06 June 2014

Daylighting with the Shotgun Players

Yesterday I was at the Ashby Stage to see Daylighting, the latest from the Shotgun Players. It was written by Dan Wolf and directed by Rebecca Novick. Like Cutting Ball's recent Tenderloin, it is based on interviews with actual residents in the vicinity of the theater. Like Tenderloin (my entry on which is here), it is fairly entertaining, but sentimental and not entirely convincing.

The main thread of the 90-minute play is the journey of Bee, an African-American girl who has just graduated from Berkeley High. She is supposed to leave for New York City and NYU, but now she's hesitating; somewhat tipsy and under the influence of marijuana and stress after the graduation parties, she decides to follow the often submerged path of Strawberry Creek back to the home she shares with her grandfather James (who has just sold the house, which adds to Bee's adolescent emotional confusion). Along the way she runs into lots of people who know her. Sometimes the whole cast gathers on stage, Greek-chorus style, and as in a WWII bomber-crew movie, we see the many different "types" all collected together: the wise old black man, the retired professor with a bit of a drinking problem, the Indian taxi driver, the young couple with a newborn, the undocumented worker from Mexico, the down-to-earth older white woman, the woman in the wheelchair. . . . Some of these characters (particularly the Mexican worker) are interesting, but there is a sense, when you see them assembled, of checking off boxes (and yet all these very different people are deeply, and somewhat arbitrarily, connected; it reminded me of my senior year at Berkeley, when I realized I was spending night after night alone, writing paper after paper about the "social web" that connected – that was a thing then, and I guess it's now back – various fictional characters . . .).

There's a bit of a generic feel to many of the characters and their stories, partly because the main thing that makes Berkeley such an unusual place – the University – is pretty much ignored. There is that retired professor, but his story is mostly about his drinking problems and the bitter fight he had long ago with James (something unfortunate, we're never told exactly what, was said while he was drunk). None of the characters are Cal students, or grad students, or work at the University, and there is little political or cultural talk, or even talk about the University sports teams; no one even wears a Cal t-shirt. This elision is a legitimate choice – there's more to the city than the University – but it's the academic environment, and specifically Cal's reputation for rebellion and free-thinking as well as intellectual depth, that draws in people with odd and eccentric interests, scholarly, artistic, and political. Once you remove that, you're left with your basic city with a greater portion than usual of footloose young people (we might just as well be in a town with an army base), and so we hear a lot about standard concerns: real estate, family quarrels, confused young people who party too much, older people worried about growing older, not understanding or accepting change. . . . Despite the occasional local reference (Berkeley Bowl, some of the better-known street people) you don't really get a strong sense from the play of what makes Berkeley distinctive.

Also, I just don't buy the cozy idea of "community" here. As Bee wanders home, she doesn't meet any strangers, or anyone threatening, which seems odd in a city with such a large homeless and otherwise transient population, some of whom clearly suffer from addiction and mental illness, and many of whom are young and heedless. Many of the actual inhabitants of Berkeley know they're only there for a few years, and behave accordingly, but in the play everyone is rooted there – even though Bee is planning to leave, you get the feeling she'll eventually come back. As she wanders, everyone she meets wants to help her, and is looking out for her. This is not a city of isolation, alienation, or even irritation. You see this in fiction and rarely in life: you move in and your neighbors turn out to be fascinating, colorful characters who bring you into their lives (I think of this as Sally Bowles syndrome). That shady, perpetually drunk guy two houses away whose noisy parties keep you and your baby from sleeping and who might be a drug dealer? He's actually a friendly (though slightly confused!) fellow who is going to offer you a beer and give you a little bio of Bernard Maybeck! That angry woman who screamed at your friend for cutting back the jasmine branch in front of her house that was hitting his legally blind face? You're all going to end up in her backyard eating home-made apple crisp and talking all through the night! Early on, Bee flirts and comes on physically to an attractive guy, a few years older, whom she knows slightly from school. (They're sitting, and she drapes her legs over his.) He's interested, and excited, but then she suddenly pulls away from him and tells him curtly she just wants to smoke dope with him. He leaves, disappointed and slightly annoyed. They're both kind of drunk and high, and there's no anger, no physical threat, not even a nasty word or two about what a tease she is? I mean, I'm glad there wasn't, but is such harmlessness really how life goes?

In the early stages of that flirtation, Bee had rapped with the guy and his friend. There's a lot of rap in the play. I don't dismiss rap – it's been around a long time now, and has appealed to a wide range of people, many of them very intelligent and musical – but I don't connect with it. And in plays like this, I feel that we (the mostly white, mostly older audience) are supposed to believe that there's something raw and "real" about it, a sort of youthful energy bursting out of the streets. But it seems to me an art form as elaborate and artificial as baroque opera. Later in the play (skip this sentence if you're planning to see the show) Bee runs into her mother, now a drug addict living in a park. After a tense encounter, after the mother has to run off because the police are coming to rouse the homeless out of the park, Bee delivers an angry rap at her departed mother. It reminded me, in its emotional effect and elaborate structure, of a rage aria in baroque opera. That's not a bad thing as far as I'm concerned, but to me it was part of the artificiality (like some of the melodramatic plot points, those single moments that changed everything) and not the authenticity of the play. But at least it's some sort of cultural or artistic element, which is otherwise lacking in the picture of the city (the retired professor does very briefly quote King Lear to the Indian cab driver, but that mostly just seems pretentious). The show does come through with some touching moments, particularly at the end, but I just didn't recognize the city I lived in for several years, or indeed any city I've ever seen outside of fiction. The play's heart is in the right place, but I wonder where its head is.

From the large cast I particularly liked Juan Amador as Manuel, the Mexican laborer, as well as in a few other roles, and Donald Lacy as the grandfather. Brit Frazier was Bee; the rest of the cast is Mary Baird, Christina Chu, Karina Gutierrez, Abhi Kris, Paul Loomis, Tim Redmond, and Megan Schirle. The musicians were Olive Mitra, Brian Rodvien, Hannah Birch-Carl, and (the night I was there) Alex Garcia, and for once Shotgun didn't brutally amplify the music. The show runs until 22 June; get more information here.

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