Eureka Day is brilliant!

Lisa Anne Porter, Elizabeth Carter, Rolf Saxon, Teddy Spencer, Charisse Loriaux (photo David Allen)

Jonathan Spector has penned a gem, and we here in the Bay Area are lucky to see its world debut. The first commissioned piece from Aurora’s new Originate+Generate program, this one knocks it out of the park. Josh Costello directs a talented cast who portray the board members at a progressive private elementary school in the Berkeley hills. Having been a teacher at a private progressive school myself, I was curious to see a play about one.

The congenial but not particularly decisive head of school (played delightfully by Rolf Saxon) doesn’t lead so much as facilitate discussion among parents in an attempt to rule by consensus. He reads Rumi at the beginning of every meeting and avoids conflict at all cost. The parents include Eli, the stay-at-home dad (a perfect performance by Teddy Spencer) who hysterically strikes yoga poses throughout the first meeting; Meiko, the hot young single mom on the prowl who presumably shops at Whole Foods and farmers markets (Charisse  Loriaux); the uber-lefty Suzanne (Lisa Anne Porter), who makes cashew lasagna and speaks gently but is quick to remind the other board members that at Eureka Day, gender-neutral pronouns are used for everyone as a matter of course; and new Eureka parent, Carina (played by the versatile Elizabeth Carter), who is certainly the sanest of the bunch.

The good-natured skewering of the stereotypical Berkeleyite as ultra-politically correct was right on target and provided for much of the laughter in the play. And the scene in which a virtual parent meeting is happening on Facebook (pictured above) was one of the most hysterical I’ve had the pleasure to watch.

However, Eureka Day is not just a comic romp. The conflict that divides the school community is the vaccination debate, and some of the characters at first seem to represent simply their point of view. But Eureka Day is neither a propaganda vehicle nor a single-issue play, and the characters reveal more depth in the second act, which takes a serious turn.

At its heart, Spector’s play echoes the deep divide in our country, with red states feeding off Fox “news” and blue states angry at all those people who voted in the Cheetoh-in-Chief. Most would agree that we in Berkeley live in a bubble of like-minded liberals, so our brand of political arguments are less likely to span the full red-to-blue spectrum that exist elsewhere in the country. But the question of vaccination is one that strikes closer to home, since there are liberals on both sides of the issue here in the Bay Area (though I would argue it’s more of an issue in Marin, but I’m sure that’s because I live in Berkeley and don’t want to think that my neighbors could be anti-vaxxers).

Of course anyone who delves into the comments section of Berkeleyside knows that we in Berkeley are no strangers to vitriol, and the Facebook live-streaming session in the play illustrates how easily members of a community can turn on each other.

Given our current polarization as a country, it’s sort of refreshing to watch people argue about something other than politics. But the main reason to buy tickets for Eureka Day is to treat yourself to a stellar performance of a terrific world debut. If you haven’t seen it, there’s still a week left in its run, so get your tickets now!

 

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Betty Reid Soskin–What a Life!

Recently at Pegasus Books on Shattuck, Betty Reid Soskin read from her memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom. I already owned a signed copy that I had bought when I heard her speak in her capacity as a park ranger in Richmond, California at the museum with the longest name ever: Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historic Park. But at the museum, she spoke strictly of history because she was on the job. I had been looking forward to hear her talk about herself and her book. Apparently so did a lot of other people–when I arrived a half-hour early for the reading, most of the seats were already claimed. Luckily, I found a spot on the third row. By the time she was introduced, dozens of folks were standing shoulder to shoulder around the chairs on the crowded platform designated for readings.

Betty Reid Soskin is both a local and national treasure. She’s lived so many lives, running a record store in Berkeley, working as a legislative aide, becoming a park ranger in her fifties and an author in her nineties–and, oh yeah, she was also a mother of four.

She started blogging in 2003, sharing her life’s stories with that wry, distinctive voice. You can sample her entertaining stories at CBreaux Speaks.

Partly because all of her contemporaries have died and she’s lived so long, she states plainly that she no longer thinks in terms of the future and is absolutely content living in the present. That said, the dedication of her memoir promises that her next book will be more about her four children. So Betty may not live for the future, but she continues to make plans for it. And despite her new career as an author, she returned to her job at the museum as soon as her book tour ended. No resting on her laurels–she remains a popular speaker that packs the museum auditorium regularly. At 96, she has the energy of at least two 48-year-olds, and I’ve declared her as my new role model.

Although she was born in Detroit, her Creole parents moved the family back to New Orleans when Betty was just three years old. They lived there a few years before trekking west to California and settling in the Oakland hills, where Betty spent her childhood.

But rather than read my summary of her talk, you should buy her book and read it for yourself. And if you live in the Bay Area, you should order it from Pegasus Books. Of course if you live elsewhere, you should purchase it at your favorite independent bookstore or ask for it at your local library. But the point is that you should read Sign My Name to Freedom.

Best of SF Fringe Festival: Brooks’s Tasha

Cat Brooks in Tasha

The San Francisco Fringe Festival is part of a long tradition of giving the stage to less mainstream indie performers. From slapstick to satire to the one-person show, Fringe performances are ones you are unlikely to see at A.C.T. or Berkeley Rep. This year’s line-up offers 30 choices.

Cat Brooks artfully presents the tragedy of Natasha (Tasha) McKenna, a woman with schizophrenia who was killed in police custody in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 2015. Representing her mother, one of the officers, the sheriff in charge, other characters, and most notably, Tasha herself, Brooks takes the audience on the journey that leads up to and includes Tasha’s death.

Actual footage from the events plays intermittently on screens between Brooks’s portrayals of different characters, never letting the audience forget that this is fact not fiction.

The most moving scene for me was Tasha’s mother after her daughter’s death. Her pain is so present and personal; yet set within the larger context of police violence against black people, we know that despite the specific details that make this case distinctive, it is a story that plays out far too often.

Through tears, I gave a standing ovation for Brooks as a playwright, a performer, a storyteller, and an activist. Afterwards, Brooks gave audience members the chance to ask questions in the limited time we had until the next show needed to set up. I think we were all glad that we had that time to process, if just for a few moments, before going back out into the world.

I was disappointed that the small house at Exit Theatre wasn’t full. Everyone should see this piece. I think it deserves a longer life than its four showings at the festival and hope it finds a home on one of the bigger stages in the Bay Area.

If you see only one SF Fringe performance, let it be this one.

Go to The Other Place!

Robert Parsons and Stacy Ross

Sometimes I’m lucky and see a play early enough in its run that I can recommend it to others. I am so glad that is the case for “The Other Place,” directed by Taylor Korobow.

I don’t recall even hearing of Symmetry Theatre Company before last weekend.  But the play featured my favorite local actress, Stacy Ross, so I was excited to be able to get tickets because I will see her in anything.

In fact, the whole cast was very good. Robert Parsons always gives a solid performance in everything I’ve seen him in. Lisa Morse and Michael Barrett Austin are both versatile actors who play a range of roles well. Within the play itself, Morse portrays three distinct characters, though her role is listed simply as “The Woman.”

Ross plays Juliana, a smart and confident research scientist, who opens the play by addressing the audience as if we were attendees at a conference where she was presenting. With skill, she smoothly goes back and forth between her presentation and her thoughts as she speaks. We meet her doctor (played by Morse), her husband, Ian (Robert Parsons), and hear her account of events. But clues are steadily dropped, and gradually the audience learns what’s really going on and also discovers the trauma in her past that makes its way into her present. The combination of the script and the staging let us know different facets of a complicated situation a little bit  at a time, rather than building to a big reveal all at once, which provided a more realistic feel that this story benefited from.

It comes as no surprise that the “other place” of the title represents not only the vacation home where the trauma originally occurred but also the alternate reality in which Juliana finds herself. Expressing that complicated transition from one reality to another on stage can be hard to portray convincingly, but Ross does so exquisitely.

The program, though glossy and professionally printed, gave little information about the theater company and even less about the playwright, which seems like lost opportunities to me. (It did have the largest print I’ve ever seen in a program, which was a refreshing change for my eyes; but I would have given up a few font sizes to have more content.)  I’d have thought the playwright was a woman, knowing only the name–Sharr White–which to my ear sounds like a diminutive of Sharlene or Charlotte. But I discovered that Sharr White is a man by googling the name while we waited for the show to begin. And after the show I went online to find out more about the theater company, whose mission is

to create professionally produced theatre that will excite, stimulate and challenge our audiences. The plays we choose will always have at least as many female characters as male, and in any given show there will always be at least as many Equity contracts given to women as to men. In addition we will produce plays that acknowledge that women’s stories are as important as men’s and in so doing we will hope to bring about further awareness to the public and the theatre community at large of the need for more “balance on the boards.”

Live Oak Park
Live Oak Park Theater entrance

Now that wouldn’t have been so hard to put in the program, would it?

The program aside–and I realize that most theater-goers wouldn’t be bothered by its shortcomings–I highly recommend this production of “The Other Place.” It is playing one more weekend at Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. If you appreciate a good story, excellent acting, and thought-provoking theater, go buy your ticket right now!  https://www.symmetrytheatre.com/.

Chipotle lost but then regained my customer loyalty

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day, and Chipotle had a buy one, get one free special offer for all teachers. I hadn’t gone grocery shopping and it was a particularly hot day. The last thing I wanted to do was cook, so I decided to take them up on their offer.

I’d put my pay stub in my pocket to prove I was an employee at Prospect Sierra, so at 6 pm, shortly after the last child was picked up from After School (where I’m the director), I headed to the El Cerrito Chipotle, which is on my way home from work. The parking lot was a madhouse. People were stuck, trying to get out, and cars were coming in through the exit, making it even more congested and confused. I drove a block and a half away, found a spot on the street, and walked there. The line was as long as I’d ever seen it, but I was content to play Two Dots on my phone while I waited.

Twenty minutes later, I finally arrived at the counter and pulled out my pay stub to show the server.  He didn’t even look at the paper I was holding in front of him; he just called over another guy who told me I needed to show a school ID. I explained that my school didn’t issue ID cards. He looked skeptical, as if that just wasn’t within the realm of possibility, so I must be trying to scam him. I told him I taught at a private school where we didn’t need IDs. He shook his head and said the only way it would work was if I could show him an ID. He didn’t even say he was sorry. I was angry, but I walked away without causing a scene.

I got in my car, vowing to never go to Chipotle’s again. But I was really hungry too. Then I got an idea.

I called the Chipotle in West Berkeley–the one I’d visited often when I worked off Gilman. I told the man who answered that I was a teacher and had a pay stub to prove it, but the El Cerrito Chipotle wouldn’t honor the special offer for me. Then I asked if I came to the Berkeley Chipotle, would my pay stub be enough to prove I was a teacher. He said he thought he could make an exception and asked my name.

“When you get here, tell the person at the counter your name, and I will make sure you get your free burrito,” he assured me.

So I drove to the Berkeley Chipotle and waited in line again, but only for about ten minutes this time. True to his word, the Chipotle employee made sure I got the teacher deal. I thanked him and changed my vow to never frequent the El Cerrito Chipotle, but the Berkeley Chipotle would continue to get my business.

I took home dinner for my husband and me and didn’t have to cook. Thank you, Berkeley Chipotle!

Strauss shares his tale of OCD, mushrooms, and cacti

Adam Strauss is a stand-up comic from New York. But right now at S.F. Marsh, you can see his one-man autobiographical show, The Mushroom Cure, which focuses on his personal struggle with OCD. Funny, vulnerable, and engaging, Strauss is willing to laugh at his own flaws, share painful moments, and offer up his darkest fears in what feels less like a monologue in front of an audience than it does an authentic self-portrait in progress. He reminded me of a younger, more intense Marc Maron with a bit of Paul Rudd thrown in. I was moved by his honesty and impressed with his stage presence. He’s a talented performer who doesn’t seem like he’s performing. Which is the best kind, right?

Don’t be fooled by the title–it’s not a tale of how to successfully treat a seriously disabling condition with psychedelic fungi, though that is a major plot point. It’s a man trying to find his way who allows us to watch part of that journey.

Definitely a thumbs up. I hope to see more of Adam Strauss in the future.

Science marches on!

The three of us–Dave (my husband), our friend Peggy, and I–headed to Justin Herman Plaza via BART and arrived just as the speeches were starting. I don’t know how many people were there, but it felt pretty full. We looked in vain for the rest of our group, Indivisible Berkeley, but settled on a spot on the steps where we could sit. We figured we could join up with them later.

There were scientists, teachers, engineers, and just a lot of people who appreciate science cheering on the speakers. It’s crazy that in this day and age we have to march to show our support of science, but it was encouraging to see that plenty of folks still value it in the Bay Area.

And the Clif Bars company had people handing out free Clif Bars to everyone. Thank you, Clif Bars!

As the speeches were ending, Peggy, Dave, and I moved to the back of the plaza where we found our group with the Indivisible Berkeley banner unfurled and ready to go. About a dozen of us positioned ourselves behind or alongside the banner ready to march. And we waited. Because we were at the back, it took quite a while before we actually got to move, but we had fun taking selfies and pointing out all the great signs.

In fact, I think the signs were my favorite part of the march. So much creativity, thought, and humor went into them, and many were handmade and unique. Several used scientific language and symbols to bring home their points.

I loved one that read “You know it’s important when even introverts march.” A girl of about five years had a sandwich board-style sign on her front that read “Be part of the solution” and one on her back that read “Don’t just be a precipitate.” But I hadn’t seen the one in front and couldn’t actually remember what a precipitate was, so I was puzzled until Dave explained it to me.

I saw a sign that was just a cut-out of the Lorax, one that featured two stranded penguins, a few that read “I’m with her” and pointed to Earth, and lots that just pointed out the ways that science is a good thing. I liked the simplicity of the one that said “Hug a science teacher,” held presumably by a science teacher.

Some people, like me, were there as part of a group and proudly held banners or wore matching t-shirts. Others came with friends and/or family. A group of elementary-school children chanted jubilantly WE LOVE SCIENCE!

 

There were atheists and religious people there with different views of god but who marched together for science.

The dynamic duo–Bill Nye & Neil deGrasse Tyson!

 

 

Of course, as at any protest, a few people used the opportunity to spout their particular beliefs. Hence the sign held by a guy sitting on the side of the march route that claimed “9/11 was an inside job.” To which my husband, Dave, replied, “Well, the planning probably did take place indoors…”

 

 

 

But most of the signs were on point and even spelled correctly. And everyone was in a pretty good mood, despite looming climate change and the impending decimation of the EPA.

I saw one person in a polar bear suit and another in a brown bear suit. Luckily it was a cloudy day, and the temperature stayed in the low 60s. Otherwise, those would have been some hot bears…

Alongside the marching route was a trio portraying some of Trump’s cabinet picks, some people selling homemade baked goods to hungry marchers, and some people who preferred to watch as the parade went by rather than march in it.

We landed at the Civic Center where there were tents set up and a Brazilian dance group was just starting to perform. But we were tired, and we’d done what we’d come to do. So we found the closest BART station and headed home.

It’s tiring having to march for something that should just be a given. But if it makes any difference at all, it was worth it.