and performs an unusual requiem mass that involves some glorious music that contains everything from folk to rock to pop to gospel to punch-you-in-the-heart communion with…well, with something.

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Christian is our primary focus, but her fantastic band also gets in on the act playing various people – living and dead – in Christian’s life. Sasha Brown, Eric Farber, B.E. Farrow and Maya Sharpe make glorious music and match Christian’s remarkable energy. McGinnis’ filmmaking also powerfully captures the dynamic moods of the show, whether it’s a manic burst of energy that sends actors racing around the theater or a meditative moment on stag in near darkness.

You don’t have to believe in ghosts to enjoy this tale, though Christian is such an effective storyteller/singer that she could likely sway a skeptic into wondering how many of their own dead they brought to witness this show. Believer or not, there’s a lot of emotion packed into this show, and that’s what cuts through the screen and slices right into your guts. The music is a big part of that – especially when waves of choral voices wash through – and though you can imagine how incredible it might be to participate in Animal Wisdom live and in person alongside other flesh-and-bone folks as well as the spirit guests, the show is a powerhouse onscreen. Sometimes the medium is the message.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tickets for Animal Wisdom are available at three pay-what-you-wish prices: $19, $29 and $49. The show streams on Broadway on Demand through Sunday, June 13. Visit www.animalwisdomfilm.com

42nd Street Moon lights the stage with Lady Day

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Doris Bumpus plays Billie Holiday in the 42nd Street Moon streaming production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Brill by Lanie Robertson. Photo courtesy of 42nd Street Moon


The extraordinary resilience of theater companies adjusting to the shutdown and continuing to make work will never not amaze me. Against all pandemic odds, these companies muster the resources and figure out how to interact with audiences virtually until we can all come together again.

42nd Street Moon launched the MoonBeams subscription series in May with Jason Graae’s 100% charming tribute to Jerry Herman called Perfect Hermany and continues the trio of offerings with Doris Bumpus in a showcase role at the center of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

One of the most extraordinary things about these theatrical pivots is how skillfully companies have embraced the challenges of creating a theater/cinema hybrid by filming fully produced productions. Theater-makers have had to become filmmakers in a hurry – at least to the extent that viewers stop thinking about the camera work, the editing or other technical elements and relax into the production itself.

Moon’s Lady Day is a vibrant example of that hybrid working at its efficient best. Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play finds Billie Holiday in one of the final performances before her death in July 1959. She’s back at a familiar Philadelphia jazz club with her pianist, Jimmy Powers (played by music director Marcus McCauley) and a small combo. In this play with music, Holiday sings some of her best tunes and tells stories about her life and her struggles.

Director Brandon Jackson‘s production, which is just over an hour, zips along with an emphasis on the music more than the drama. Bumpus doesn’t do a Holiday impressions so much as capture the essence of a gifted singer whose unique voice and phrasing cut right to the emotional core of the songs she sang. Bumpus has a beautiful musical theater voice that swings, caresses and soothes.

Like so many biographical playwrights, Robertson relies too heavily on contrived nightclub patter to convey a sense of drama as Lady Day goes from a position of jaunty strength at the top of the show to tipsy chanteuse as she tipples and talks and then to a desperate addict who has to run offstage for a fix.

Director Jackson smartly emphasizes the music, which is wonderful – especially Holiday’s trademark “God Bless the Child” (a song she wrote for her mother), “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer),” a rollicking tribute to one of her heroes, Bessie Smith.

Although the music is the star in this production, there’s still an undeniable sadness in Holiday’s story, especially her struggles as a Black woman in the first half of the 20th century. The mistreatment, the bad relationships with men, the drug addiction, the incarceration – it all adds up to a poignant portrait of an extraordinary artist – one of our great American singers, who deserved a whole lot better than she got.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill continues streaming through May 30. Single tickets are $25 and subscriptions range from $60-$112. The final MoonBeams production, Don’t Touch That Dial: DC and Peter’s Glorious Romp Through the Golden Age runs June 5-27. Visit 42ndstmoon.org for information.

Stream this! Julia Brothers @ SF Playhouse, Alice Childress @ ACT

I have two recommendations for online theater streaming. The first is a play written by and starring one of our best stage actors, and the second is an engaging reading of a timely play about race that happens to be 66 years old.

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Julia Brothers plays herself in her solo show I Was Right Here, streamed as part of the San Francisco Playhouse season. Photo by Donny Gilliland

A train ride through memory
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing Julia Brothers on stage in one of her many Bay Area appearances, you know that she is one of those performers you miss at your own peril. For San Francisco Playhouse’s streaming season – and hot on the heels of their extraordinary [hieroglyph] (read my review here) – Brothers not only stars in a solo show, but also makes her debut as a playwright with I Was Right Here. That makes two reasons you don’t want to miss this.

As usual, Brothers is absolutely compelling on stage (even being filmed on stage), and the story she’s telling this time out is her own. Taking the train from Manhattan to her native New Jersey to visit her 97-year-old mother, Brothers begins musing on memory. Lucille, her mom (whom she affectionately calls “madre”), is dealing with dementia and is losing great swaths of memory. Julia is serving as her mom’s link to the quickly receding years, and that sets the actor on her own journey through ghosts of her past and memories she has always relied on but isn’t entirely sure really happened.

In the play’s 75 minutes, Brothers the playwright gives Brothers the actor a highly entertaining variety of places to visit – RFK’s funeral train when Brothers was just a girl, boyfriends and friends who died far too young and a recurring sense of child-like terror when she feels she is not quite as visible or as present as she thinks she is. Director Padriac Lillis and Brothers create a smooth narrative that flows easily through the present and the past so that when Brothers arrives at her destination, she has reached more than just a place.

Brothers delivers a beautiful performance, and though she re-lives loss and trauma from her past, she can’t disguise the abundance of affection for many of the people who populate her recollections. This on top of Brothers’ own incandescence makes I Was Right Here a journey worth taking.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Julia Brothers’ I Was Right Here streams through April 17. Tickets are $15-$100) call 415-677-9596 or visit sfplayhouse.org

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David Harbour (center left) as Al Manners and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Wiletta in a reading of Alice Chidress’ Trouble in Mind, part of American Conservatory Theater’s trilogy of readings, A.C.T. Out Loud. Photo courtesy of American Conservatory Theater

Trouble: When theater reflects the world
In the last year, we have seen lots of staged readings via Zoom – it’s been a touchstone to live theater that is reasonably easy to execute and distills the theatrical experience down to actors and words. As we reflect on a year without being together in theaters, it would seem Zoom readings are going to be here a while longer. If they’re all as good and as smartly produced as American Conservatory Theater’s Trouble in Mind, that will be OK.

The first of a trilogy of readings in A.C.T. Out Loud, this 1955 drama by Alice Childress is the flashpoint play we need right now. Childress goes deep into American race and oppression and the shallowness of polite, so-called enlightened society in a story about actors coming together in the mid-’50s to produce an anti-lynching play.

If people show up for a play (or a reading of a play), it figures that they would be interested in going behind-the-scenes at the making of a play, and that’s the genius of Trouble in Mind. Theater is a crucible, and it doesn’t take long into the first rehearsal to begin feeling the tension between the white actors playing the landlords and the Black actors playing the sharecroppers and the mix of attitudes embedded in the play (the play within the play) and the attitudes the actors bring in from the world just outside the theater doors.

Who is willing to stand up and say, “This is some racist bullshit right here”? Who is content to calm the waters and keep a steady paycheck? And who is going to pretend to be an ally until their racist core is fully revealed?

Director Awoye Timpo has assembled a superb cast, and one of the great delights of this reading – something that really helps highlight the performances and underscore the relationships – is the way the reading is “staged” so that it doesn’t look or feel much like Zoom but gives a sense of actors stepping in and out of the action.

Hostility bumps up against compassion, fear battles rage and courage wrestles with cowardice, and that makes for good theater. It also makes for relevant theater that, sadly, makes it seem we’ve hardly moved the needle in almost 70 years.

The entire cast is excellent, but the central conflict is between the white director, Al Manners (played by David Harbour of Stranger Things fame) and his Black star, Wiletta Mayer (played with blazing intensity by Patrice Johnson Chevannes). Their polite, professional relationship degrades quickly in the face of reality, and that makes the pretend of the play almost impossible to uphold. It all comes down to Wiletta saying, “We have to go further and do better.” And that may be the realest thing of all in the play’s two-plus hours.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind continues streaming through April 4. Tickets are $5-$50. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. A.C.T. Out Loud continues with readings of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man (April 12–18, 2021) and Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (April 26–May 2, 2021).

Starry, starry byte – digital Van Gogh enlivens SF arts scene

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Immersive Van Gogh allows visitors to experience what it might be like if you stepped into a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. The multimedia experience runs through Sept. 6 at SVN West in San Francisco. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs


While museums are reopening (slowly) and theaters are sadly stuck as likely the last venues to come back to life, there’s a new hybrid event that gives you a taste of both high art and in-person thrills. Immersive Van Gogh is, essentially, a virtual reality experience without the goggles…and with the added thrill of being around other people in a big room.

This slick, artful use of technology is popping up in cities all over the place, and it’s a gentle way of bringing art-craving people back together under one roof to see, listen, think and feel. The set-up is simple and straightforward: project floor-to-ceiling images of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh and embellish them with some artful (occasionally cheesy) animation effects. Then underscore the visuals with music ranging from ambient to classical to pop/rock. Think Mussorgsky, Radiohead and a dash of Piaf (with ample assistance from composer Luca Longobardi). I have to say that even without the stunning visuals, just hearing such loud music outside my house (or my headphones) was thrilling.

But this is all about Van Gogh, so the visuals are monumental. For instance, when creative director Massimiliano Siccardi and art director Vittorio Guidotti decide to present some of Van Gogh’s famous sunflowers, the room practically explodes with golden yellow joy. These crystal clear digital renderings of the paintings allow us to experience the texture of every brush stroke. Often, the paintings chosen for this show assemble themselves as if Vincent’s unseen hand were magically manifesting them just for us. The brush strokes undulate and wriggle and swirl like living creatures.

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We’re in the country, in villages, in cities, in bedrooms. There is, of course, a starry night (and happily they did not play Don McLean on the soundtrack, but I was holding my breath for ja moment). The artist’s self-portraits are plentiful, which adds a reminder that this post-Impressionist superstar was a real, live human being who, amid other troubles, only sold one painting in his lifetime.

Immersive Van Gogh emerges at such an interesting time. We’re all craving safe group experiences outside the grocery store, and as our pandemic restrictions ease, this seems a more than viable option. Before you even enter the special event space at the corner of Market Street and South Van Ness in San Francisco, your temperature is taken and security guards wand you. Social distancing measures are strictly observed, as are mask requirements. Once in the inner sanctum, you see a floor filled with socially distant circles of light. You can move around the room, but when you stop and stare, you are asked to pick a circle. There are benches here and there, and whenever a sitter stands and leaves, a staff member disinfects that bench almost instantly.

The show lasts about 35 minutes and plays on a loop. You can stay as long as you like, but I was satisfied after about 45 minutes. There’s a raised platform in the center of the room for a full 360-degree view for a limited number of people, but honestly there’s not a bad view anywhere. And if the music gets too loud, a staff member will fetch you some earplugs. There’s a café and a rather large gift shop on your way out, naturally.

Is this experience better than standing and contemplating an actual Van Gogh painting? No. Is it entertaining, joyful and entirely welcome? Absolutely. Van Gogh experience it for yourself.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Immersive Van Gogh continues through Sept. 6 at SVN West at the corner of Market Street and South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Tickets are $24.99 (children 16 or younger) and $34.99 (adults). Visit www.vangoghsf.com or call 844-307-4644.

Playhouse, Hansberry join for powerful [hieroglyph]

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Davis (Jamella Cross, left) explains herself to Ms. T. (Safiya Fredericks) after an altercation in the classroom in [hieroglyph], a co-production of San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre streaming through April 3. Below: Davis explains the meaning of her artwork to her father Ernest (Khary L. Moye). Photos by Jessica Palopoli


No play can address all the ills of society, but a well-told family story that digs into the lives and psyches of human beings doing their best to get from day to day can reveal a whole lot about where we’ve gone wrong or (occasionally) where we get something right.

Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s [hieroglyph], about a Black family navigating intense trauma, is one of those plays that feels small – only four characters – but grows into something epic on an emotional level. This streaming co-production of the San Francisco Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, and directed by the Hansberry’s new artistic director, revered Bay Area actor/director Margo Hall, is one of the most effective pandemic productions I’ve seen. It also carries on the Playhouse’s remarkable effort to continue staging productions (safely) and sharing them online.

On a revolving set by Bill English, beautifully lit by Kevin Myrick and with projections by Teddy Hulsker, the world of the characters is clear, and so as the play reveals itself, is their damage. And their strength, individually and collectively, and their hearts.

Davis is an extremely bright 13-year-old. Her family lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, and after having been relocated temporarily to the nightmare of the Superdome, she and her father have been relocated to Chicago. Amid all that drama, her mother and father have separated, she’s starting a new school mid-term in a city and culture that couldn’t be more different from New Orleans and she’s bearing the weight of something she cannot talk about.

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But she can express some of her inner turmoil through her art, and her new art teacher is one of those extraordinary educators who makes a difference in the lives of her students in a number of ways. Ms. T (Safiya Fredericks) is a sharply intelligent, complex and fascinating woman attempting to live her life kaleidoscopically rather than monochromatically. She wants to pass that multifarious approach on to her students through their study and practice of art (notably, in the play, through the work by Black artist Ernest Crichlow and his dimensional approach to depicting Black women). It’s not difficult to extrapolate here that playwright Dickerson-Despenza values art (paintings, plays, etc.) as a means through which we can understand life and each other more fully and more honestly.

Ms. T, whose own past trauma still reverberates through her life, connects with Davis (an extraordinary Jamella Cross), and though that connection is a lifeline, Davis is barely coping. Her father, Ernest (Khary L. Moye), has found work as a custodian in a museum and is doing his best to be there for his daughter. But he has issues of his own, not the least of which is a ruptured marriage and the traps of his own upbringing. Davis makes a friend in classmate Leah (Anna Maria Sharpe), a spirited young woman who attempts to provide an education in the subject of teenagers on Chicago’s West Side.

Even though difficult things grow more difficult in this world, Dickerson-Despenza still makes room for currents of love and moments of happiness to course through the drama, whether it’s Davis and Ernest acting out a playful father-daughter ritual or Davis and Leah practicing their dance moves before heading to a juke party. But this is a heavy story – how could it not be when its characters are facing natural and man-made disasters, sexual assault, displacement, PTSD and fractured relationships? There are no easy answers or conclusions here, just various forms of injury, strength, coping and confrontation.

At only about 90 minutes, [hieroglyph] (which refers to an actual symbol that surfaces in Davis’ artwork) is intense and demanding. Even though this is a well-filmed play, it still feels very much like a play, with the scene changes included rather than edited out, and that makes it even more satisfying. Hall and her excellent cast find depth and warmth and genuine emotion in these characters, which makes their pain all the more impactful on the audience. There aren’t superlatives big enough for the work done here by Cross as Davis and Fredericks as Ms. T.

If it seems that spending any amount of time – even 90 minutes – exploring pain, trauma and crisis is a lot to deal with on top of a world situation involving pain, trauma and crisis, consider this: Dickerson-Despenza is a talented playwright who infuses poetry into her drama. She is compassionate toward her characters, even when she’s brutally honest. And she’s shining a light – made all the brighter when you care about the people it touches, as you do here – on important aspects of history as it really happened (no matter what the people in charge say), on what life in this country is really like for Black people and on the roots of horrible crimes terrorizing Black girls and women that must be examined and obliterated. [hieroglyph] has the undeniable power of truth experienced through the prism of inspired art.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s [hieroglyph] streams through April 13. Tickets are $15-$100 from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org or by calling 415-677-9596.