Sad, hopeful elegy in Shotgun’s brownsville song

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Davied Morales is Tray and Cathleen Riddley is Lena in the Shotgun Players production of brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee. Below: Morales’ Tray has an uncomfortable meeting with someone from his past (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as Merrell). Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

The desperate craziness of our times has desensitized us to the reality behind the headlines that bombard us from every screen and feed and page. The level of injustice, death and willful cruelty reported on a daily basis, if you try to take a step back and really look at it, is staggering. Our desensitization is a survival tactic to be sure – could we spend every waking hour enraged or in tears? Absolutely! – but there’s a cost when we lose sight of the individuals whose lives are told in fragments on the news. We are removed from their lives and our connection to them, and news is just news (most of it bad to awful to grotesque) and not filled with actual human beings.

Playwright Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) offers a poignant reminder that our grim news feeds are built from lives, not just of victims and perpetrators and garbage politicians. There are the lives of the people whose names are in the news as well as the lives connected to those lives and the ripples that overlap with ripples that overlap with ripples.

First developed in San Francisco by the Playwrights Foundation, brownsville went on to productions at the Humana Festival and Lincoln Center. Now the play is back in the Bay Area courtesy of Shotgun Players with a production beautifully and sensitively directed by Margo Hall, whose work behind the scenes is proving to be as powerful as her onstage work as an actor, which is saying quite a lot.

Time is fluid in brownsville, named for the rough Brooklyn neighborhood in which it takes place. We begin after the tragedy. A promising young man, Tray, has been gunned down on the street. He was not part of a gang or a crew. He wasn’t involved in illegal activities. He had overcome numerous obstacles in his 18 years – an absent mother, a father murdered on the streets, a stepmother who abandoned him and his little sister, scuffles with the law when he was younger. But with the ferocious support of his grandmother, he had pulled his life together. He was doing well in school, he was disciplined about his boxing, and he was full of love (and sass) for his family.

He was also in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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The first voice of the play comes from Lena, Tray’s paternal grandmother. Played by Cathleen Riddley, she is impossible not to love and admire (and fear just a little bit). She tells us not to start the story with her. She’s not the beginning, she’s the end, and Tray was not just another story. He’s not just another victim you may or may not hear about on the news or a faceless statistic about gun violence in this country. He was simply himself, and you can feel through Riddley’s quiet, undeniably powerful performance, just how profound his loss is.

Through a series of flashbacks, we meet Tray who was, as his grandmother puts it, “semi-reliable about everything but his little sister and boxing.” Played the charismatic Davied Morales, Tray is a light. He’s not a saint but a believable teenager – intelligent, rebellious, bursting with energy – who does well in school, holds down a job at Starbucks, helps out with Devine, his little sister, and trains and competes in an amateur boxing circuit. Like Riddley, Morales is a powerful presence as Tray. He and Riddley are the motor and the fuel of this 90-minute play. Together, they are the cycle of hope and grief and hope that makes this experience so potent. Tray was fighting to not just be another hard-luck story of a kid from violent street, and we have every reason to believe he would continue shining brighter and brighter.

Playwright Lee can tend toward the cliché in her writing, but director Hall and her strong cast tend to circumvent any mawkishness and head for something more honest. Erin Mei-Ling Stuart is a believably complex person from Tray’s past who, after her own difficulties, is attempting to make better choices, and 11-year-old Mimia Ousilas is Tray’s little sister. There’s a lot she could be sad about, and she is, but she also supplies some of the play’s lightest moments when she fails to blend into the background as a weeping willow in her dance class production of Swan Lake. William Hartfield as Junior, a neighborhood friend of Tray’s, at first seems to be trouble, but a later scene between him and Lena reveals layers and history and emotion that renders the character in a different light.

And therein lies the power of brownsville. Here, in flesh and blood, is a reminder to look and think and feel beyond headlines and statistics, as hard as that may be. This poetic, sometimes elegiac play – with straightforward, effective design by Randy Wong-Westbrooke (set), Allen Willner (lights), Joel Gimbell II (sound) – cuts right to the heart of why the life of someone you don’t know matters and how our unjust, violent, crazily complicated culture can encourage us to think we’re disconnected from one another when exactly the opposite is true.

Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) continues through July 9 in a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 510-841-6500 or visit

Chen’s Hundred Flowers wins the Glickman

Christopher Chen Desdemona Chiang
San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen (right) has won the Glickman Award for the best new play to have its world premiere in the Bay Area. His 2012 play The Hundred Flowers Project was a co-production of Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation and was directed by Desdemona Chiang (left). Photo by Pak Han

This being awards season, it’s nice to temper all the movie accolades with a homegrown theater award. The Glickman Award, presented each year to the best play that had its world premiere in the Bay Area, comes with a $4,000 cash prize and the honor of having your work set alongside other Glickman winners like Tony Kushner, Denis Johnson and Octavio Solis.

This year’s winner is Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project, a co-production of Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation. The play, a wild, multimedia tale of theater making and revolution, was directed by Desdemona Chiang. (read my original review of the play here)

Honorable mention goes to adaptation of Josh Costello’s adaptation of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother for Custom Made Theatre.

This year’s Glickman committee comprised critics Robert Avila (SF Bay Guardian), Karen D’Souza (San Jose Mercury News and the Bay Area News Group), Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle, Sam Hurwitt (The Idiolect and Theatre Bay Area) and yours truly.

Here’s a list of previous Glickman winners:

2012 The North Pool, Rajiv Joseph (TheatreWorks)
2011 Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro (Magic)
2010 In the Next Room, Sarah Ruhl (Berkeley Rep)
2009 Beowulf, Jason Craig (Shotgun Players)
2008 Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle (Marsh)
2007 Hunter Gatherers, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb (Killing My Lobster)
2006 The People’s Temple, Leigh Fondakowski (Berkeley Rep)
2005 Dog Act, Liz Duffy Adams (Shotgun)
2004 Soul of a Whore, Denis Johnson (Campo Santo)
2003 Five Flights, Adam Bock (Encore)
2002 Dominant Looking Males, Brighde Mullins (Thick Description)
2001 Everything’s Ducky, Bill Russell & Jeffrey Hatcher (TheatreWorks)
2000 The Trail of Her Inner Thigh, Erin Cressida Wilson (Campo Santo)
1999 Combat!, John Fisher (Rhino)
1998 Civil Sex, Brian Freeman (Marsh)
1997 Hurricane/Mauvais Temps, Anne Galjour (Berkeley Rep)
1996 Medea, the Musical, John Fisher (Sassy Mouth)
1995 Rush Limbaugh in Night School, Charlie Varon (Marsh)
1994 Santos & Santos, Octavio Solis (Thick Description)
1993 Heroes and Saints, Cherrie Moraga (Brava)
1992 Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Tony Kushner (Eureka)
1991 Political Wife, Bill Talen (Life on the Water)
1990 Pick Up Ax, Anthony Clarvoe (Eureka)
1989 Yankee Dawg You Die, Philip Kan Gotanda (Berkeley Rep)
1988 Webster Street Blues, Warren Kubota (Asian American)
1987 Life of the Party, Doug Holsclaw (Rhino)
1986 Deer Rose, Tony Pelligrino (Theatre on the Square)
1985 The Couch, Lynne Kaufman (Magic)
1984 Private Scenes, Joel Homer (Magic)

Crowded Fire: Please sir, may I have some Mao?

The Hundred Flowers Project
Cindy Im (far left), Anna Ishida (center) and Wiley Naman Strasser blur the line between theater, reality and revolution in the West Coast premiere of Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project. Below: The avant garde theater group devises a play about Mao Tse Tung using their “patented zeitgeist melding” process. From left: Wiley Naman Strasser, Ogie Zulueta, Charisse Loriaux, Anna Ishida and Will Dao. Photos by Pak Han

If Apple or some other high-tech giant was really smart, really forward thinking, they’d head down to the Thick House and check out the West Coast premiere of Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project, a play that not only has a lot to say about our instantly archived society and its millions of digital histories but also utilizes technology in a fascinating way.

There’s something utterly primal about the premise of this Crowded Fire/Playwrights Foundation co-production: members of a San Francisco theater collective gather to create, in the most organic, zeitgeist-melding way, a dazzling piece of theater about the life and rule of Mao Tse Tung that has deep metaphorical connection to our own times. These theater folk are pretentious – the words “zeitgeist” and “congealing” are used so often they may cause indigestion – but they’re also real artists trying to create something new and interesting and meaningful.

Their leader, Mel (Charisse Loriaux), invites everyone to continue adding ideas to the group Google Doc, and as she incorporates those ideas, along with those inspired by group discussion, the actors read the updated text from their smart phones while they rehearse. The tech aspect of the show, involving dramatic lighting (by Heather Basarab) as well as live and pre-recorded video (designed by Wesley Cabral), is also created on the fly (it’s more organic that way, naturally).

Every once in a while, something weird happens. A big sound erupts (sound design by Brendan Aanes), the cast goes through a jerky modern-dance-like spasm (Rami Margron is the movement coach), and reality has shifted. At first these shifts take us more speedily through rehearsal so we can catch up on all the gossip like who used to sleep with whom and what the real power dynamics are in this collective.

But then the shifts start to get more serious as we experience more of the play and begin to see how Mao’s rule, likened to a work of theater itself, really does have parallels in a modern world where we create, share and, perhaps most importantly, edit our own histories as we’re living them.

The Hundred Flowers Project

Chen’s script makes some tricky twists and turns throughout its swift two acts dispatched in just over an hour and a half. There’s some deep intelligence at work here but also some sly humor to keep the pretension away, at least until it can’t. There are some dangerous dips into near melodrama, but director Desdemona Chiang and her astute cast of six keep the play crackling until Act 2 finally dives into some murky waters.

Two of the best scenes involve beautifully integrated video. I must confess here that I have an aversion to video on stage because I go to theater specifically to see LIVE people interacting with other LIVE people. But this play is about, in part, our almost obsessive need to record and archive our lives. So, at a certain point, when memories have become absent or unreliable, former lovers Mike (Wiley Naman Strasser) and Lily (Anna Ishida) are back in each other’s arms, literally. They’re dancing and throwing each other around and pretending to fly, all the while recording themselves with their iPhones, and the live video from their phones is projected on the walls of Maya Linke’s set.

Later on, after some time has gone by, Mike and his wife (Cindy Im) settle into a life of effortful domestic bliss. Their home is depicted in video renderings of a child’s drawing, and on the pretend TV we see the couple in the near future, while their live, present-day selves struggle to get to that near future.

Another video moment with great potential that isn’t fully realized involves video as a new form of masked drama (the Greeks would have loved this). An actor playing Mao (Strasser) is captured on video, while the video of his face is projected onto the sheet-shrouded head of another actor. The effect is a little like those creepy/fascinating talking mannequins at the deYoung’s recent Jean-Paul Gaultier show (see video here).

The Hundred Flowers Project, for all its intellectual zest and meta-theatrical zing, makes constant jokes about succumbing to traditional narrative structures but ultimately falls into a humorless home stretch that dulls some of the thought-provoking fun that has come before. But this is still a fascinating, even compelling piece of theater that feels like it really is about the here and now. OK, OK. You might even say it actually taps into the zeitgeist.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with playwright Christopher Chen and director Desdemona Chiang for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project, a co-production of Crowded Fire Theater Company and Playwrights Foundation, continues through Nov. 17 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit

2010 in the rearview mirror: My Top 10


Ryder Bach (left) and Jason Hite in Girlfriend my favorite show of the year (oops, spoiler alert!). Photo courtesy of 

I did two things I’m proud of this year. I worked for a great theater company and I stopped working for a great theater company. From June 2009 to September 2010, I was the communications manager for Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and it was a fantastic experience. For a critic to jump the fence and experience a theater company from the inside was the education of a lifetime.

A job change in September allowed me to go back to writing and reviewing with a renewed vigor and appreciation for the art of theater.

And my timing couldn’t have been better. top 10All of a sudden, with the launch of the fall season, it seemed that the Bay Area was the epicenter of all good theater. With Compulsion at Berkeley Rep, Scapin at American Conservatory Theater and the opening of The Brother/Sister Plays at Marin Theatre Company, there was great theater everywhere you turned.

Herewith, a conventional Top 10 list for 2010 – starting at No. 10 and working toward No. 1.

10. … and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi ̶ Marcus Gardley’s gorgeous tone poem of a play featured music, humor and history swirled into an extraordinary production courtesy of Cutting Ball Theater and the Playwrights Foundation.

9. Superior Donuts – The joys of a well-made play were incredibly evident in this wonderfully sturdy, amply entertaining drama from Tracy Letts and TheatreWorks. What lingers in memory, aside from the sweet, sitcom-ish world the play inhabits is Lance Gardner’s star-making performance as Franco Wicks.

8. Much Ado About Nothing – The joys of California Shakespeare Theater’s warm, autumn-tinged production were many, but chief among the pleasures was Danny Scheie in dual roles as Don John and Dogberry. What Scheie did with the latter, the word-mangling constable was nothing short of miraculous. He turned a one-note comic character into a richly shaded human being.

7. PalominoDavid Cale was the only person in his solo show, but the Aurora Theatre Company stage was brimming with extraordinary characters. This is how one-man shows should go – and best of all, it seemed like an actual play and not an indulgent autobiography.

6. Rabbit Hole – I have yet to see the Nicole Kidman movie version of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. But the version that will be forever etched into my brain came from the Palo Alto Players onstage at the Lucie Stern Theatre. Director Marilyn Langbhen’s production hit all the right emotional notes, and though the play is filled with grief, it left the audience full of cathartic hope.

5. Scapin – This production will go down in history as the one in which star Bill Irwin got upstaged by one of his co-stars. Part of the genius of this rollicking ACT production was that Irwin, who directed as well as starred, happily shared his ample spotlight with the rest of the cast. And the one who emerged as the evening’s true star? Jud Williford, one of ACT’s own.

4. Compulsion – On paper, this seemed like an iffy proposition: puppets and humans bring to life a thinly disguised true-life tale of a man obsessed with Anne Frank’s diary. But on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, and under Oskar Eustis’ astute direction, this play was about as compelling as theater gets – especially with the masterful marionettes interacting with three fantastic actors: Mandy Patinkin, Hannah Cabell and Matte Osian.

3. The Brother/Sister Plays – Beginning at Marin Theatre Company then spreading to the Magic Theatre and then to ACT, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy allowed three Bay Area theaters to collaborate in a way that made audiences giddy with delight. Each production, from Marin’s In the Red and Brown Water to the Magic’s The Brothers Size to ACT’s Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet, made the entire experience that much richer. I think my favorite, because it was so emotionally astute, was the Octavio Solis-directed Brothers at the Magic.

2. 9 Circles – Thinking about Bill Cain’s Iraq War drama still gives me chills. Craig Marker’s central performance in this Kent Nicholson-directed three hander was mind blowing. He inhabited the role of soldier Daniel Edward Reeves so powerfully that even the phenomenal work of co-star James Carpenter was a little overshadowed. And that was OK because this was Daniel’s story – the story of what war can do to the mind of a young soldier. People should have been in lines around the block to get into this Marin Theatre Company production, but alas, the show didn’t even extend.

1. Girlfriend – I can’t even begin to name all the reasons why I loved this Berkeley Repertory Theatre musical so much. I didn’t review it because I was working at the theater company at the time, but not only is it my favorite show of the year, it’s probably my favorite Berkeley Rep show of the last two decades. Director Les Waters’ production was the perfect embodiment of Todd Almond’s script and Matthew Sweet’s music. Choreographer Joe Goode made a non-dance show move in just the right ways, and stars Jason Hite and Ryder Bach were sweet and recognizable and full of heart. And the all-girl bend led by Julie Wolf kicked some serious ass.

Jesus and his extraordinary Mississippi moonwalk

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Above: Nicole C. Julien is Miss Ssippi in The Cutting Ball Theater/Playwrights Foundation production of Marcus Gardley’s …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi. Below: David Westley Skillman is The Great Tree/Jesus and Aldo Billingslea is Damascus. Photos by Rob Melrose.


Quilts and buttons are stars and stories in Marcus Gardley’s deeply lyrical, undeniably beautiful …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, now at the EXIT on Taylor in a co-production of The Cutting Ball Theater and Playwrights Foundation.

On the theatrical spectrum, this is the exact opposite of the sitcom-ready Sunset and Margaritas now at TheatreWorks (read my review of that play in the Palo Alto Weekly here), which is to say this is challenging, thought-provoking material given the kind of sharply etched production that inspires curiosity and wonder. There’s nothing easy about Moonwalks, and that’s a good thing. Gardley, working with director Amy Mueller, weaves myth, folklore, American Civil War history, personal family history and musings on race in this country.

That’s a lot to fold into a nearly 2 1/2-hour production, but Gardley and Mueller do it with the assistance of a fantastic set (by Michael Locher) that represents the night sky with buttons and plants an ominous hangman’s tree in the planks of the floor. The small but versatile stage (beautifully lit by Heather Basarab) is a battlefield after the siege of Vicksburg, a shattered Louisiana plantation and, most amazingly, the soul of the mighty Mississippi River.

Nicole C. Julien plays Miss Ssippi, the embodiment of the river that wends its way more than 2,300 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. She sings like a soulful angel (with sterling backup by her chorus, Rebecca Frank, Halili Knox and Erica Richardson), and she refuses to take sides in the divisive war raging around her. But like a goddess in the Greek tradition, she does take an interest in human lives and isn’t afraid to lend a helping hand (wave?) and assist in leading folks to their fate.

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In Gardley’s story, a freed slave named Damascus (a riveting Aldo Billingslea) is searching for his beloved, a slave named Poem (pronounced po-EMM). But Damascus is captured by Confederate soldiers and hanged from that terrifying tree. Jesus (in the form of David Westley Skillman, who occasionally tries to moonwalk to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”) decides to resurrect Damascus so he can continue his quest, but now the strapping man will be a woman named Demeter (echoes of the Demeter-Persephone myth here), and she has an extremely limited time to find Poem before death comes calling for real this time.

Damascus/Demeter is led to the ramshackle Verse plantation, where Cadence Marie Verse (a fierce Jeanette Harrison) is attempting to keep her daughters (Erika A. McCrary and Sarah Mitchell) and home together even though all her slaves have fled except for house servant Brer Bit (Martin F. Grizzell Jr.), who has a grand plan of his own (and it’s not good for his mistress).

There’s a tangled tale of romance and betrayal coursing through this plantation, so it’s hardly surprising that Damascus/Demeter’s fate lands her at this particular front door, where a Confederate roamer (David Sinaiko) and a shamed Yankee soldier (Zac Schuman) enter the fray.

It’s the story that compels, but it’s Gardley’s writing that fascinates. Interspersed amid some gorgeous spirituals, Gardley pours poetry over the drama and lets it cascade like water down a fall. The rhymes and images are so plentiful it would take a second viewing to appreciate them all.

Powerful, mesmerizing and complete with bolts of humor and tragedy, …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi is an intimate epic that pulses with power and beauty.


…and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi continues an extended run through April 25 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800 838-3006 or visit


The (puppet) theory of (puppet) relativity

Here’s an intriguing subtitle: “A found-object puppetry play inside the mind of Albert Einstein.”

That subtitle is attached to One Stone: Einstein, a work-in-progress from two of the Bay Area’s leading theatrical lights: playwright Trevor Allen and puppeteer Liebe Wetzel (along with her Lunatique Fantastique puppeteers).

The play, which involves found text, found-object puppets and David Sinaiko as Albert Einstein, receives two readings: 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 19 at Stanford University and 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 20 at Traveling Jewish Theatre (470 Florida St., San Francisco). These are free “in the rough” presentations presented by the Playwrights Foundation.

You can RSVP by e-mailing or by calling 415-626-0453, ext. 105.