These Are the People in Your Neighborhood

As company-in-residence at Exit on Taylor, the avant-garde Cutting Ball Theater strikes an odd contrast with the Tenderloin District right outside its doors. Inside, challenging works by Ionesco, Beckett or Will Eno may compete with the hollering of heavily lubricated voices outside, and walking down the street to BART or one’s car from the show can be an obstacle course of homeless people, drug dealers and their customers.

Rebecca Frank as Leroy Looper and David Sinaiko as Kathy Looper in Tenderloin. Photo by Rob Melrose.

After a while of the relatively cloistered existence of darting through the neighborhood to commute to and from the theater, Cutting Ball decided it wanted to get to know the neighbors. So artistic director Rob Melrose commissioned Annie Elias, wife of company associate artist David Sinaiko, to create a documentary theater piece about the Tenderloin. Inspired by the work of artists such as Anna Deavere Smith and the Tectonic Theater Project, Elias had created a number of similar pieces with the students at Marin Academy—where she, Sinaiko and Melrose all worked in the theater department—in which student actors interviewed members of the community, transcribed the interviews and played the people they met on stage. Elias coaches the actors on interview techniques, weaves the interviews into a script and directs the piece.

The same process, writ large, went into Tenderloin. Each actor in the cast of six plays the people that he or she interviewed personally, and it’s impressive how each of them transforms from character to character. Sinaiko is thoughtful and gravel-voiced as Mark Ellinger, a historian of the neighborhood who used to be a junkie and got started as a photographer with a digital camera he found in the trash, and plays a warm and chatty Kathy Looper, coowner of the Cadillac Hotel, alongside Rebecca Frank as husband Leroy Looper. Frank is terrific as Leroy, an older gentleman who has since passed away, folksy and semi-articulate, and the way the couple keeps comfortably interrupting each other is priceless. Frank also has a marvelous turn in which she transforms back and forth between the friendly but slightly haunted-seeming fitness director at the Boys and Girls club and a bubbly Asian-American high school senior who just loves the neighborhood to pieces.

Siobhan Doherty is subdued and fragile-seeming as a Palo Alto native who feels safest in the Tenderlojn and felt like she lost her sense of self when she moved in with an abusive guy in the Sunset. She’s similarly low-key but in a gentle and soothing way as Mary Ann Finch, a former Mother Teresa volunteer who massages the homeless as the founder of “Care Through Touch.” Finch is paired with Karen Oliveto, a pastor at Glide Memorial Church, played with good-humored compassion by Leigh Shaw. Shaw also embodies the confident lawyer and community activist Elaine Zamora, deftly slipping back and forth into her voice while also playing one of three bouncy, chattering kids at the Boys and Girls Club, along with Doherty and Tristan Cunningham.

Michael Uy Kelly plays a charming older guy named Nappy Chin, reminiscing about how raising a baby on his own brought out the best in everyone in the neighborhood (and was a babe magnet), and he also has thoughtful turns as a transsexual bar waitress, a seasoned beat cop and a social worker haunted by his childhood experiences as a boat person fleering war-torn Vietnam. Cunningham proves a particularly versatile chameleon, capturing the staccato rhythms of a melancholy beat boxer living on the street, a downbeat ex-con cleaning worker with nothing but contempt for his surroundings, and a sad-eyed and shaky but always smiling resident who tries to always focus on God’s blessings. Most memorably, she embodies Ester Aure, a counselor at the Filipino Health and Wellness Center practically bursting with positive attitude and formulae for success in life. From first to last, the performances are tremendous.

Michael Locher’s cluttered set is fascinating, an unruly pile of chairs, couches, dressers, maps and other items stacked high. Black-and-white photos of the neighborhood and its residents hang in front of the heap, with a couple of blank panels that show a slideshow of Ellinger’s photographs during the show. Costumer Michelle Mulholland provides a huge number of outfits to transform the cast from one character to the next, and Mitt Stines brings the neighborhood to life with the pervasive background noise of his sound design (and any sound leaking in from outside for once fits right in).

Elias contrasts the interviews deftly, often putting two or three characters side by side so that they appear to be having a conversation when they talk about the same issues, even though each is actually talking to the interviewer. There are a couple of segments that don’t entirely make sense, such as what exactly a local church was trying to do that got Zamora involved in the anecdote Shaw tells about soup-kitchen lines all along the sidewalk, of what Cunningham’s platitude-spouting resident that closes the show is talking about at all. But those feel like small problems.

I’d hate to lose any of the characters we meet, because so many of them are delightful, but the mix does feel like it’s top-heavy with do-gooders.  There’s a lot of talk about the down-and-out and the drug dealers and how the various characters deal with them, accept them or look after them, and we do get a couple of street scenes where we see a lot of those people embodied all at once to try to capture the hustle and bustle of the sidewalk. But we hardly hear from any of those people, and the result is that they remain “those people”; we hear a lot about them, but we don’t get to know them. More we hear the success stories—the people who got themselves clean, or who grew up poor in the neighborhood but managed to keep out of trouble. And then a lot of social service workers and other people devoted to looking after the residents.

The actors interviewed a number of people who didn’t make the cut of the finished play, and I don’t know whether it was deemed more productive to focus on the people making a positive difference in the neighborhood or whether they were just leery of talking to a belligerent drunk on the street in the first place. Early in the play, Sinaiko’s Mark Ellinger talks about the amazing things you find in the Tenderloin when you look “beneath the veneer of crime and decay.” It may be that Elias and the Cutting Ball crew don’t want to linger too much on that veneer and instead want to accentuate the positive about the neighborhood, and that’s well and good.  Some of the stories we hear here are inspiring, but more it’s the people themselves who are touching, and the play makes us glad we got to spend some time with them. But after a while the relentlessly upbeat message does start to feel like spin, almost like an advertisement for the neighborhood. The show’s already plenty effective at helping us look beneath the surface of the Tenderloin; if anything, we want to go deeper.

Through June 24
Exit on Taylor
277 Taylor St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #44 of 2012, attended May 10.

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