High art, grim lives shaded in ambitious Tree City

Tree City 3

Three Brothers: The Kane brother of Dennis Kim’s Tree City Legends are (from left) Sean San Jose as Denizen, Taiyo Na as Min and Juan Amador as Sum. Below: San Jose’s Denizen recalls a troubled childhood. Photos by Pak Han

Tree City Legends leaves you moved and somewhat perplexed. My experience with Dennis Kim’s play as directed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph was equal parts fascination and confusion.

There are so many creative partners on this project, it’s no wonder the thing feels not only like an art installation but also like an entire museum unto itself. You walk through an art gallery in Intersection for the Arts’ new digs in the San Francisco Chronicle building, and then when you get to the performance space (which usually houses Intersection’s administrative offices), you walk through another art space, this one tied to the play, a sort of homage to the departed.

The performance space itself has chairs all facing the same direction, but that’s where the traditional component ends. There are video projections (by Joan Osato) on the walls and windows of Tanya Orellana’s set, which also includes performance platforms in front of the chairs, and to the left and to the right. Actors walk (and run) through the center of the audience many times in the play’s 95 minutes, and behind a scrim at the front of the space, is a band.

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The band is headed by Kim himself playing Junie Kane, the deceased elder brother of four Kane boys. Playing with Kane from beyond the grave are Dirty Boots, the dynamic musical duo of James Dumlao and Rachel Lastimosa.

So you have art, video, performance and music. You certainly can’t fault the creative team for lack of imagination or multimedia ability. But between Intersection, resident theater company Campo Santo, Joseph’s Living Word Project and its Youth Speaks theater company and ICTUS, a group that integrates photography, film, visual arts and new media into its projects, you can fault the team for failing to harness the power of all that in the telling of a compelling story.

Individually, these elements all have a certain power, but the whole is not more than the sum of its parts.

There are two things that work unequivocally. First, the performances by Sean San Jose, Juan Amador (aka Wonway Posibul) and Taiyo Na as the Kane brothers mourning the suicide of their brother Junie are electrifying. They don’t interact much, but each of their mammoth monologues have some extraordinary moments. There’s anger, poetry, lyricism, violence and deep pain in these young men, and their voices are distinctive and extraordinary.

The other great element is the wonderfully appealing music by Kim – jazzy and hip and full of feeling. If this evening unfolded in a black box, no frills at all, and only featured the actors and the band, it would probably be more powerful than what we have here with all the multimedia bells and whistles. Story is most powerful when it dictates form. This Tree seems to have grown in the opposite direction. Though rooted in powerful storytelling, it branches out into high art and loses focus.


Dennis Kim’s Tree City Legends continues through March 4 at Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 415-626-2787 or visit www.theintersection.org.

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 www.theintersection.org.

Theater review: `Fukú Americanus’


Maria Candelaria (left) is Belicia, Biko Eisen-Martin (center) is Fukú and Vanessa Cota is Lola in the Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts production of Fukú Americanus, a theatrical adaptation of Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Photos by James Faerron

Diaz novel finds vibrant life as stage `Fukú’

Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents all kinds of challenges, first to the reader who has to navigate a fractured time frame, footnotes almost as involved as the novel itself and shifting narration.

Good luck to anyone attempting to adapt this convoluted novel into anything other than the rich novel it is. Playwright Jose Rivera is taking a crack at the screenplay, but San Francisco’s own Campo Santo has beaten him to the punch with the first adaptation: a stage work called Fukú Americanus, now at Intersection for the Arts.

Co-directors Sean San José and Marc Bamuthi Joséph have wrestled with the novel and come out, for the most part, on top. The stage version retains a certain literary feel – indeed, much of the language comes directly from the book – but it crackles with emotional life and gives characters dimension and shading they didn’t have on the page.

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The six-member cast is excellent, especially in their heated emotional exchanges. I was blown away by Anna Maria Luera, who shifts from playing a Dominican Republic grandmother, La Inca, a fierce, passionate woman, to playing a smart but ditzy New Jersey girl named Anna Obregon, who can’t stop talking about her boyfriend Manny and his prodigious endowments.

Carlos Aguirre (seen at right in the blue shirt with Brian Rivera and Biko Eisen-Martin), who provides the dynamic soundscape as the resident DJ/beat boxer, emerges as the show’s most engaging character, a college-age lady player named Yunior, who keeps forgetting to hide his inner depths with his callow exterior.

The 2 ½-hour show gets off to a rousing start with Biko Eisen-Martin as a dancer/narrator/observer telling us all about the Dominican Republic and the notion of “fukú,” a kind of doom or curse that intricately weaves its way through Dominican politics and spirituality. We are all dealing with fukús of one kind or another, we’re told, and this story’s family is dealing with a doozy.

After suffering under the rule of Dominican dictator Trujillo, a young mother and her two children flee the Caribbean for New Jersey. In the ensuing years, mom Belicia (a powerful Maria Candelaria) has raised two children: bright, rebellious Lola (Vanessa Cota) and overweight sci-fi dork Oscar (Brian Rivera).

After the rousing intro, and after we meet the central family, Fukú stalls for about a half an hour while we get, essentially, the same information over and over. Oscar is such a nerd he’ll never get a girlfriend. Belicia is dealing with cancer and a rancorous relationship with Lola.

But then Oscar meets Anna (the aforementioned Luera), and the plot kicks in. From that plotline we move to a clash between mother and daughter that results in a runaway scenario. From there, we follow Oscar to college, where, after a suicide attempt, he becomes roommates with Yunior, who tries to make like Henry Higgins and turn Oscar into something resembling a non-loser.

Directors San José and Joséph imbue the story with rhythm, movement and flow, but somehow the show never quite breaks the literary bond the way last year’s Campo Santo hit, Angry Black White Boy, based on Adam Mansbach’s novel of the same name, managed to do. While that show felt like a fully realized theatrical experience, this one still seems propelled by forces outside the theater.

That said, Diaz’s story of the immigrant experience, the American teenage experience and the profound mother-daughter connection emerges from the stage with clarity and force. At its best, Fukú Americanus finds the theatrical wow in Oscar Wao.


Campo Santo’s Fukú Americanus continues an extended run through July 12 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25 on a sliding scale. Call 415-626-2787, ext. 109 or visit www.theintersection.org for information.




`Rocky Horror’ time warps again, Living Word lives, Mickey skates

It’s a Bay Area autumn weekend. The weather is gorgeous and you should be out in the world enjoying various entertainments. And entertainments are never more varied than they are in the Bay Area.


Just in time for revving up Halloween spirits, Ray of Light Theatre opens The Rocky Horror Show tonight (Friday, Oct. 17) at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. The five-week run continues through Nov. 15.

Jef Valentine plays Dr. Frank ‘n Furter, the man making a man (Scott Gessford) on the slab in the lab. The lovebirds from Denton, Brad and Janet, are played by Jason Hoover and Rebecca Pingree respectively. Frank’s team of Columbia, Riff Raff and Magenta are played by Sarah Kathleen Farrell, Manny Caneri and Jessica Coker.

Cate Chaplin directs and choreographs this time-warping, gender-bending, rocking and rolling musical.

Tickets are $15-$35. Visit www.rockysf.com for information.


The Living Word, the resident theater company of Youth Speaks, launches the seventh annual Living Word Festival today in San Francisco and Oakland.

The 10-day festival is curated by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and features commissioned work, live music , workshops, lectures, literary panels and educational sessions.

The centerpiece of the festival is the premiere of War Peace: The One Drop Rule, a youth-driven hip-hop theater piece that imagines the Bay Area as a potential war zone in a time of protracted drought. Joseph directs the piece, which is written and performed by Chinaka Hodge, Rafael Casal, Daveed Diggs and Nico Cary. The piece features a score by SF Jazz Youth All-Stars, and Emmy-winning choreographer and tapper Jason Samuels-Smith choreographs. The show runs Oct. 23 and 24 at Theater Artaud, 450 Florida St., San Francisco.

Today’s kick-off events include a free lunchtime concert at Yerba Buena Gardens (760 Howard St.) featuring Goapele and Kev Choice Ensemble at 12:30 p.m. Also today at the Oakland Museum (1000 Oak St.) is a literary panel featuring Adam Mansbach and Jeff Chang and Urban Word NYC reading from new work and having a conversation on the topic of “race is fiction.” The event is at 7 p.m.

There are many other events. For a full schedule visit www.youthspeaks.org.


And now for something completely different: this will neither save the world nor will it engage your mind. But it could be an awful lot of fun (especially for the younger audience members). The latest Disney on Ice production, 100 Years of Magic, continues at the Oakland Oracle Arena through Saturday, Oct. 18.

More than 60 Disney characters from 18 movies mingle on the ice, which means Mickey and Minnie will be doing Hamill camels with Buzz Lightyear, Nemo and those ever-popular Disney princesses. Tickets are $16-$65. Call 415-421-8497 or visit www.ticketmaster.com for info. When the Disney spectacular leaves Oakland, it heads to the HP Pavilion in San Jose from Oct. 22-26.