The Band plays on, beautifully

Band 1
Janet Dacal is Dina and Sasson Gabay is Tewfiq in the national tour of The Band’s Visit, part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: The boys in the band. Photos by Evan Zimmerman, Murphymade.

Like Come from Away, The Band’s Visit is a musical about one set of people in a jam and another set of people offering some assistance – two groups never meant to be together share a little time and space and something wonderful happens. That’s really where the similarities end. While both are Tony Award-winning Broadway shows, The Band’s Visit, whose touring production is at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, is a very different kind of musical. It’s subtle, gentle and runs deep with the emotion (mostly sadness and longing) of everyday people. Where other Broadway shows kick and flash and shine, this one is still and contemplative, except when music is revealing – and ultimately connecting – its characters.

Composer David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tootsie) and playwright Itamar Moses (a Berkeley native and revered playwright) have so skillfully adapted the 2007 Israeli movie of the same name that it’s hard to imagine Eran Kolirin’s story now without Yazbek’s decidedly non-showy songs. That’s how complete it now feels (and it was really wonderful to begin with).

Not much happens in this story other than a big misunderstanding. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives from Egypt for a special concert at the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikvah. But because of issues involving language and Chet Baker, the band ends up in Beit Hatikva, a speck of a town in the desert where nothing ever happens and no one ever comes. So having a troupe of musicians in powder-blue uniforms is a major event.

There’s not another bus until the morning, so the band will stay with various residents and make the best of their predicament. Nobody seems to mind too much, although the heavy security in Israel feels ominous to the visiting Egyptians, so much so that they encourage one another to speak only in English.

Band 2

The band’s director, Tewfiq, is reserved but cordial. He and Haled, one of the group’s more colorful members, end up staying with Dina, who runs the town’s cafe. As night falls, Haled ends up at a makeshift roller disco with some locals, while Dina and Tewfiq get to know each other over dinner and a walk through what passes as a park (“You have to use your imagination,” Dina says).

Janet Dacal as Dina is tough and magnetic. She begins to feel that the band’s arrival, specifically Twefiq’s arrival, may have been destined for her. But as the strangers get to know one another better, specifically through the gorgeous songs “Omar Sharif,” “Itgara’a” and “Something Different,” reality is more complicated than meet-cute romantic comedy.

As Twefiq, Sasson Gabay offers a rich, admirable and complex portrayal, which is probably not surprising given that he originated the role in the movie 15 years ago. He commands respect from his bandmates, and it’s clear how much the music means to him. His gruff exterior shields a grieving soul, and this unexpected night clearly has an effect on him.

Director David Cromer trusts that this intimate tale will play out in its own time. The show only runs about 100 minutes, but it’s never rushed or frantic. The set design by Scott Pask allows various spots in the city to flow on and off stage, giving us a distinct sense of how isolated this town and its people truly are. Performances throughout are earnest and honest, scaled to the story and not to musical theater. The last third of the show is especially spellbinding, beginning with Joe Joseph’s superb “Haled’s Song About Love” through Dacal and Gabay’s park duet and into “Itzik’s Lullaby” tenderly sung by Clay Singer before the poignant finale. The show finds its deepest groove and transports us into as heartfelt a place as musicals can take us. It’s human, it’s spiritual…it’s simply amazing.

It’s the use of music throughout the show, both underscore and songs, that truly elevates the storytelling here (credit music supervisors Andrea Grody and Dean Sharenow and conductor Adrien Ries). Of course there’s Yazbek’s stunning music, but there’s also space for people to connect over a love of “Summertime” warbled over a shared dinner, or Chet Baker’s take on “My Funny Valentine,” which soothes the end of an unusual night and gives us a glimpse into the heart of the musician playing it. There are violin and clarinet solos to melt the heart as well as instruments you don’t hear in every musical theater band, like the darbouka, riq and oud.

Not everything we see these days has to be about COVID, but it’s hard not to feel the connection in the loneliness and desperate hope of the small town inhabitants, especially as they feel their worlds enlarging, even if just a bit, through the brief visit from the band and the connection they feel. From isolation there’s connection through the shared language of music. In the most challenging times, as we have seen, art can mean more than just about anything. It can provide some relief, some joy, some emotional purging. It can also make us feel part of something bigger than ourselves – kind of like being players in a big, beautiful band.

The Band’s Visit continues through Feb. 6 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit
Read about BroadwaySF’s COVID policies here.

Berkeley Rep play aids real-life rescue effort

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Yellowjackets, a drama about Berkeley High School’s student newspaper, The Jacket, had some real-life consequences. Audiences raised more than $6,600 to help rescue the flailing publication. Ben Freeman (left) and Kevin Hsieh were part of the just-closed show’s young cast. Photo by


Sadly, it’s no secret that newspaper industry in this country is in a freefall.

But the crisis in print journalism has ripple effects that extend even into the world of high school newspapers.

The teenage staff of The Jacket, the Berkeley High School newspaper and the subject of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s just-closed hit show Yellowjackets, recently announced that the paper was in danger of going under because of “mounting financial challenges.”

As the play Yellowjackets by Berkeley High alum and former Jacket editor Itamar Moses, neared the end of its run, Berkeley Rep made appeals to audience members, who raised $6,688.81 to provide a student journalism bailout and ensure the 50-year-old paper survives.

“We’re so proud of our patrons and so glad we could be of help to local teens,” says Susan Medak, Berkeley Rep’s managing director. “After each performance of the show, the audience was encouraged to help save The Jacket through old-fashioned civic engagement: by putting donations in a coffee can on their way out of the theater. People responded with tremendous generosity. They contributed more than $6,000 – enough to keep the paper alive for at least another year.”

In other Berkeley Rep young people news, for local kids have been cast in the company’s next show, August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, running Oct. 31 through Dec. 14 in the Roda Theatre.

Director Delroy Lindo, returning to the show that earned him a Tony nomination on Broadway, says of his young actors: “The children in this show represent the future. They are the next generation in the evolution of people of African descent on this continent. They have critical scenes in this story, and I look forward to exploring them with these talented young actors.”

The lucky actors are:

  • 12-year-old Keanu Beausier of Oakland.
  • 10-year-old Inglish Amore Hills of Pleasanton
  • 11-year-old Victor McElhaney of Oakland.
  • 10-year-old Nia Renee Warren of Oakland.


For information about Berkeley Repertory Theatre visit

Review: `Yellowjackets’

Opened Sept. 3, 2008 — now extended through Oct. 19

Jahmela Biggs (left) is Ms. Robbins a teacher who has problems with the school newspaper and Ben Freeman is Avi, the new editor of the school newspaper in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s season-opening world premiere, Yellowjackets. Photo by

Teens bear weight of a messy world in Moses’ `Yellowjackets’
(three stars)

If Disney’s High School Musical had been set at Berkeley High School, it would have to lose the vapid songs, the dewy-cheeked innocence and the vacuous romance. It would have to ramp up the intellect, pour on the conflict and lose all sense of teenage fun.

In other words, it would have to be Yellowjackets, the world-premiere play that opens Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new season.

Written by Itamar Moses, himself a Berkeley High grad (Class of ’95), this teenage drama is exactly what you expect about the high school experience in Berkeley circa 1994: it’s smart, political, contentious, relentless, confusing and so full of weighty issues you may forget you’re actually dealing with teenagers here.

Directed by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, Yellowjackets (named for the Berkeley High mascot) has moments of volcanic passion, especially when dealing with issues of race, and it emphasizes what a god-awful mess we’ve made with that “all men are created equal” thing.

But this is 2 ½ hours of intensity with very little relief – oh, there’s some romance and a couple laughs, but for the most part, the lightning-paced dialogue and slam-bang scene changes keep the play hurtling forward at breakneck speed. Imagine high school as re-imagined by Aaron Sorkin: It’s “Welcome Back Kotter” meets “The West Wing.”

There’s a lot of play here – perhaps too much – and there’s no real protagonist. Avi (Ben Freeman, above center with Alex Curtis and Erika Salazar), the new editor of the high school newspaper, The Jacket, gets a lot of stage time, and for good reason. He’s brainy and gung-ho, a geek coming into his own. And he’s a good candidate for protagonist except that there’s someone more interesting onstage and that’s Damian (Shoresh Alaudini), a bright kid who finds himself in too much trouble.

Threatened with expulsion after being involved in an on-campus gang fight, Damian struggles with hanging on to his street cred or doing the right thing for his brother, Rashid (Lance Gardner), a security guard at the school, and his girlfriend, basketball player Tamika (Jahmela Biggs).

Everybody’s got problems at school (effectively evoked by the chain link, graffiti and sharp details of Annie Smart’s set). The student newspaper is being boycotted by various faculty members (all acting like children themselves and played by the young actors playing the teenagers) because of perceived insensitivity to racial issues.

Because of the gang fight, the fence around the school is locked during the day, so off-campus privileges have been revoked. And the notion of tracking students – putting all the smart kids on one track and all the more challenged students on another – has turned into another form of segregation and is causing unrest. A beloved counselor has retired early for “health” reasons; and bullies are being bullies. Kids from Richmond are threatening kids at Berkeley, and within the school there’s antagonism between second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans.

Gee, remember when high school used to be sort of fun – even when it seemed the pressures of hormones, peers and parents would kill you?

Maybe high school in Berkeley in 1994 was all racial, violent, academic and intellectual hell (there’s no question it was awash in flannel and plaid, according to Meg Neville’s spot-on period costumes). It sure seems like these kids could benefit from a screening of the politically incorrect Sixteen Candles.

The cast of young, mostly local actors is terrific when they’re playing young. They’re not as effective in the adult roles. In theory, the idea of kids playing teachers is a good one, but in practice, some of the actors are out of their depth.

Act 1 sparks in fits and starts – it begins with a physical brawl and feels like an intellectual brawl from then on, but things really begin to gel in Act 2, especially in a scene between Avi (Freeman is so believable you half expect him to take the SATs at the end of the play) and his girlfriend, Alexa (Amaya Alonso Hallifax). He rails about how hard it is to be a white Jewish guy in America – one of the people who “gets it” — and she doesn’t show a whole lot of pity for his being a “white kid, in a brown school, in a white country, in a white-white First World. Go fifteen miles north, south, or east of here and check.”

It’s a fiery scene, when race and youth and intelligence clash and discover just how impossible it is to please anyone, let alone everyone. There are no good guys or bad guys, no such thing as “the same.” And, unfortunately, so little hope of equality.

As provocative and involving as the play can be, Moses and Taccone haven’t found the right ending yet. The final scene concludes with a question – the weakest line of dialogue in the play because the lingering questions are so big and so obvious.


Yellowjackets continues an extended run through Oct. 19 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Itamar Moses goes back to high school

Writing about his high school experience proved therapeutic for playwright Itamar Moses, a Berkeley native whose Yellowjackets has its world premiere this week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

The 30-year-old writer headed back to the year 1994 to dramatically reconstruct his junior year at Berkeley High School, when he was editor of the school newspaper, The Jacket, and racial tensions were dividing the student body.

“High school is a potent time,” Moses says one morning before a rehearsal. “I try to examine why that is on this canvas. I was able to work out specific feelings here, and it’s amazing to me to discover that I did have a different perspective. I had such firm beliefs at the time, but I could actually see a more complex, multiplicity of viewpoints I didn’t have at the time. Things seemed so obvious to me as a student who was feeling threatened or getting messed with. I always hoped I’d see a larger perspective. I’m amazed I actually did.”

Moses, who now lives in Brooklyn’s Park Slope area, says that even though he was re-creating experiences of 14 years ago, he could hear the voices clearly.

“I feel like I still talk like I did in high school,” Moses says and laughs. “The other voices in the play, the ones that aren’t mine, I’ve been hearing for years. As opposed to just crafting dialogue, I tried to hear it. I have voices in there” – he points to his head – “not in a mental health way, but in a historical way.”

Some of those voices belong to African-American and Latino characters, which required Moses to write outside his race.

“Sure, there was an element of fear of fraudulence,” he says. “I did feel an internal hurdle. Am I entitled to do this? Is this OK? Solution was to remind myself that my choices were to do it or not write about Berkeley High at all. Usually that’s how to get yourself to do something difficult: get to the point where there’s no alternative. I guess I have the same feeling about writing female characters. In a weird way, you let go of the idea you’re writing from the outside in. Characters have to come from the inside out or they’ll play that way on stage. Every character is a fragment of your psyche, no matter the race or gender.”

Like most writers who are writing about a specific time in their lives, Moses takes the fictional route. For instance, he says he’s most like Avi, the new editor of the newspaper who is dealing with a faculty boycotting his paper. But he’s also like Trevor, the newspaper staff member who is getting bullied in a pretty serious way.

“I wanted to get both experiences in there,” Moses says. “But neither character is fully me. The question of what’s autobiographical and what’s not is complicated. There are elements of truth in the fiction.”

Moses (in a photo from his high school yearbook at right, not the Jacket T-shirt) joined the school newspaper staff in his freshman year and has been writing since (he was also a humor columnist for the Yale Daily News in his college years). But the writer says he’s still not sure if writing is “his thing.”

“When I was 9 or 10, I read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy. It was an obsession. I thought I’d write that. My initial plan was to be Piers Anthony or Susan Cooper or whoever. I got to Berkeley High, and I don’t know why, but I was attracted to the newspaper. I can’t remember how I made that decision. I liked it a lot. I knew it was my big high school extracurricular activity. Never planned to be a journalist.”

Then, in college, theater became his extracurricular activity, and now he’s a playwright in demand (his biggest hit, Bach at Leipzig, recently had its area premiere at Shakespeare Santa Cruz).

Working on Yellowjackets for the last two years, Moses was approached by a TV network – he says it shall remain nameless – about turning the play into a TV series. Unlike the play, which allows the young actors to play the adults as well as the students, the TV geniuses wanted to focus primarily on the adults.

“To me, the play is interesting because it focuses on the kids,” Moses says. “That’s what makes it a microcosm. For the purposes of TV, they may be right. But on stage, kids playing adults was the obvious choice.”

More than a decade away from his high school experience, Moses says maturity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“If anything, I feel less clarity and less direct passion and less vibrating sense of the electricity of possibility of the world than I did when I was a teenager,” he says. “When I was in graduate school, Tony Kushner spoke to us, and the thing he said that I remember most vividly was that maturity in our culture is defined as the ability not to feel too strongly about anything. If you buy into that, especially as an artist, you’re screwed because it means you’re deadened. As writers, he said, be careful not to be embarrassed by the extremities of feeling. Certainly how much you want that in your life and relationships is a question, but you definitely want in your work. In Yellowjackets, taking the kids seriously, focusing on them was a way to do that…to write about characters whose id is louder than their superego.”

Moses will take part in a free “Page to Stage” talk on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage at 7 p.m. Sept. 22.

Yellowjackets continues through Oct. 12 at the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit


Young journos sting along with `Yellowjackets’

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s season-opening play Yellowjackets, a drama about life at Berkeley High School in the early ’90s, has inspired a free teen journalism summit. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre announced an unusual opportunity for Bay Area teens tied to its world premiere of Yellowjackets: local youth can attend a free summit on the power of journalism and theatre on Monday, Aug. 18 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Making an Impact: A Teen Journalism Summit will take place at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, located at 2071 Addison St. in downtown Berkeley, and will feature interactive activities with respected reporters.

“Since Yellowjackets is set at Berkeley High, and the plot revolves around a prank at the school newspaper, we decided to create an event for student journalists,” explains Rachel Fink, director of the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre. “The more we spoke with students, the more we realized they were eager to have a larger conversation – to explore their responsibility as reporters at their schools, and to discover the impact that role can have on the greater community.”

The summit is the brainchild of 19-year-old Albany-native Genevieve Michel. Last year, when she was a senior at Albany High School, Michel led Berkeley Rep’s Teen Council; this summer, after her freshman year at New York University, she returned to Berkeley to help plan this event.

“In high school, it’s so easy to lose sight of the big picture – so easy to forget that extracurricular activities teach us tools that we can use for the rest of our lives,” Michel comments. “Students attending this summit will spend the day working with journalism professionals – and I hope they’ll leave it with a better sense of how they can use their words and their passion to be a force for change.”

The day-long workshop will examine how journalism and theatre can inspire debate and ultimately create large-scale change within a community. Teens will participate in a morning discussion on the roles of performance and the media, and then break into smaller groups led by professional reporters to brainstorm compelling story angles inspired by the day’s debate. The panelists will include Kristin Bender of the Oakland Tribune, yours truly (freelance reporter Chad Jones), nationally renowned playwright Itamar Moses (at right in his Berkeley High days), artistic director Tony Taccone, and other respected local journalists.

The summit was inspired by the first play in Berkeley Rep’s upcoming season: Yellowjackets, an incisive play set in Berkeley and written by a Berkeley native. Itamar Moses – who once edited the student newspaper at Berkeley High School – returns to his hometown with a script set in the halls of his alma mater. When the school paper publishes an insensitive story, students suddenly find themselves embroiled in a volatile controversy – and even their teachers seem unprepared to deal with the repercussions. Tony Taccone directs this collision of race and class set just around the corner from Berkeley Rep. With Yellowjackets, he generates the same mix of intense emotion and timely politics that infused shows such as Continental Divide, Culture Clash’s Zorro in Hell, and Taking Over. Yellowjackets begins previews on the intimate Thrust Stage on Aug. 29, opens Sept. 3, and runs through Oct. 12.

Anyone wishing to register for Making an Impact: A Teen Journalism Summit may request a registration form by sending an email to This one-of-a-kind event is free to all participants, and is open to high-school students at all levels; no prior journalistic experience is required. Youth attending the summit also receive a free ticket to see Yellowjackets on Friday, Sept. 5.

Students entering grades 9-12 are invited to Making an Impact: A Teen Journalism Summit, Monday, Aug. 18 from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, 2071 Addison St. @ Shattuck, Downtown Berkeley. The seminar is free! For information call 510-647-2978 or visit or e-mail