Monday, March 12, 2018

Theatre on Sutter in San Francisco

Sunday I went to two wonderful performances in one afternoon. Granted, I was tired when I got home at 10 p.m., but the work was excellent and worth the hunger and sleep deprivation (smile).

The first production was African American Shakespeare Company's excellent interpretation of Tennessee Williams's A Street Car Named Desire through March 18. Under L. Peter Callender's excellent direction the exceptional cast renders the work with class and sensitivity to the charged, sensitive themes in Williams more highly charged works.

The story takes place in New Orleans. Stella and Stanley are living in wedded bliss, when elder sister Blanche arrives unannounced to stay with her sister and brother-in-law in a small apartment. Blanche comes from wealth, is college educated and does not understand her sister's happiness with a man clearly beneath her socially.  To compound the matter, Stanley insulted by her disapproval baits  Blanche.  The two circle one another as the mating dance reaches a crescendo-- Blanche crushed by the shear weight of Stanley masculine presence which she is not able to resist. The hot temperatures mirror the turmoil inside each character.

Blanche represents the forbidden, a prize beyond Stanley's reach. While Stanley perhaps is both tempting and frightening at the same time for Blanche who lives both in the world and in her imagination. She says that she adapts the truth when necessary, if such adaptation softens or cushions her eventual fall.

Set in the late 40s and premiering on Broadway in 1947, Williams's work introduces to the American audience a play, similar in impact to Lorraine Hansberry's play, A Raisin in the Sun. Like the Youngers, Stanley and Stella, Steve and Eunice are working class people.

What is different is Stanley drinks. When Stella meets him, he is a decorated officer.  Now he is about to be a proud father when Blanche arrives and upsets the fragile balance that is his life--

He travels for work; plays cards with the guys, is captain of the bowling team, and controls his house and his woman with an iron fist-- both literally and figuratively. He pays all the bills Stella tells Blanche, and so keeps all the money. Stanley is no different from the other men in his neighborhood and community. Most of them drink too much and when drunk hit their women.

Stanley is a strong presence and Blanche rivals or upsets the balance. He needs to get rid of her-- the question is how. Desire is something that runs all night long and during the day.  When she steps out of the hot bath, desire creeps into shoes and under her slip. It hangs in the air like steam, brightens the room even if the bulbs are covered with Chinese paper lanterns to soften the light. 

The set mimics the confinement-- each character trapped by his or her thoughts. When the play was adapted for the screen, it was censored and certain scenes removed. There is sexual violence in the work and it was taken out and later returned when the film was remastered.

It is amazing what the mind edits out too. The psyche doesn't call it censorship, rather survival. The memory in service to the soul, carefully remasters experience so that what we recall does not disturb the delicate balance that is sanity. If trauma interferes with a person's ability to function then the life script is rewritten so well that trauma is sublimated even hidden so that the harmful experiences
is "forgotten."

Circumstances in the form of eyewitnesses or people whom you love agree with the edited version-- the victim often thinks the experience imagined until the reality is no longer available to consciousness. This is what happens to Blanche-- she witnesses a suicide. She thinks it's her fault and lives with the guilt and trauma. She is stuck in that cycle and it is sexual desire that makes her come alive. Her lover, the person she thought she knew, is really a stranger.

She is forever this girl-child, girl-woman waiting for fulfillment which never comes. Mitch, Stanley's friend would have been perfect; however, Stanley ruins the potential relationship. Mitch could have helped Blanche reconcile the pieces of herself, pull the parts together because she trusted him and he liked her. He didn't quite get what was wrong, but he listened.  He abandons her and she is trapped.

Stanley is angry with Blanche; the rape is to get her for what she says to Stella when she thinks he is gone after he has beaten the pregnant woman, yet she returns to him and they have conciliatory sex. He beats her up all the time we hear, and she escapes to her neighbors and then returns. Blanche wants her to leave, but Stella cannot imagine life outside of this situation she calls "normal."

This is what "desire" does to her. Stella's desire is satisfied with Stanley, a man who is brutal - his love a battle, their bed a war-zone where peace agreements are negotiated, the baby perhaps a truce. Stella tries to fight back, but she is no physical match for Stanley. She says when they came home from the wedding he took her shoe and broke all the light bulbs in the apartment.

He literally put out all the lights. Darkness surrounded them. Blanche covered the lights. She said it was too bright and she wanted to keep certain things hidden or secret. Both sisters avoided disclosure. it was better if the women kept illusions in tact. It was easier to survive that way. 

The acting is superb. Jemier Jenkins's Blanche is a multifaceted Southern Lady whose secrets push her over the edge. When she arrives on Elysian Fields, wet and withered from the journey, she stays in a constant stupor. She pours libations down a willing throat; however, she cannot drown the shambles her life has become. it has all caught up to her, and despite Stanley's uneducated or unschooled position to hers, he is smart enough to see through Blanche's subterfuge.

Jenkins's presentation is subtle as she allows her character to unwind like a spool until the threads have all played out and we see the broken discarded Blanche without her adornment. This Blanche is perhaps more lovely in her tragic slips of herself, than the others especially Stella, who clutches Stanley and the baby-- chooses Stanley and the baby over the truth.

Once again, it is the economics of the situation that bind her. For both Blanche and Stella, poverty limits their choices. They have nowhere to go. Blanche could work, but her current mental state make that impossible given what takes place in the Laurel School District. Girl just needs a good therapist. However, the playwright, tackles this in another play: Suddenly One Summer--talking therapy took second place to electrical shock treatment and lobotomies.

Khary Moye's Stanley is a man who still carries the trauma of war with him. He might be a decorated veteran, honored by his country and woman, but the battle still rages in his mind. His bursts of temper and his unchecked drinking when he is home points to unresolved issues, that and perhaps alcoholism. He and Blanche share this fate. Street Car was not written with black cast in mind. However, Moye adds to the story's complexity with his black male body. He is a black man with a pregnant wife, working -- yes, but not making a lot of money. He thinks Stella has an inheritance, and as her husband so does he.

Stella leaves her home for New Orleans. She is younger than Blanche, not college educated. We wonder why she leaves and why Blanche stays. Perhaps Blanche feels obligated as the eldest to take care of the elder male family household members.We hear of their monetary discrepancies -- taking loans of the mortgage until the property is tied up in legal debt. The fact that a black family owns a mansion is a part of the story that is a bit hard to believe given the period. There were free black people of color in New Orleans, free people of color with wealth too. Whether or not the elder sister would have worked as a school teacher . . . I don't know.

But back to actress Santoya Field's Stella, she welcomes Blanche into her home and so does Stanley, who had not been apprised of his sister-in-laws visit. Perhaps had he known she were coming, he could have prepared himself emotionally for what this might mean? Who knows what such calculations Stanley might have cooked up in advance.

Fred Pitts as "Mitch" is in striking contrast to Moye's "Stanley." He is gentle with Blanche. he seems to intuitively respond to the fragility she represents. He feels unworthy, and appreciates the gift of her attention. All he has is his mother and sees emptiness ahead when his mother is no longer present in his life. He like Blanche is a caretaker. Blanche took care of the men in her household. Mitch's mother loves her son and encourages him to get out the house and be with his friends; whereas for Blanche we sense she was a loner-- her Belle Reve estate a place where the halls echoed emptiness.

Supporting cast, especially Kim Saunders as Eunice, owner of the apartment Stanely and Stella occupy, is sassy and wise. Older than Stella, she tells the younger woman what to let go of and what to hold onto when presented with a choice. She and her husband, Steve (actor Shawnj West) also fight. We see Steve holding his head or running down the street more than a few times. Models of domestic strife populate Desire, yet "desire" wins each time the score is tallied on Elysian Fields.

A Street Car Named Desire is at Marine's Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street, in San Francisco through March 18. Performances are Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Closing performance there is a Sunday Brunch a few blocks away at "Jones" – 620 Jones Street, from 12:30-2:30 p.m. For tickets to the brunch and the program, visit AA-Shakes.  Guests will have an opportunity to meet the Artistic Director, L. Peter Callender and Board Members.

The Sunday I attended there was an enlightening conversation with cast members and the director, facilitated by an AA Shakes Board member. Featured on the panel was Rev. Dr. Sarai S. Crain-Pope, Bay Area Women Against Rape, who spoke about sexual violence in the context of popular culture and America's fascination with violence against women. The top rated TV shows all feature such thematic content. Callender stated that when the season was planned, and the Williams' play selected, he knew he would include this discussion piece. A couple members of the cast were intimately affected by the characters and themes and shared self-care strategies they were using to perform this work. Such self-disclosure whether it was as a victim of sexual violence or a respondent to such violence, deepened the experience for me. I felt the authenticity, however, to know this was a visceral retelling for certain members of the cast deepened my respect and appreciation for the actors who shared this aspect of their past.

Given the heightened awareness presently in this country: Me Too Movement; Desire is just a reminder of how present sexual violence is in a nation where black women are not seen in the same light as white women. It does not matter if the woman is a college or university professor, a high school English teacher like Blanche or her kid sister, high school graduate, pregnant mother, Stella.

It also does not matter if the guilty party of current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and the accuser, his lawyer, Anita Hill. Ms. Hill is guilty, not Thomas, (this before his nomination is affirmed).  Ms. Hill is a national hero, yet when she accused Thomas her testimony, which I remember, was met with distaste by black men and women who thought she was betraying the race by speaking her truth.

Now a man leads the country who has similar pedigree. I can see why this play was produced by two companies in the same season: Ubuntu Theatre Company's sold out run closed just a couple weeks before African American Shakes opened. Ubuntu's run was phenomenal, different there was music and a physical intimacy the company is known for given its site specific format. The actors were within touching range. Blanche's chest like Pandora's box-- what secrets did it hold?

More later on the wonderful play just down the hill at Custom Made Theatre: "Hooded or Being Black for Dummies" by Tearrance Arevelle Chisholm, directed by Lisa Marie Rollins with a fantastic cast led by the Tre'Vonne Bell (Tru) and Jesse Vaughn (Marquis). The two 14 year olds meet in a holding cell.

Marquis's mom picks her son up and then takes Tru home too. He is the real deal. She imagines a Welfare mom working so hard, she doesn't notice her son doesn't come home. She would probably welcome an opportunity to let someone else raise her son.

Perhaps Tru can also toughen up her soft black boy. Did I mention that Marguis is a trans-racial adoptee? His mom a white attorney?

She is all the stereotypes rolled into one Tootsie Roll and so are her projections onto Tru who plays offense well. In case the name didn't sink in at first, "Hooded" is all about pushing multiple politically hot buttons at once as LAUGH lights tell the audience how and when to respond as we watch these two black boys try to navigate the racial precipice that is black life in America. One boy lives in the suburbs, yet he is not immune. Class and income are not currency when your very presence in the planet is illegal.

Marquis learns with Tru, he cannot  buy safety.  This is perhaps one reason why Tru cares enough about his new friend's naivete to write the "For Dummies" book.  Marquis calls the boys in his prep school his friends. These same friends are the reason why Marquis is picked up by the police. These friends cheat on tests and break other rules and allow there friend holding the blame.

Hooded is about Marquis's transformation into a black boy. The blacker he gets the smaller the world he can claim.  We watch the world shrink as the child becomes less an individual and more a type, the type that is dangerous, should be watched and is nothing but trouble.

As he dons Tru's red Jordons and pulls his hood over his head, the transformation is nearly complete-- all is needed is a can of Arizona Iced Tea and a box of Skittles.

The play turns full circle. When the scene opens Marquis is playing Trayvon-- getting shot and falling to the pavement dead. Only a black kid in a white prep school would play dead. Any other kid would realize the game is too real to practice.

Marquis is not shallow, even if he is continually duped by his "boys," that is, until he begins to listen to what the boys are says and calls them on it. He and Tru have a lot in common, both are smart and at an age when boys begin to change-- notice girls and grow uncomfortable in a changing body, both find a way to express themselves through existentialism -- Friedrich Nietzsche and Tupac Amaru Shakur. Both philosophers offer the boys a perspective. Tru calls is "Being Black for Dummies" with an extensive appendix with Tupac's work. He borrows Marquis's copy of Nietzsche. Later he sees that Marquis gets it. He's not dumb.

The cast is great, especially the white actors.  These characters from the kids at school who are either clueless or mean to Marquis to the principal who is cagey and unfriendly to the best student on campus. Even his love interest likes him because of what she might gain through the association. School is not a place where Marquis thrives.

The play is up, Thursdays-Saturdays, through April 7. For tickets and information visit: Custom Made is located at 533 Sutter Street, Second Floor.


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