TBA Online: News & Features: May 2019

Bringing History To Life with OUT of Site: SOMA

Tuesday, May 21, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Edward Guthmann

From the tent camps of the Gold Rush era to the leather bars of the 1970s and ‘80s, San Francisco’s South of Market district has long been one of the city’s most colorful, beleaguered and resilient neighborhoods.

Today, with bulldozers leveling large swaths of the neighborhood to accommodate more wealthy techies, office buildings, and overpriced condos, the need to commemorate the neighborhood’s scrappy history has never been stronger.

That’s what writer/director Seth Eisen reasoned when he conceived OUT of Site: SOMA, a site-specific, performance-driven walking tour of South of Market. A follow-up to OUT of Site: North Beach, which he presented in March 2018, SOMA folds street theatre and political passion into a deeply researched historical walking tour.

“Unfortunately the developers are pushing right up against everything,” Eisen says, “and histories are being erased. It’s one of the primary reasons we’ve doing the tour in this neighborhood. It’s one thing to make a plaque—they’re wonderful—but they don’t bring the histories to life.”

J. Miko Thomas aka Landa Lakes in OUT of Site: SOMA. Photo by Robbie Sweeny. 

A recent recipient of a Theatre Bay Area CA$H grant, OUT of Site: SOMA is the latest in a series of LGBTQ history projects Eisen creates through his Eye Zen Presents production company. Directed by Eisen and co-written by Eisen and novelist/South of Market resident K.M. Soehnlein, OUT of Site: SOMA runs June 8 to 16 with performances on Saturdays at 12 and 3 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m.

Each performance begins at the Howard Langton Community Garden at 10 Langton St., and proceeds through alleys to historic sites where actors describe the district’s contentious history: the tent camps that arose with the Gold Rush of 1848-49, when San Francisco’s population rose from 1,000 to 25,000 people; the leveling of 100-foot-high sand dunes in the mid-19th century; the fight over water rights in an area that once was lush with streams and wetlands.

The walking tour runs two hours, extending from 7th to 9th and from Howard to Harrison. The struggle for gay rights is covered—until 1963, it was illegal to serve an openly gay person or for gay people to congregate in bars—as well as the general strike of 1934 and the longshoreman’s strike of 1936. Also: the Yerba Buena redevelopment project, which razed several square blocks in the late 1960s and displaced hundreds of residents, many of them Filipino; a number formed the activist group TOOR (Tenants and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment).

Six actors, including Bay Area stage veterans Marga Gomez and Brian Freeman, will lead the tours and enact various historical figures. Gomez plays cross-dressing journalist and nurse Jack Garland, who was born as Elvira Mugarrieta in 1869 and died in 1936; Liz, a fictional leather dyke from the 1980s; and mechanic Nancy Rupprecht, who started an all-women auto repair shop at 6th and Mission in the late 1970s.

Brian Freeman, Ryan Hayes, and Marga Gomez in OUT of Site: SOMA. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Freeman plays African American labor activist Revels Cayton, housing rights activist Peter Mendelsohn and Folsom Street Fair co-founder Michael Valerio. Rounding out the cast are Maria David, Kai Brothers, Ryan Hayes and J. Miko Thomas, aka Landa Lakes, who performs a Native American water ritual at the start of each tour.

Eisen chose South of Market for his second OUT of Site production, he says, because the district is rapidly losing the last vestiges of its raw and flavorful, outsiders-banding-together heritage. He was inspired by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ May 2018 decision to designate the LBGTQ and Leather Cultural District in SOMA as one of the city’s new cultural districts.

Mounting a production of this magnitude, he says, is tough. “It’s a massive puzzle of logistics. Figuring out where the locations are. Establishing community partnerships—talking to different neighbors, businesses—is a job for one whole person.”

It’s a totally different beast from renting a theatre, Eisen says, “where you know where the lights are, where the sound is, where the curtain is and the stage is. This is like putting on nine mini-plays in different locations within a one-mile radius.”

Eisen, 51, grew up in Philadelphia and attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Naropa University in Boulder, CO before moving to San Francisco in 1994. He performed in various Butoh companies, collaborated in ex-partner Keith Hennessey’s Circo Zero company, and in 2008 launched his first gay-history stage piece, Blackbirds: Honoring a Century of Pansy Divas, a group portrait of seven gay artists.

Buffet Flats: Queering Slow Food, which combined performance with communal eating, followed in 2011; Homo File, a theatrical riff on the life of author and sex pioneer Sam Steward, in 2012; and Rainbow Logic, a multi-disciplinary show about choreographer and children’s book author Remy Charlip, in 2016.

Seth Eisen. Photo courtesy Berkeley City College.

Eisen keeps returning to LGBTQ history, he says, “because I love it. It’s a passion for me, and I don’t see enough of it. I want to know more about my queer ancestors, the people who came before me and what their struggles were, so I can understand how to move forward.”

“Seth is a master of excavating forgotten queer voices from history and making links to what’s happening in the queer community today,” says his OUT of Site: SOMA co-writer K.M. Soehnlein. “He’s spent his entire career thinking outside the box of what ‘theatre’ is. I mean, a queer walking tour of SOMA with performers acting out scenes from history! Who else but Seth would dream that up?”

Eisen plans to bring OUT of Site: SOMA back in September and wants to expand the series with OUT of Site walking tours of Polk Street, Castro Street and Haight Ashbury. “We’re hoping to turn this into a business, and to have the funding to cover research and development of the tours.” He wants the tours to eventually be ongoing, repeated annually for several weeks each year.

“This combines all of my passions,” Eisen says “My passion for research. My passion for queer stories and queer histories. My passion for site-specificity and doing  something in the historic place where it happened.

“It’s very fulfilling watching the histories come to life on the street. It’s magical.”

Edward Guthmann is a Bay Area journalist and former staff writer/film critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. His memoir Wild Seed was published in 2017. See www.edwardguthmann.com.