Upon arriving in Berkeley this past weekend, performer, playwright and teaching artist Nilaja Sun was harshly reminded of the pain and suffering of a natural disaster.
The beautiful, blue Bay Area sky was replaced by something out of the twilight zone, thick smoke pushed south from the punishing fires in Butte County, fires which upended people lives, homes, and livelihoods. And as misery and pain found itself on televisions and tablets nationwide, people everywhere were reminded of the dangers of natural disasters.
“We’re hearing so much about these fires, but we’re not really hearing about the side effects,” said Sun. “When people are breathing this air for days and days, there are a lot of people right now who are feeling a little panicked. It feels like how it was after Sandy, that kind of post traumatic stress disorder people are having.”
That Sandy she speaks of is Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 category three storm that punished the Northeastern United States as well as parts of Canada and Cuba. That storm brought forth damages to the tune of nearly $70 billion domestically.
While Sandy plays a prominent role in Sun’s solo piece “Pike St.,” which runs through Dec. 16th at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, it is the human cost that she focuses on. The play, set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she is based and grew up, introduces the audience to the character Evelyn, a strong, Puerto Rican single-mother who fights for her family while staring down the eye of the storm. Through 90 minutes, Sun dips and darts through a plethora of characters, illuminating the struggles of those who could not possibly prepare for the damages that were inflicted upon them. But with that pain and anguish comes great virtue and spirit, a spirit Sun sets out to radiate on stage.
“It was a chance to witness neighbors helping neighbors, and a chance for me to acknowledge the love of my community. When I was commissioned to write a piece, I didn’t want to tell a story of a hurricane. I wrote Pike St. from the memories of all my neighbors and from the soul of my own Puerto Rican family. This is the story of the Lower East Side, as well as the story of my family.”
The show, which premiered off-Broadway in 2015, went on to become a New York Times critic’s pick, with former Times critic Charles Isherwood mentioning that he kept checking his program for who was playing who, only to find Sun performing all the characters.
She witnessed Sandy’s devastation firsthand at the time, a disaster that greatly affected so many of those in her neighborhood, including many impoverished and people of color. The 44-year-old Sun, who speaks with a pensive regality and nurturing care (even checking in on my allergic cough), is thrilled to return to Berkeley, where she last performed another critically acclaimed piece in 2008, “No Child,” which focused on her work as an educator for eight years in some of New York’s toughest schools.
In so many ways, in the midst of these incomprehensible tragedies, there becomes such a focus on what the victims could have done differently. Why didn’t they leave? Why are they rebuilding in the same spot? Aren’t they just asking for bad things to happen?
“For some people, all they have is their home, maybe it’s a home they’ve lived in all their life,” said Sun. “Some people have pets and dogs, and some might be so old they say ‘I’ll die in my house.’ Those who have passed on after a hurricane, their stories are never really told, and not everyone can get up and leave.
“It’s important to honor the choices they have made, especially if they passed away.”
As an artist of color, herself Puerto Rican and African-American, Sun has used her voice to amplify the voiceless, a consistent through line in her work. Bringing forth agency and illumination to these stories has been one of her most important missions as a soloist. And despite the fact that her characters face obstacles that would devastate just about anyone, Sun focuses on positive outcomes.
“I do come from a place of great hope, I really do. It might be small, starting with saying hi to your neighbor or asking how their mother is doing. Once we can’t even look at each other in the eye on the street, that’s where I don’t feel a lot of hope.
Her other hope lies in the industry in which she plies her craft.
“I have deep hope that the American theatre will have the diversity I see in the world, and if I don’t, all I can do is continue telling my story. My mission is to continue to tell the story, and hopefully someday there’s finally going to be like an exhalation. And for that, I will continue to tell my story and (other people’s) stories.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Pike St.”
Written and performed by Nilaja Sun
Directed by Ron Russell
Berkeley Rep Peet’s Theatre
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA 94704
Running TIme: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets range from $30 – $90
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org