Charles Lewis III, giving us another look at Paul Flores.
“There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down Brothas on the Instant Replay”
– Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not be Televised
On-site theatre is a risky proposition, both for the performers as well as the audience. One the one hand, you’ve freed yourself from the rigid constraints of a typical performance space; on the other hand, you’re subject to the elements and limited as to what you can openly display in public. I’ve done Shakespeare in the woods, Sarah Kane’s Blasted in an actual hotel room, and – as the name of this website may have told you – pub-set plays in actual pubs. I can’t recall any one of those being preceded by the advisory that the show could be “shut down by the police at any moment.”
Such was the case yesterday at 2pm outside the SFPD Mission station. I’d seen on Twitter that Theater MadCap would be staging a special performance of You’re Gonna Cry for the so-called “Frisco 5”, so I decided to check it out. For those who don’t know, the Frisco 5 are five SF activists and politicians (Edwin Lindo is running for District 9 Supervisor) who are staging a hunger strike in front of the Mission station in protest of police-related killings by the SFPD. They plan to continue their strike until Police Chief Greg Suhr resigns from his post. Despite the word “Frisco” rubbing me the wrong way, I sympathized with their cause and am always interested in the intersection of art and social justice. The very idea that art can be used for genuine social change is one that still gets my blood pumping.
The “early bird” audience consisted of the strikers themselves, reporters from various news outlets and websites (one cameraman from KTVU was captured everything), twenty-or-so students from Mission High who took the day off to witness protest first-hand. Given that Flores’ one-man show begins in 1995, I was struck by the fact that none of these kids were even alive when this all took place.
I remember clearly what San Francisco was like that year (I was 14) just as I remember that dot-com bubble that followed. I also remember that it as being the first time I took a theatre class and the first time I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I wanted to perform, I wanted to get in touch with my Blackness, I wanted to fully embrace every part of this great, big world that had now been opened up to me. All of those memories came flooding back as Flores put on many hats – literally and figuratively – and I scribbled down notes as traffic occasionally drowned him out.
Most of it was the business-as-usual collection of garbage trucks and mail carriers, but there were also the occasional pointed honks of solidarity from motorists who held their raised fists out their windows. Several folks stood across the street to take photos and get a better look, though they couldn’t hear what was said. Since the performance was in the street’s bike lane, quite a few Schwinn-enabled hipsters swerved around the crowd with bewildered looks on their faces. About 15 or 20min. into the performance, another motorist drove by to show neither curiosity or support. A White man over 40, he began using his horn as a punching bag and angrily shouting “Go home! Go HOME!!!” to all gathered. Since he drove by during a green light, he was as gone as quick as he’d appeared.
Through all of this, Flores never missed a beat. Sliding from one persona to the next, it makes sense that a play about the colorful characters who used to inhabit the Mission be staged amongst and for the colorful character who inhabit the Mission now. Jumping from Spanish to English and back again, the high schoolers in attendance seemed most receptive of all. As much as it pisses me off when people call to “kill off Shakespeare” – claiming that he’s obsolete in contemporary theatre and curricula – I get equally pissed by people who say that youngsters couldn’t possibly take an interest in theatre, given their supposedly short attention spans. The teens gathered yesterday contradicted that theory.
We were told that the SFPD could shut down the performance at any minute. This gave the show an air of uncertainty and unease when uniformed officers gathered at the corner of 17th &Valencia. Flores made it a good 50-or-so minutes through his performance without fail before he finally had to stop. To our surprise, it wasn’t the SFPD that stopped him.
Through a chorus of drum beats and chants heard from a block away, the 20-some-odd Mission High students were joined by a massive crowd of students from Everett Junior High School. Flores kindly relinquished his “stage” to these young supporters as they took turns extolling words of encouragement to the strikers.
It was then that I had another one of those moments. You know the ones. I’ve occasionally mentioned them during my column posts this year. It’s a moment that happens in spite of people saying “No one goes to theatre”. It happens in spite of my being told that my generation “is fucked and the next generation is double-fucked.” It happens in spite of everyone telling me “SF is so over”.
It’s the moment when I know they’re all wrong and I remember why I do what I do. I watched an effective peaceful protest in my hometown, punctuated by a moving performance, interrupted by a show of support from active youth. That’s almost everything I could want out of theatre.
On the BART ride home I just happened to see Barbara’s interview with Paul Flores get posted as I was already planning to write this very piece. I had no idea she’d interviewed him, so don’t mistake this for a two-part advertisement for his show. Still, I find it appropriate that both pieces run so close together, as they both present two important parts of the artistic process. The interview represented the artist’s intentions, this piece sees it in practice. Whether or not they’ve succeeded is up to you (this isn’t a review of the show), but I’m glad I got to observe it with the usual restrictions removed.
Charles Lewis III is in a show this weekend, but will definitely see You’re Gonna Cry during its run, which begins tomorrow and runs until May 28th. The “Frisco 5” protest has no end date in sight.