Wrapping up the final year of the decade, and the Drama Guy’s Top 10 of ’19

The final year of the decade was another strong one for Bay Area theatre. Some incredibly significant milestones took place in 2019, and the start of a new decade will hopefully be a continuation of a more rich and diverse American theatre. What is especially encouraging is that so many communities are demanding their stage time. Every voice is giving us a greater opportunity to see true representation on stages in ways we haven’t seen before.

The American theatre has incredible potential to share all our stories, and so many artists in the Bay Area are making that happen with a drive and passion, ensuring a new decade of diverse theatre makers will take root in our region.

MILESTONES IN 2019

  • TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s artistic director Robert Kelley is stepping down after 50 years at the helm, a tenure that may never be matched. After building a company that now programs out of two theatres and has developed work that has made it to Broadway and beyond, Kelley’s tenure was topped off with a regional Tony Award, an amazing way to move into retirement. But don’t expect Kelley to completely walk away. He’s planning to continue directing for years to come.
  • Speaking of longtime artistic directors, one of the Bay Area’s deans also moved on. Tony Taccone, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director for the past 33 years, left his full-time gig with the company back in May, but still has plenty lined up going forward. His plan is to spend more time directing in his native New York, and is working with actor Richard Montoya and Los Lobos members David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez on a new musical about the life of Ritchie Valens.
    Berkeley Rep won a regional Tony in 1997.
  • The Bay Area said goodbye to an influential artist, who is as kind as she is talented. Lily Tung Crystal has moved on from Ferocious Lotus in San Francisco to a huge gig, Theater Mu in St. Paul, Minnesota. Just before she left, Tung Crystal directed an excellent production of “Flower Drum Song” for Palo Alto Players and performed in “The Good Person of Szechwan” at Cal Shakes. Godspeed, Lily.
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    Leah Nanako Winkler’s play “Two Mile Hollow,” produced in 2018 at Ferocious Lotus in San Francisco, went on the win the 2019 Francesca Primus prize. The award and a $10,000 prize were awarded on Nov. 2nd at Sardi’s in New York City.
  • Those folks who made it out in 2018 to see a wildly funny play at Ferocious Lotus in San Francisco will certainly remember the name Leah Nanako Winkler. That play, which saw four world premieres nationwide, went on this year to win the Francesca Primus Prize, given by the American Theatre Critics Association. The significance of this year’s prize was that all the finalists were women of color for the first time in its 22-year history. Nanako Winkler, who is as driven as they come, walked away with a $10,000 cash prize and her name etched in with some incredible playwrights who have also won the prize, names such as Lynn Nottage, Karen Zacarías and Lauren Yee. Primus Prize committee chair Kerry Reid of the Chicago Reader presented the award to Nanako Winkler this past November at Sardi’s in New York City.
  • The saddest end in 2019 is the closing of the iconic Beach Blanket Babylon, a show that was always wildly fun and never duplicated. Created by San Jose State alumnus Steve Silver, the show is ending an unmatched 45-year run. Personally, the show was one of my earliest features after returning to theatre journalism, interviewing fellow South San Jose resident and iconic performer Tammy Nelson in 2010. The true implications of losing this incredibly timely and hilarious show with the strongest of wig games will not hit right away. But in the long term, we just may realize what we’ve truly lost. San Francisco Chronicle theatre reporter and critic Lily Janiak is on it, diving into the closing and its various impacts.

THINGS TO LOOK FORWARD TO IN 2020, MY FAVORITE INTERVIEWS AND SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS

  • Topping this list is a serious passion project that is so very necessary and long overdue. Beginning in March of 2020, the Bay Area Women’s Theatre Festival will kick off three months of productions, stage readings and conversations. An incredible collection of women+ and non-binary artists are working diligently to make this huge event happen. Events like these are absolutely necessary for bringing more diversity to our stages, so please consider a donation to help make this not only a one-time thing, but a Bay Area staple for years to come.
  • “The Band’s Visit” is finally coming around to the Bay Area through Broadway San Francisco, and based on its history, it should get her sooner than later. Back in 2017, as I was in attendance at the American Theatre Critics Association Conference, members met with the creative team of the show, a group who was giddy about transferring from their off-Broadway home to the much larger Ethel Barrymore Theatre. A couple of Berkeley guys led the way on this one, with Berkeley High product Itamar Moses writing the show’s fantastic book. And if you spent time with the soundtrack, one of the show’s most wonderful songs, “Haled’s Song About Love” is performed by Ari’el Stachel, a Berkeley High and Oakland School of the Arts product who originated the wonderful, Tony Award-winning role of Haled.
  • As a Mexican-American theatre major in the 1990s, I was quite obsessed with Culture Clash, a group who I still have on a VHS tape from their incredible PBS production “Bowl of Beings.” They have been teaming more lately with a wonderful director, Lisa Peterson, and will return to Berkeley Rep for their latest show, “Culture Clash (Still) in America.” Based in Los Angeles, the trio originally from San Francisco’s Mission district is still deeply rooted in the Bay Area, performing and directing at venues all throughout the region, collectively and individually.
  • And speaking of that VHS life, I also got a chance to interview a few heroes of my formative years. It was so delightful to chat with Robert Townsend. Back in my younger days, entertainment was a bit limited to certain channels, and when HBO came around, you learned to record things and then watch them over and over. His special “Partners in Crime” was on a constant loop for anyone who visited our house and needed some great laughs.
    John Leguizamo has also been someone I grew up with, so to sit down with him in Berkeley Rep’s green room talking about theatre and the indignities of being a fan of James Dolan’s New York Knicks, with Taccone in the same room was a bit of a pinch me moment.
  • My most surreal interview, though, was interviewing Victor Malana Maog. He was the person who introduced me to theatre, lived with my family and I for his junior and senior years of high school, we both wrote for our high school newspaper, and he encouraged me to audition for my first play, which landed me a lead role. Sadly, it was a lead in a musical. Not sad for me – I was amazing. Quite sad for the audience, who didn’t feel the same when hearing my hella sweet voice. But to conduct that interview for his first directing gig at American Conservatory Theater, after spending 20 years in New York, will always be very special.
  • I traveled to the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem North Carolina this past summer, one of the great theatre experiences of my career. Shows all over the city in front of the most amazing and energized audiences you can find was quite a thrill. The festival happens every other year in odd years, and I highly encourage anyone to dive into the quaint, southern charm of a wonderful North Carolina city while watching some of the best black theatre in the country all in one place.
  • If you go southbound on 101 and into San Juan Bautista, you will run right into one of the great theatre companies in our region, and one of the great holiday traditions that takes place annually. In alternating years, Chicano Theatre godfather Luis Valdez’ company El Teatro Campesino stages their holiday shows. In even years, you will see “La Virgen del Tepeyac,” and in odd years it is “La Pastorela.” For the first time in almost 40 years, Mission San Juan Bautista was unable to house the company’s production, putting the show’s future in a hint of doubt.
    The play was moved into the iconic playhouse out of necessity, which was a packing shed more than 55 years ago. The necessary change meant only one person could and should lead the new staging, and that was Luis’ son Kinan, a fantastic director in his own right.
    The production was phenomenal. A new venue really seemed to have forced a new vision for the show onto the creatives, and all of the relevant, up-to-date changes gave the show a thrill and freshness that brought crowds from all over who depend on the Teatro for their holiday performance needs.
    Whether the play will move permanently to the iconic theatre on Fourth Street remains to be seen. With the ability to control their own space for the duration of the rehearsal and run, it would not be surprising if that was the direction the company went.
    It was also wonderful to see some longtime Teatristas in key roles such as Primavera Cabibi as San Miguel, Mauricio Sámano as Cucharon, Seth Millwood as Satanas and Lupita Ortiz as Maria. And the music, which has been led for years by Tim and Frances Tompkins and Elias DeLeon, never sounded better.

In order of the months I saw them, here are my top 10 Bay Area shows of 2019:

Mothers and Sons
City Lights Theatre Company
Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by Jeffrey Bracco
January/February

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(L to R) Cal (Damian Vega), Will (Max Tachis), Katharine (Lillian Bogovich) and Bud (Izaiah Gutierrez) gather together in “Mothers and Sons.” (Steve DiBartolomeo photo)

It is 20 years after Cal’s lover Andre passed away from AIDS. And now, Andre’s mother Katharine (Lillian Bogovich) arrives to find that life has moved on without her. Cal (Damian Vega) now has a much younger lover not yet 30, the charming and sharp Will (Max Tachis). Cal’s patience is put to the test as he is challenged by a mother who wants him to know she has suffered too.

Bogovich was sensational as the complex Katharine, giving as good as she took. A wonderfully unified production where each of the characters plays the enigma.

King of the Yees
San Francisco Playhouse
Written by Lauren Yee
Directed by Joshua Kahan Brody
February/March

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Lauren Yee (Krystle Piamonte) and her father Larry (Francis Jue) look to bridge gaps in their relationship in “King of the Yees” at San Francisco Playhouse. (Jessica Palopoli photo)

Lauren Yee is quite a hot property, with plays going off throughout the country, plays that have netted her a hefty chunk of change in prize money. In this fabulous production, featuring a wildly talented cast of five, the semi-autobiographical story features Lauren Yee (Krystle Piamonte) trying to rehearse a new play while her father (Francis Jue) constantly interrupts. But when he goes missing, Lauren is sent on a maze through San Francisco’s iconic Chinatown to find him, where a wild bunch of characters greets her at every turn.

Piamonte grounded the story’s realism with veteran precision, while the always great Jue portrayed a man loaded with empathy. Will Dao, Jomar Tagatac and Rinabeth Apostol took turns stealing scenes, bringing to life Chinatown’s plethora of quirky characters.

It’s always a thrill to see a play full of actors of color, and Brody’s direction of Yee’s hilarious and sympathetic play made sure the production hit all the right notes.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
San Jose Stage Company
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Lee Sankowich
February/March

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Brick (Rob August) has trouble connecting with Maggie (Allison F. Rich) in San Jose Stage Company’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” (Dave Lepori photo)

“Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out an’ death’s the other,” says Brick.

It might be the best way to describe the entire play.

The Tennessee Williams play was produced wonderfully from San Jose Stage, a company who does some of their best work with dark, secretive material. That is also a great way to describe the play, with Williams dotting surprises and secrets all over the script.

Rob August as the violent drunk Brick, Allison F. Rich as Maggie and Judith Miller as Big Mama did much to lead a talented cast through one of the great plays in American theatre history.

Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?
The Marsh San Francisco/Berkeley
Written and Performed by Irma Herrera
Directed by Rebecca Fisher

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Irma Herrera stars in her own show, “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?” at the Marsh in both San Francisco and Berkeley. (Chuck Revell photo)

Ohhh, Starbucks, you silly kid, you.

That ubiquitous coffee machine butchers the heck out of anyone not named Joe, Jim or Mary.

Irma Herrera’s irritation with Starbucks and their name dysmorphia is merely the start of her wonderful play, which uses the java juggernaut as the jumping off point to explore the way we choose to express our names and the reception we get from our fellow citizens. On the good side, there are plenty who have shared with Herrera their own name journeys, but on the bad side, our desires for correct pronunciation doesn’t always land with those who don’t want to bother or are just plain racist.

The play digs into her Texas roots, exploring different critical moments of American history and has many funny and poignant observations.

With people of color grabbing hold of their identities at present in ways they may not have before, and based on the many extensions Herrera received and tours she has done, her play has hit a nerve and is not going anywhere anytime soon.

Read more about Herrera’s play in this interview that was done during her premiere run in San Francisco.

The Jungle
The Curran
Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin
April/May

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(L to R) In the Curran’s terrific play “The Jungle,” a conflict arises between Mohammed (Jonathan Nyati) and Salar (Ben Turner), as Beth (Rachel Redford, center) looks on. (Little Fang photo)

Any list of the best of 2019 has to start with “The Jungle,” a brutally powerful show that immerses the audience in the French encampment which housed migrants from 25 countries trying to enter the United Kingdom through the port of Calais in 2015 and 2016.

It’s not just the haunting images that stay with you, pictures projected throughout the completely reconstructed theatre. It’s the sounds of drums, the scent of chai tea and fresh naan bread, and the eyes of desperation that are mere steps from you at every turn. A deeply powerful show that was less of a play and more of a theatrical event.

Home
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Created by Geoff Sobelle
Directed by Lee Sunday Evans
April

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Live music is one component of Berkeley Rep’s “Home,” performed by Elvis Perkins, left. The show is created by Geoff Sobelle, center. (Kevin Berne photo)

It’s an odd dynamic where a play can go through an entire performance with minimal words spoken, and the only voices you hear are members of the audience.

Those dynamics combined to create something immensely memorable.

This play, which starts on an empty stage, becomes a home with full blown parties, stairs and running water in multiple rooms and then returns to emptiness. The entire show was magical in more ways than one.

All of us have a created connotation of the word home. This play examines that relationship, which is both wistful and devastating. At the end of the day, homes we create are in constant flux, and the sad poetry of Sobelle’s brilliant show and how we move on from our home is overwhelming.

Read an interview with Geoff Sobelle in this feature.

Weightless
American Conservatory Theater
Produced by Z Space and piece by piece productions
Featuring Kate Kilbane and Dan Moses (The Kilbanes)
Directed by Becca Wolff
May

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Oakland-based band “The Kilbanes” are transferred their critically acclaimed production of “Weightless” from San Francisco’s Z Space to the Strand Theater. (Emily Sevin photo)

The mythological story of sisters Procne and Philomela and the cruelty of Tereus is recreated beautifully by rock duo and married couple the Kilbanes. The music of the rock-opera genre is stunning, and a cheeky performance by Julia Brothers is full of pith and merriment.

In addition to the veteran performers on the stage, the command of 19-year-old Lila Blue was staggering, the beautifully voiced performer who plays a young woman who loses hers.

Read more about the Kilbanes in this feature.

Ripped
Z Space
Written by Rachel Bublitz
Directed by Lisa Steindler
June

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Jared (Daniel Chung) and Lucy (Krystle Piamonte) piece the events of the previous night in the Z Space production of “Ripped.” (Lorenzo Fernandez-Kopec photo)

Take everything you most certainly believe about sexual assault and then watch Bublitz’ scintillating production of “Ripped.” If you are anything like me, you will see your thoughts dancing anywhere and everywhere.

The brilliance of this production, a crisp 80 minutes with no intermission, is that it takes concepts that we as a society believe to be black and white and loads them with a ton of grey. The performances from Krystle Piamonte, Edwin Jacobs and Daniel Chung were bold, and the sure-handed direction of Steindler was superb.

Read an interview with Rachel Bublitz about “Ripped” in this feature.

Kill Move Paradise
Shotgun Players
Written by James Ijames
Directed by Darryl V. Jones
July/August

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The performance of Dwayne Clay as “Tiny” was powerful. (Robby Sweeny photo)

If you are looking for powerfully bold and unsettling works, Shotgun Players just might be for you. This production, which frankly deals with society’s fears of black bodies and the collateral damage of those fears was scintillating, searing and disturbing.

A play like this requires the most honest of acting performances, and that’s exactly what Tre-Vonne Bell, Eddie Ewell and Lenard Jackson deliver. And the performance of Dwayne Clay, with his sweet face discovering what just happened, was a cruel gut-punch.

A play that is so inspiring to watch but painful to process is exactly what this play is. We are losing a generation of black fathers, sons, brothers and lovers to violence. “Kill Move Paradise” is a reminder that every one of them had a name.

Top Girls
American Conservatory Theater
Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Tamilla Woodard
October

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Marlene (Michelle Beck, right) and Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe) look to find common ground in “Top Girls” at ACT San Francisco. (Kevin Berne photo)

If you decided that the first act of A.C.T.’s “Top Girls” was a bit too out there for you, you were not alone. I was scratching my head after act one, and not in the best of ways. But if you stayed for the second act, you realized how brilliant the play actually was, and were rewarded mightily.

The strength of the fantastic play was how it bridged a confounding first act with a second act that cleared up everything succinctly. The story of professional women and the challenges they face daily were woven beautifully. The indelible words of Churchill soared mightily in the hands of some incredibly talented performers that transformed the stage

* * *

As we enter 2020, may all of your theatrical adventures be ones that enrage, enlighten and inspire you. We are blessed to live in one of the great theatre markets in the country. And make sure to say hello when you see me!

See you at the theatre! Onward to the ’20s!

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