When Intersection gave up its Valencia Street home a year ago to move into the Chronicle building downtown, it also gave up its dedicated performance space. Since then it’s had to get creative about reimagining and reinventing its space. Last year’s Nobody Move was staged in a basement meeting room, and for Tree City Legends the Intersection office itself has been transformed into a theater, with the action taking place on all sides and amid the audience. Tanya Orellana’s set has walls full of windows with bare lightbulbs in them, and a stack of cinderblocks filled with candles. A screen up front shows Joan Osato’s video projections of trees, rippling water, cathedrals and Felix the Cat, and from time to time we can see through it to a live band set up for a recording session. Written by Dennis Kim, Tree City Legends is a world premiere developed with Intersection, its company-in-residence Campo Santo, Youth Speaks’s theater company the Living Word project, and Ictus.
“This show in particular is more ceremony than not,” director Marc Bamuthi Joseph said before opening. “It is more party than performance.” In fact, the show takes the form of a memorial service in which three brothers honor a fourth who seemingly recently committed suicide. Free-form reminiscences are interspersed with the more formal funeral speeches and other poetic passages. Taiyo Na’s Min Kane gives a somber introductory speech about being a first-generation American; we gather that the family’s Korean-American, but it doesn’t particularly matter, and the actors are of different ethnicities. Sean San Jose’s Denizen Kane tells a gruesome story about looking out the window watching his father get beaten to death by drug dealers in the backyard when he was seven. It’s a compelling tale, but it’s undermined by the distracting mushmouthed voice of a hyperactive child that San Jose uses throughout the show as Denizen, brimming with nervous energy. It’s unclear whether he’s supposed to be stuck in his childhood, a crazed drunk, or otherwise mentally disabled.
From the name I at first assumed Tree City to mean Oakland, but there are no particular landmarks in the text to suggest anything so specific, aside from the general urban plagues of drugs and crime. All three brothers give funny, belligerent and poetic directions to Tree City, dense with metaphor, that depend on passing by people singing Sam Cook’s “Wonderful World” and getting on the bus where somebody’s eating Harold’s Chicken (OK, more likely Chicago then).
Juan Amador (aka Wonway Posibul) is particularly volatile as eldest living brother Sum Kane, always on the verge of punching somebody. He gives the funeral homily because every local clergyman has mysteriously died, and it’s rich with biblical references and extremely long. Seriously, it goes on forever. But it’s packed with passionate points, as he ties the New Testament jeers of “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” to Sunnyvale, Hunter’s Point, Fruitvale and of course Tree City. Most powerful is the end of his sermon, talking about how the oppressor wants to appropriate the culture of the oppressed—the slang, the dances, the songs, the swagger. All the brothers harp on the idea that suicides go to hell because they didn’t give themselves a chance to repent, and cling to the possibility that their brother Junie repented in the split-second before he died.
Na’s Min is always blinking, wincing in the light. In one amusing passage he sternly leads the congregation in prayer, solemnly reciting the alphabet as if it’s holy scripture. He demands that all bow their heads and threatens to beat up some guy who’s not lowering his head properly. He rages against God for taking his brother and leaving the bullies and cops alone. Denizen’s strongest moment is in his toast, when he loses the hyper shtick long enough to rattle off disparaging truths about his brother and parents before his brothers shut him up. Unfortunately then he goes back to bouncing off the walls as he rattles off some final anecdote that closes the show on a confusing note.
The songs are self-contained, as the speeches are interrupted to cut to a recoding session behind the screen. A singer raps melodically and plays acoustic guitar over soft roots-rock or jazzy melodies, and sometimes just a cappella. The singer is playwright Dennis Kim. He’s also supposed to be Junie, the dead brother everybody’s talking about, but there’s no way you’d know that just by watching the show. The other musicians are from the band Dirty Boots: Rachel Lastimosa on bass and keyboards and James Dumlao on drums and trumpet.
It’s hard to make much sense of the play in general. Even the ages of the brothers are inconsistent—at least if the actors are always playing the same people, which also isn’t clear. It’s really more riffs of urban poetry than anything involving a plot. There’s not much sense of who the heck Junie was: He was a righteous man who smashed glass pipes of “the forgetfulness” when they were passed to him, he was a dealer and user, he and his brothers got in trouble for spouting religiosity at school, he was a scammer and a player and all-around jerk. He was all things to all people. Similarly, we don’t really know anything about the brothers other than the variations on a theme that they reiterate in speeches and random anecdotes. At first it seems like there’s a character named Joe as well, but it’s more likely that they just call everyone Joe. There’s plenty of rich language, humor and engaging hip-hop strewn throughout, but if you’re expecting it to add up to some big picture—well, forget it, Joe; it’s Tree City.
Show #21 of 2012, attended February 20.