Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Spot

Reviewed by Wanda Sabir

“It goes back to when life first began…all life began at the watering hole. …. and this is where evolution has taken us: churches, fast food cardiac arrest pit stops and an endless supply of liquor stores. The Africans used to say: “Before the white man came we had the land and they had the bible. Now we have the bible and they have the land.”
--Homeless Man

I left the San Francisco Black Film Festival’s Award’s night last month feeling really happy as I headed for Recovery Theatre’s The Spot in its final performance at St. Boniface, located in the heart of the Tenderloin on Golden Gate and Jones Street in San Francisco. The streets were quiet that evening compared to just days earlier when a young man was killed and drunken or otherwise inebriate denizens toyed with the idea of entering the church for the play, then decided not to. I found a parking spot just across the street, and when walked in, the director and playwright Geoffrey Grier was speaking as I spotted my friend.

I was so happy that I hadn’t missed the last performance of the play I’d been trying to get to for over two years? Just after Shabaka made his acceptance speech, I eased on down Florida to my car and headed over to Golden Gate where I found a parking spot just across the street from the church where Marvin X hosted his Black Arts and Poetry Festival a few years ago. I had no time to spare as I scanned the room looking for my friend and or a seat. Chokwadi waved her hand and I sat down next to her just as Recovery Theatre director and playwright Geoffrey Grier mounted the stage to open the show.

The theatre went black and we heard a voice telling us a story of seduction: James Brown’s “King Heroin” was speaking –heroin a master lover whose jones rode even the most stalwart ex-lover. It was hard to shake him, the promises so sweet, the lovin’ so good. It’s the same with his queen: crack, the poison of choice we find when its personnel take their posts at the Spot.

I’d never heard the song before, but this others that night provided eloquently a libretto for the characters whose lives we were to meet at The Spot. The music, which was on sale afterwards, added an extra dimension to the story as it unfolded like the first step in a 12-step process most characters hadn’t heard of or responded well to.

I’d just seen a film the day before at the SFBFF, “Transformations,” directed by Javier Molina, which reminded me of The Spot. Same scenario, folks stuck in a place where death or imprisonment are the only way out unless one finds a way to leave “the life of crime” behind. The Spot focused more on the trap of addiction, addiction to illegal and legal drugs. One often hears of how crack cocaine will make a mother sell her child for a hit, it also affects fathers the same way. One addict (Vinny Smyth)lets his child burn up in a car on one of San Francisco’s hottest days because he couldn’t stop chasing the high.

Another character, Lex, (Luchen Baker)was angry because his dad had had an accident that crippled him, the resulting pain and addiction to first legal, than illegal pain killers occurred when his insurance refused to approve his surgery. It’s a complex story which I think is the point of The Spot.

The stories of the people who find themselves pouring libations on Golden Gate and Leavenworth, Jones, or Taylor –and other such spots in urban settings, are often victims of a system in this country where depending on your zip code police services won’t respond to nuisance calls. A woman was having people sign a petition closing night to address this. It’s a place where one is not granted human status, so if one’s life is to have value, it has to come from within—there is no outward social reinforcement. Even the poverty pimps benefit from one’s destitution. No one wants the folks hanging at the watering hole to prosper.

The play opens with two men talking about the absence of places where black people can gather and celebrate. Call it redevelopment or urban removal, the result is the same, wastelands filled with wasted people, most of them poor black and male. Survivors of “the last lobotomy attempt,” a drunkard (Vernon Madera) with brimless hat and disheveled disguise says to no one in particular. He’s alone on stage— standing in the twilight he pulls out a flask takes a sip then pours a little for the ancestors.

“Before whites came, we had the land—they had the bible.” He says. “Now we have the bible and they have the land.” He stumbles off stage as two others—drug dealers this time, arrive early to claim the spot for a day’s business. The spot is near a liquor store. One of the men acts as security for the business –it’s early morning, and the day is threatening to be one of the hottest of the season for the second day in a row. When Mohammed (Doug Marshall) arrives with his two nieces he’s putting through school he thanks his friend and invites him into the store for a beverage.

The language here is beautiful. Grier told me that Vernon Madera who found himself homeless during this current run of the play, developed this character—the elixir in the magic potion, but on the mean streets of San Francisco and other mythic spots, there are no magic wands or fairy-godparents to ease the sorrow. And so the day goes, drug sales are slow. Old friends come by, customers who want a better deal, former addicts in recovery now, one of the men’s sons, and a man who is just out of a treatment center for a month.

This man brags about his son and how he’s clean 30 days, the rejoinder is why are you’re here if you are trying to change your life. The temperature rises and the activity on the corner increases, the OGs Geno ( Stefon Williams) and John (Darrin Westmore) are joined by Lex, a youngster, John’s son.

Lex shoots his gun in the air and a man dies. He is charged with murder or manslaughter, along with the death of the child in the car who isn’t his. Without a previous record, Lex gets ten years. It’s criminal the time he has to spend behind bars when an anger management class would have been a more positive intervention back when his dad got hurt, became disabled and lost his job.

After his girlfriend (Nicole Harley)is harassed by the guards when she visits, then stops visiting as much, the tough street savvy kid realizes just how little control he has over the situation he's in. He drops the street bravado he can't back up and decides to listen to the older men inside who assist his adjustment to prison life.

The prison scenes are realistic –drugged inmates, transvestites, players whose game is tired, and the indignity of the treatment of the visitors not to mention their wives or significant others. Also addressed is the mental illness among the prison population.

Grier’s writing is three dimensional, the characters live and breath. The spot is a place people call home when in fact it is a grave. Lex returns home to find everything different especially at the place of origin. His girlfriend is older and a lot wiser. His children are 10, his father is dead and he has to make some choices so that he can live.

The actors are marvelous, especially the young couple, the griot or sage and the two OGs who hold it down—until one of them returns home. One could see director Ayodele Nzinga’s hand in the production—especially the dialogue and the relationship layers between Lex and his dad and Lex and his girl, both in and out of prison.

The audience was receptive often singing along with the soundtrack. The Spot will be back continues through this weekend at The Next Stage, 1620 Gough St. @ Bush in San Francisco, Thursday, July 26 and 27. All shows at 8:00 p.m. For information call (415) 643-6011 or visit


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