13 August 2012

it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood

When I first moved to Boston I lived in a crappy dim apartment on what was then the crappy dim side of Beacon Hill, the side that sloped down towards a big gray medical center and a bigger, grayer jail and the three or four old houses that were left of the West End, which had been urban-renewaled out of existence decades earlier. It all seemed far away from the picturesque expensive front of Beacon Hill, which looked out on the lovely green (or lovely snow-covered, depending on the season) grass of Boston Common. I lived in that apartment because it was cheap and I was poor, but my street was legitimately part of Beacon Hill, and that's always been an address that mattered to people who lived in Boston, and this was when people were starting to move back into downtown areas and other people were realizing there was lots of money to be made from people moving back into downtown areas, so there was lots of upheaval as one building after another magically transformed from dilapidated old eyesore into charmingly old-fashioned and potentially lucrative condominiums.

There was a run-down little convenience store on the corner across the street from my apartment. I avoided the place. It sold mostly dusty, dented canned goods that were available in better condition and for less money just a couple of blocks away in the big clean Park and Shop, or whatever that grocery store was called, and the Park and Shop also had fresh fruits and vegetables and other things you'd want in a grocery store. But mostly I avoided the dim little shop because the owners, a lumpen, sour middle-aged couple, were unpleasant people, ranging in behavior from passively indifferent to actively rude whenever a customer happened to wander in.

The inevitable happened and someone bought the property that held the shop and jacked up the rents to drive the tenants out to make way for more profitable newcomers. One of the local free weekly papers (the kind born from the idealistic rebellious spirit of the 1960s that still hung on in the money-grubbing 1980s thanks to income from the sex ads in the back pages) decided that this sort of eviction by rent was exactly what was wrong with Boston, which it may or may not have been, and that they would fight back with a big article featuring the dingy little shop as an example of the rich local texture that was being stamped and smoothed out by the moneymen. The sour middle-aged couple was magically transformed into "valuable members of the community" and my heart sank when I read that because I knew what would happen: the shop proprietors would now insist on demonstrating their value to "the community" by hanging out in the doorway of their shop grimly shouting greetings at anyone walking by, which was going to include me every time I entered or left my apartment building.

I braced myself and muttered "hello" back at them for a while, because I was a well-behaved middle-class boy, but of course that didn't last too long because the thing about the inevitable happening is that though it might be slowed by high-minded and well-meaning protests, it does eventually, inevitably, happen. There were bigger social and economic forces at work here, and though I can understand fighting against them (personally, I don't shop at WalMart), I had neither the money nor the inclination to buy the nasty couple's overpriced shoddy merchandise. I'd have forgotten the whole thing within months if I hadn't been so irritated by the fakery of the media-invented and media-imposed claim of "community." The real-estate people: they were a community. They knew each other, banded together, shared the same views and the same approach to the world. The rest of us: we were just random people who coincidentally occupied the same blocks for a few years, because we all worked but we still didn't have enough money to live in a nicer part of town, and it was sentimental, and politically delusional, to see us as anything else.

This is a roundabout way of presenting the skeptical frame of mind in which I approached Tenderloin, the last play of Cutting Ball Theater's mainstage season. The play was written and directed by Annie Elias, based directly on extensive interviews with Tenderloin residents; seven actors (Tristan Cunningham, Siobhan Doherty, Rebecca Frank, Michael Kelly, Leigh Shaw, David Sinaiko, and David Westley Shipman) performed a wide variety of roles.

It was enjoyable, though surprisingly sentimental, by which I mean it kept insisting it was dealing in harsh reality while actually insulating us, keeping us several layers away, from anything truly harsh or alien to bourgeois theatergoers. Everyone featured is connected in some way with the pathology of the Tenderloin; we see clergy and social workers and lawyers, and impoverished, marginal people, but we don't see, for example, office workers who happen to live there because the rents are comparatively low given the convenient downtown location. We hear from a man who sneers at "the suburbs" and prefers the Tenderloin because it's - well, you know the whole nostalgie de la boue thing: reality is more real with poverty and drug abuse in it. Drug abuse is frequently mentioned, but we don't hear from actual drug addicts, let alone any drug dealers. One of the first stories we hear is from a woman who was in an abusive relationship with a man who hated the Tenderloin and insisted they go live in the Sunset District. The implication is clear that his choice of neighborhood is a moral failing, and she is saved when she moves back to the Tenderloin on her own. As with most of the stories we hear, she is presented as an innocent victim. I found myself wanting to hear from the man, who struck me as a more interesting, complicated, and threatening character: why did he hate the Tenderloin so much? how did he see this woman he claimed to love? how did he justify to himself his behavior to her?

Same thing with the drug users and dealers we never hear from: I can see the general path, but particularly when you're talking about notoriously destructive drugs like heroin, I'm genuinely curious why people think it's a good idea to give it a try. What stories do they tell themselves in justification? It's possible we won't get anything better than survival-of-the-fittest cliches, maybe copied third-hand from some "gritty" TV procedural, but that has its interest, particularly if someone else on stage is smart enough and media-savvy enough to call them on it. But the documentary-style method of this play doesn't really allow for a lot of cross-commentary. There is some, in particular some byplay between a burnt-out janitor fed up with the Tenderloin and a former beat cop who supports the legalization of drugs. But then there are scenes such as the Filipina social worker who has very methodical lectures filled with the sort of advice about the importance of faith and family and working hard and setting priorities that is both common-sensical and delusional, and I have no idea how her students take her advice: does it provide some helpful structure and inspiration? or is it just goodthink horseshit that has no relation to the world they actually have to live in?

The performers were not only uniformly strong; they were uniformly dazzling. Each played several roles, and just when I'd think someone was perfectly cast as a worldly-wise lawyer or stolid security guard she or he would change on a dime into a bubbly little child or a transsexual bartender. But in classic Brechtian style (and this is Cutting Ball Theater, so they must know this) the very brilliance of the performances kept me constantly aware that what we were seeing was a performance; we might hear about the drug-addled homeless covered in their own shit, but we weren't smelling it the way we could simply by walking through the nearby BART station; we're seeing sensitive, committed, very talented performers displaying their skills for our entertainment. Even the music was stylish; we got some Edith Piaf, but no one was under our window, or in the apartment next door, blasting hiphop while we were trying to sleep. (I'm not complaining about that, just noting it; I've been to way too many plays where the elderly/middle-aged and mostly white audience gets blasted with hiphop as a signifier of gritty urban realism, whereas everyone knows it's really just corporate music for suburban white teenage boys.)

There were framing scenes that did feature the sort of street crazy that people associate with the Tenderloin, but perhaps it was inevitable that we didn't hear from these people during the play (except for the actual ones who can be heard through the walls of the theater on the street outside, of course): it's inherent in this sort of interview-based documentary theater that it's going to favor the articulate and the reflective, and, to some extent, those with an emotionally complete story arc: even avant-garde audiences don't like to be left dangling. So we didn't hear from anyone strung out on drugs, or anyone engaged in criminal activities. We heard from ruefully wise older inhabitants who had suffered into life wisdom. They may have done some foolish things in their youth, but those days were past. We might hear passing references to being in jail or the army, but then we would get long and genuinely cute and charming stories about raising children in the neighborhood. It's all colorful and harmless. I was reminded several times of Damon Runyon, which I'm pretty sure was not the desired effect.

When the street crazies reappeared on stage at the end, did I see them differently from the way I had in the beginning? Not really. Was my opinion of the Tenderloin changed? Again, not really. Despite the sincerity and skill of the performers, there was nothing here I didn't already know, and nothing would be changed by our attending this show. When I got on the train afterward two bedraggled people, of the type associated with the Tenderloin, got in the same car with me. And I kept thinking they would get out, but they stayed on until I reached my town, and then they got out, because now more than ever "the Tenderloin" is everywhere. Did I look at them with more compassion after seeing the play? Once again, not really. I was already sort of helplessly compassionate towards people like them. But I will be honest and insist on pointing out that I would be far less compassionate if they, for instance, were screaming or spitting at me, or had a sickening smell, or were blasting crap music loudly from a radio. What is community? Where do we draw the line on what connects us to the rest of our grubby species? Cutting Ball is in the Tenderloin, but are any of the inhabitants portrayed here going to show up for their upcoming Strindberg cycle? Does the theater's location have any real meaning? Isn't it really just another example of the pervasive influence of real-estate prices?


Civic Center said...

That's one of the most cynical and genuinely honest things I've read from you. As somebody with a long and interesting history with the Tenderloin neighborhood myself, you managed to articulate all the reasons I don't go to the Exit Theatre and would have chewed off my arm before seeing "Tenderloin," even done by your beloved Cutting Ball theatre troupe. Thanks.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

People used to call me "cynical" quite often when I thought I was just being realistic. I try always to be accurate so I'm not really sure what you mean by "genuinely honest" but, um, thanks? I do realize there's a tone here I don't always take.

John Marcher said...

I’m one of those “office workers who happen to live there” because of the low-cost and convenience, but also due to changes in my life that put me on a steady downhill roll from the top of Nob Hill. While some people in my building (also “office workers”) saw the play and claimed to have liked it very much, I avoided it- their enthusiasm struck me as cheerleading for the neighborhood, as did the play, from what I could tell from the advance publicity. Most of the people I heard this from have never recommended anything else by Cutting Ball or (or anything else playing at the other Exit or other local theater companies) and I felt they were just seeing this play because it was about the neighborhood and they could feel warm and fuzzy about living in a place that’s anything but because someone made a play about it! As far as I know they’re not regular arts patrons.

And that’s exactly why I didn’t go see this- not because I wasn’t interested in seeing a theatrical take on the neighborhood, I would be, but not a feel-good, “hey, life may be gritty here but we sure are real!” sanitized version of it that isn’t going to change a thing. Living in the Tenderloin certainly has its challenges, to be sure, but it also has some unexpected delights. It really is a neighborhood and a community, and the diversity so proudly hailed by the rest of the City from their own little prosperous, segregated neighborhoods is the actual reality here. The hard part is negotiating that ever-so-fine, and often shifting, line of being “in the neighborhood,” and not “of the neighborhood.” But as someone once said, a place has its way with you, and the Tenderloin certainly does. While I don’t like a lot of things that go on around here, there’s a lot I truly love and enjoy.

And by the way, the only time I ever hear rap in the neighborhood is from the cars of bridge and tunnel folks driving through the neighborhood. What I hear from the neighborhood, coming from the thousands of apartments I can see and hear from my windows is gospel music (especially on Sundays), James Brown (every Saturday morning), salsa, punk/artsy rock coming from the little mini-concerts in the Tenderloin National Forest, myriad forms of Asian pop music, and more often than you would think, Abba.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I think your assessment of who went to this play, and why, and whether they'll go back to another show, is -- well, I was going to say accurate, but I also really mean "the same as mine," but I do think we're both correct about this. "Community" is a looming buzzword for arts groups in a way that makes me roll my eyes and groan, and what we usually get are one-offs like this play, for people who aren't really interested in theater in general. It was very well done, but I wouldn't have bothered if I didn't have a long history of going to Cutting Ball shows. The set was a conglomeration of refuse and old furniture and suchlike, but it was all so artfully arranged it reminded me of a Louise Nevelson sculpture: again, an aestheticized view of what was supposed to be "gritty" and "real."

Thanks for the correction on the music. That is interesting and even fascinating. I'm going to leave the reference to hiphop in the entry as shorthand for "music you don't want to hear," but it sounds as if the musical sounds are much richer, more diverse, and higher quality than I thought, and I can see how it might even be an attraction of the neighborhood (though I do object in general terms to being forced to listen to anyone's music). Abba -- maybe Cutting Ball should have staged Mamma Mia!

Unknown said...

Your first four paragraphs read just like the beginning of a Dickens novel. You took me to the physical place, the people, and the outside forces at play in both changing and not changing the place. So where's the poor but plucky character who is going to end up with a large fortune from a long lost dead relative?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I can only hope that I am that poor but plucky character, though I might be lacking in the pluck department, and indeed "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. . . ."