There’s no season better than Fall.
Summer’s a bit too hot, Winter’s way too expensive, and Spring throws a head-banging party in my sinuses.
Fall, I mean, come on. I’m not an NFL guy, but I’m so down for another Warriors and Sharks playoff run, the start of baseball playoffs and an air that’s a bit crisper, the sun tucking in for the night a little bit earlier.
While the dawn of streaming has taken the luster out of Fall television starting their new seasons, many Bay Area theatre companies get their parties started in September.
One of my absolute, most important jobs as a critic of color is to amplify fellow theatre artists who represent marginalized communities. So for the second year running, here are my top 10 theatre picks focusing on plays written, featuring, directed by and/or performed by artists of color.
In no particular order, here we go…
1. “Inked Baby”
By Christina Anderson
Directed by Lisa Marie Rollins
Crowded Fire Theater Company
Sept. 12th – Oct. 5th
A powerful story of married couple Gloria and Greer and their inability to conceive a child is complicated further when Gloria’s sister Lena agrees to serve as the birth mother via natural conception after other more expensive options have been exhausted. In another odd coincidence, a strange contamination starts to affect the health of their town.
Crowded Fire Theater never shies away from scintillating stories that make people uncomfortable. And with an entire artistic team that consists of diverse women, they are one of the most important companies in the Bay.
2. “Exit Strategy”
By Ike Holter
Directed by Josh Costello
Aurora Theatre Company
Through Sept. 29th
Chicago-based playwright Holter brings forth a fresh, humored sensibility to one of the most polarizing topics in the country – the American public school system. His story focuses on seven characters – Five Chicago public school teachers, a vice-principal and a strong-willed student who come together in order to save their school from closure.
A play that engages in both the cynicism and optimism that exists in public education, and its effect on communities of color kicks off the Aurora season. The show is directed by Costello, who takes over as artistic director from Tom Ross, who led the company for the past 27 years.
3. “Top Girls”
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Tamilla Woodard
American Conservatory Theater
The Geary Theatre
Sept. 19th – Oct. 13th
A year after Houston native and Brooklyn-based Woodard directed the Jaclyn Backhaus hit “Men on Boats” at the Strand Theatre, she returns to San Francisco to take on “Top Girls,” the 1982 play that brings legendary women, both real and mythical, together for a dinner party. The play’s explorations include sisterhood and the patriarchy, despite the fact that there are no men on stage.
Feminism and the cost of progress in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain are the powerful themes the play broaches. And Woodard, who served as the associate director of the Tony Award winning Broadway hit “Hadestown,” as well as being named one of six theatre workers you should know in the January, 2018 issue of American Theatre magazine, brings her heavy resume to the Bay for a second year in a row.
4. “White Noise”
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Jaki Bradley
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Sept. 26th – Nov. 10th
Last Fall, Berkeley Rep had the Bay Area’s runaway hit, the game-changing “Fairview,” which went on to win the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The play made the name of playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury theatrical gold. This year, with a new play from Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer for her 2001 play “Topdog/Underdog,” Berkeley Rep is once again priming themselves to reign supreme in the Fall.
“White Noise” focuses on two 30-something couples who are cultured, educated and lean heavily to the left. But a racially motivated incident shakes both couples to their core, namely the two men. A play that searingly looks at race, which is always a timely subject, “White Noise” has earned Berkeley Rep the distinction of being the only regional theatre outside of New York to present this work in 2019.
By Sujit Saraf
Directed by Sujit Saraf
Naatak Indian Theatre
Sept. 14th – Oct. 6th
The Cubberley Theatre, Palo Alto
Naatak co-founder Sujit Saraf is an incredibly articulate and ambitious playwright. The author’s prolific pen is now tackling the life and times of Gandhi, the Indian lawyer and anti-colonial nationalist who lead his people to a non-violent independence, breaking free from British rule in 1947.
The South Bay company is well known for their epic, sweeping productions with huge casts, and this show is no different. The piece spans 60 years and is written in Hindi, English and Gujarati, with English supertitles. And in a very special touch, Gandhi’s 150th birthday is Oct. 2nd, when the company will have a special “Gandhi Jayanti” show.
Naatak has been producing a variety of work since 1996, from original Indian plays to lots of shows in the American and British theatre canon. Quick tip – get your tickets early, because this company is very well supported and will fill their theatre fast.
Adapted for the stage by Evelina Fernández with Teatro Visión
Directed by Rodrigo García
Mexican Heritage Plaza, San Jose
Oct. 10th – 20th
Since their first production in 1984, Teatro Visión produced a full season of plays, yet were utilizing theatres throughout San Jose. The theatres at City Lights, San Jose Stage, the Soto Theatre and MACLA all housed the South Bay teatristas until Mexican Heritage Plaza made them the resident company in 1999. In the last few years, the company has focused more on a few larger scale productions per year, and have had wonderful success as a result.
One of those successes is the inspiring folktale “Macario,” a show that the company has produced most years annually since 2013. The story of a poor woodcutter whose humble dream is a day without hunger is told with vivid, sweeping touches by the company, along with beautiful vocals and dynamic dancing. The show is performed in Spanish with English supertitles, and is a great choice for the whole family for both fulfilling and economic reasons.
7. “El Rio”
By Andrew Saito
Directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe
Brava Theater Center, San Francisco
Sept. 27th – Oct. 20th
The Rio Grande river is a major flash point in the battle over immigration, and Saito’s new play focuses on a Black-Seminole Iraq war veteran and two distinct narratives – a quest to honor her daughter’s memory while trying to save the life of a Guatemalan undocumented immigrant whom she meets at the border.
The show focuses on three group of people – those who live on both sides of the border, and those who live in between. Directed by the talented Cooper-Anifowoshe, the show has searing written all over it.
By Mary Kathryn Nagle
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
Marin Theatre Company
Sept. 26th – Oct. 20th
Drawing parallels between Andrew Jackson and President Donald Trump in regards to Native American issues is not terribly difficult. While Jackson attempted to eradicate the Cherokee nation through the fateful Trail of Tears, Trump has used this as a punchline while using pejoratives such as “Pocahontas” towards a sitting United States senator. And that’s not to mention the portrait of Jackson that sits in the Oval Office.
Nagle, who is an attorney, playwright and head of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, is passionate about telling the story of a young Cherokee lawyer who confronts the ghosts of her grandfathers while fighting to restore her Nation’s jurisdiction. The play is large in scope, shadows stretching from the 1830s Cherokee Nation, known today as present-day Georgia through present-day Oklahoma.
Native American stories in the American theatre are not in abundance, but certainly need to be in order to continue understanding this nation’s history and how it affects us all today.
By Lynn Nottage
The Pear Theatre
Oct. 18th – Nov. 10th
Nottage garnered a Pulitzer prize in 2017 for “Sweat,” the story of a blue collar town in Reading, Pennsylvania, a state that was solidly blue in the presidential voting from 1992 until Donald Trump’s win in 2016. Nottage spent two-and-a-half years in Reading interviewing residents, and set her play in a bar that is always full of steelworkers.
With word of layoffs, lockouts and a battle for the same job between two friends, one black and one white, the dynamics of the bar begin to come apart at the seams. The consequences of those fissures lead to plenty of xenophobia and violence.
Back in the days when the company was known as the Pear Avenue Theatre, their humble beginnings led to lots of great shows at a makeshift theatre in an industrial park. Now, the company has been housed in their dedicated theatre space for a few years now, strengthening their technical capabilities and production values exponentially.
10. “Death and the Artist”
Original Work by Mercedes Rein & Jorge Curi
Adaptation by Carlos Barón
Directed by Marcelo Javier
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company
Oct. 18th – Nov. 3rd
Old Californio and ex-coyote “Pobreza” tricks Death up a tree in his final moments on Earth. Yet with Death being kept at bay, Pobreza is pressured from all walks of life to let Death go in order to save humanity. A play that uses many characters from Latinx theatre traditions, the dark comedy is loaded with farce, fear and fun.
Some of the Bay’s best original work comes out of this company, led by artistic director and Broadway performer Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr., who helped found BATCO back in 2012. Since then, they have been a community staple, engaging in mentoring, workshops and lots of experimental and original productions. If any company represents the Bay Area and all its diversity well, it’s certainly the good folks at BATCO.