Barbara Jwanouskos (on a different day) chats with Paul S. Flores about You’re Gonna Cry.
This week, I was lucky enough to coordinate with Eric Reid and Paul S. Flores to talk about You’re Gonna Cry, the new show that will be opening soon at Theater Madcap. Paul developed a play that sounds incredible and is in response to the gentrification of the Mission, which has lead to the displacement of communities of color. He is an artist that uses his gifts to direct and open conversations about events that have had devastating effects on the communities he cares about.
Paul works with, is influenced by, and grew as a theater artist with some of my mentors and heroes in the theater scene — people I consider to be extremely talented in their way to access parts of the soul and provide such depth and complexity to their art. Paul and I talk about You’re Gonna Cry, creative process, and Paul’s thoughts on theater and the Bay Area.
I hope you will enjoy the interview below and then, of course, experience the show he created that is coming up…
Paul S. Flores. Photo credit: Ramsey El Qare
Barbara: How did you get interested in theater and especially in creating new work?
Paul: I came out of the Spoken Word scene of the 1990’s in San Francisco’s Mission District. My first group or performance ensemble was Los Delicados, a Latino hybrid of spoken word, song and dance, and AfroCuban drumming—kind of like the Latino version of The Last Poets meets Perez-Prado. I evolved from performance poetry into Hip-Hop Theater in 2001 collaborating with Marc Bamuthi Joseph on the first Hybrid Project at Intersection for the Arts. Then I got my first commissioned play in 2004 from Su Teatro (in Denver) and the National Performance Network; it was called Fear of a Brown Planet. We toured that all over the nation, mostly to Latino theaters. I have written four plays since that have all toured. I have only been interested in creating new original works. Voice is most important to me. I am a writer by training. So I only do original work.
Barbara: What’s your approach? Any particular stylistic tools/techniques you like using in your work? Why?
Paul: I have apprenticed as a theater artist with theater makers and directors like Sean San Jose, Guillermo Gomez Peña, Elia Arce, Danny Hoch, Kamilah Forbes, Michael John Garcés, Brian Freeman. I did not study theater in any institution. I’m a theater outsider. And I’m not loyal to any genre—I use them all. I am committed to experience and healing my community through whatever artistic and organizing methods I can channel. But I love theater for its live ritual. My approach is what I called social practice theater. I focus first to social issues—gang violence, immigrant struggles, racial profiling, male gender stereotypes—and apply interview research methods to development. I partner with social service organizations to base stories on experiences from their constituency. Language authenticity is number one. I’m not an actor in the sense of training. I’m an actor whose purpose is to realize the message in my writing as an immediate visceral experience—what I see and endure so does the audience. I’m not spoon feeding anyone a list of recommendations for social ills. I’m presenting people as they are, how I see them. And creating an opportunity for audiences to recognize the systemic problems around them. And I hope to offer a path to healing through the work I create.
Barbara: Tell me about You’re Gonna Cry. How did it come about? Anything you were responding to?
Paul: Initially I was responding to a call for creating work that addressed the connection of new technology and changing demographics. John Kilacky from the SF Foundation commissioned a short, initial iteration of You’re Gonna Cry in 2009. I lived in the Mission during the 1990s and saw the introduction of the dot-com tech industry tear apart my neighborhood with greed: greedy investors/venture capitalists created greedy landlords which created greedy new residents which altered the culture and community of The Mission District. I attended so many evictions parties then. My friends were forced out of the neighborhood. A vibrant community of collaboration and justice minded artist collectives and ensembles were disintegrated. Many who stuck around turned all our energy to telling the story of systemic oppression expressed in gentrification (begun with Willie Brown’s statement in 1998 “you need to make $80,000 a year to live in San Francisco” to Mayor Lee’s tax breaks for tech companies like Twitter and Zynga). We had to become political artists to survive. We had to tell the story as a record and as a means to organize. Gentrification is violence. Displacement is violence. Poverty is violence. Erasure of cultural memory is violence. Being priced out of your arts practice is violence. Homelessness is violence. Police bring violence. We see the effects of gentrification in the deaths of Alex Nieto and Luis Gongora. So when you think about the effect of gentrification, behind the façade improvements, the increased appearance of cafes and high priced boutiques, the “Urban Safari” truck painted like a zebra driving past Galeria de La Raza on 24th Street, stopping to take pictures of me while I rehearse in the studio, it’s a crying shame, a cause for rage. Painful.
Barbara: How did you and Eric Reid come to work together and what are your future plans?
Paul: Eric reached out to me a couple years ago to participate in a theater activity at his theater Inner Mission that was targeting theater makers and playwrights of color. Eric was recruiting playwrights on Facebook. I went to an event and was inspired by his vision to create space for Bay Area theater artists of color.
Then last year 2015 I had an opportunity to hire a manager, and I needed production support for the tour of my play PLACAS (www.placas.org) starring Ric Salinas of Culture Clash. I hired Eric to be my manager, and to help me produce the California tour of PLACAS. Working together we realized we both wanted SF Theater to represent the community that we are inspired by: the Mission and the Fillmore—both gentrified. In November I performed a one-off of You’re Gonna Cry at the White Privilege Conference at St. Ignatius High School. Eric also did production on that show. He thought bringing the show back for a new version would tie perfectly into the current activism to stop police violence and evictions. We are on the same wavelength. We want theater to advance the causes we believe in.
Barbara: How do you like being an artist in the Bay Area? What are the unique characteristics of living, working, developing art here?
Paul: The Bay Area, especially San Francisco and Oakland, inspires critical thinking, civic engagement and prolific creativity in modes of communication. Liberation not innovation is the primary theme here. I will not waiver on that. I don’t believe tech innovation defines us, not now and definitely not then.
I am a California loyalist. I chose San Francisco instead of New York to ground my art and represent California culture nationally, globally. I am San Francisco. The Bay Area has nurtured me since 1995. We created Los Delicados in The Mission. Around the same time we also created Youth Speaks in the Mission, and I used to teach writing workshops for teenagers at Southern Exposure Gallery when it was part of Project Artaud. My fundamental voice as a writer/performer is informed by the Mission District—culturally rooted, community based performance that connects indigenous, Latino and African diasporic arts traditions. This urban indigenous ecosystem is the foundation of the Mission arts venues that cultivated my work: Galeria de La Raza, Mission Cultural Center, CellSpace, Intersection for The Arts, Youth Speaks, Red Poppy, Brava, Project Artaud…so many. Even when I am integrating technology into my shows it’s always from the perspective of “How does the Latino community relate to it?” I almost always collaborate with Mission-based musicians and visual artists in my work—Marcus Shelby, Rio Yañez, Culture Clash, Greg Landau, Norman Zelaya, Dj Sake-1, Eric Norberg. I also have a lot of love for Oakland, which is grounded in roots culture, community organizing, polyculturalism, and immigrant co-existence. Bamuthi and I both lived together and created plays for a couple years in Oakland. My first docu-theater project was called “Fruitvale Project” directed by Elia Arce, and produced by La Peña. I shadowed a Cambodian immigrant refugee named Kong, who escaped the Khmer Rouge, while he documented damage after the “Raider Riots,” in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. I performed as Kong. At the same time Bamuthi was working on Word Becomes Flesh, and Scourge about Black and Haitian identity through the lense of hip-hop theater. We informed each other in the early years of our growth. So to be an artist in the Bay Area is to be immersed in culture, conflict, tradition and prolific social and political interaction.
Barbara: I want to ask you about gentrification and the Mission — your thoughts and how it’s reflected in the show — what you are exploring?
Paul: You’re Gonna Cry specifically tears the façade off the Mission of the 1990s and lets the audience see inside the homes and lives of Mission natives, immigrants, techies and artists. The piece contextualizes the concept of gentrification—economically motivated culture shift of a neighborhood—by highlighting what is powerful about the culture of the neighborhood. Which also reveals how such a place like the Mission can be vulnerable to gentrification and evictions. We see how violent gentrification really is as new residents from a different economic class use real estate to impose their will on the neighborhood’s already existing social relations which creates massive conflict. When the dot-com industry of the 1990s was introduced, newly monied tech industry workers and venture capitalists from Wisconsin and Michigan fell in love with the physical beauty and vibrant action of the Mission District, but they didn’t try to get to the know the lives of its native population: people who were born and raised in The Mission. Instead internet business people wanted to appropriate what was already thriving, and then change it to fit their needs. It’s like this real estate trend of maintaining original classic external of a building but gutting the inside to make it modern. Gentrification is American post-colonialism. It is late 20th century capitalist culture. In the name of new experiences for the wealthy (lofts, bars, restaurants, doggy hotels, indoor mini-golf), it leaves immigrants and poorer people behind without a care for their well-being.
I play about 12 characters from different generations, genders, races, interests on the block of 24th and York St. The characters reveal the neighborhood. I don’t spell anything out for you. I use music, spoken word, dance, monologue, puppets, video. This is an impressionistic portrait. Nothing is obvious. You must listen and feel what each character says to understand all the connections between them and their stake in the neighborhood.
Barbara: Can you tell me your creative influences, heroes, and things you would love to do but haven’t (yet!)?
Paul: My heroes are Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amy Winehouse, Miguel Piñero, Miles Davis, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Oliver Mayer, Leon Ichaso. My influences are my colleagues and friends Norman Zelaya, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Danny Hoch, Culture Clash, Mayda del Valle, Elia Arce, Saul Williams, Tanya Saracho.
I want to work with Rosalba Rolon from Pregones Theater and musician Yosvanny Terry on a musical theater piece about Cuban emigres of the 1990s. I want to write a story of folks who came to the US during Cuba’s Special Period, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when financial sponsorship of Cuba was halted. I want to write about their story in the US. I am a big fan of Cuban music and of Pregones.
I want to write TV. I want to create a show like The Wire but about the Oakland school district from state take-over to the current push to turn all the schools into charters. Oakland Unified is the American public school system. It is ripe with drama and characters, and I want to write the TV. Make the heroes teachers on TV instead of fucking cops.
Barbara: What are your thoughts on the Bay Area theater scene and anything you would change?
Paul: Bay Area theater is small, exciting and functioning at a certain level. There is good work out here: Michael Torres directed MAS at Laney College, Sean San Jose recently directed Chavez Ravine at UC Berkeley, the Magic did Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters. Ubuntu Theater is very interesting. I am sad we lost Octavio Solis to Oregon Shakes. I’m not happy Campo Santo doesn’t have a home theater. I was excited to see Between Riverside and Crazy at ACT. But I wonder why they didn’t do Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Hudes. Maybe one day Berkeley Rep will invest in new Latino playwrights from the Bay Area… I just came out of a 10 year partnership with the San Francisco International Arts Festival who commissioned two of my plays (PLACAS, and Representa!). It was very fruitful, and I am thankful to Andrew Wood’s support. And I am entering into theater commissions with Loco Bloco and Youth Speaks on two plays about police violence and gentrification—which I just received the Gerbode Playwriting Commission for, and for which Sean San Jose will direct my play Arresting Life. I’ve also been in the Tenderloin rehearsing more, and I wonder what theaters like the Exit, PianoFight and Cutting Ball will do to develop artists from that neighborhood. I don’t think the current state of Equity makes anything any better when no one can afford to own a building. National theater networks are growing. A lot of talk about White Privilege. A lot of talk about making theater more diverse. I don’t really see it though. A lot of smart talk. Very little smart action on the part of regional theaters. They are worried about legacy and job hoarding. I was recently at South Coast Rep. I met the entire “Artistic” creative wing of their massive theater. All of them white. Nice people. But not a single black or brown leader in the artistic division. That is typical to me. So I keep working with non-traditional theaters, or non-traditional partners, making work that matters to the empowerment of our people. I will not beg regional theaters to include me, nor will I conform to their cultural standards of what they think good theater is. Not while theater critics keep describing Latinos as “spicy” or “hot.” I do love the conflict though. It helps create meaning. You find purpose, and can be inspired to be a mentor to other artists. The imbalance of resources in theater forces us to address history. I will work with individuals whose work I admire. Wherever they are.
Barbara: Thoughts/words of wisdom for others out there who want to do what you do?
Paul: Work your networks. Cultivate community. Believe in your friends. Donate time and money to your friends’ work. When the work is hard, you are doing the thing you were meant to be doing. Nothing happens overnight. Take time when creating theater. Do not rush it. Nothing worthwhile should come easy. Take risks: reach out to people you don’t know that well but who you are interested in. Practice compassion. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Find love in all the interactions you have. Try to identify with people who are in pain. Ask them who their family is. Ask: Tell me who loves you? Lead with healing.
Barbara: Plugs for friends’ things or anything else we should check out?
Paul: Check out On The Hill, my next production about the death of Alex Nieto at the hands of the San Francisco Police. I am collaborating with Loco Bloco and Eric Reid. Coming to Brava Theater in October 2016.
You’re Gonna Cry by Paul S. Flores
You’re Gonna Cry by Paul S. Flores and produced by Theater MadCap, is playing May 6-28th at the Phoenix Theater. For more information, go here.