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TBA Online: News & Features: May 2017

Stories of Resistance and Joy: Bay Area Theatres Respond to the First Hundred Days of Trump

Tuesday, May 16, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Emily Wilson

This year the San Francisco International Arts Festival has dual themes—“In the Dark Times will there still be Singing?” and “San Francisco Sanctuary City”—in response to the policies of Donald Trump’s administration, which have been criticized as anti immigrant, anti refugee, and anti arts. But Andrew Wood, executive director of the SFIAF, says this response goes even deeper, and that he would like to see people in the Bay Area think hard about what they want for their communities. 

“We want to try and use the festival as a space where artists and activists come together and think about what sanctuary city means and how to empower regular people,” Wood said. “We’re creating war on poor people in different ways with policies coming out of City Hall that attack affordable housing, for example.  The first level of a sanctuary city is legal, but if you extrapolate a little bit, I think sanctuary means affordability and being able to live in a community and not feel harassed and excluded all the time.”

Though the international programming at the festival is set far in advance, Wood says that some local artists have made changes in their presentations due to the current political climate. He names Eth-Noh-Tec’s 10,000 Steps: One Woman's Insistence on the American Dream, which tells of a fight for the Chinese immigrants, who came to clear the Delta swampland in Locke, California, to own the land under their homes, as well as Brenda Wong Aoki, whose Aunt Lily’s Flower Book: One Hundred Years of Legalized Racism has stories of Hiroshima, Japanese internment camps and building the transcontinental railroad.


Brenda Wong Aoki in Aunt Lily’s Garden, 100 Years of Legalized Racism. Photo by First Voice

Aoki was planning a different performance—actually two—before deciding on this one. It’s difficult to make that kind of change, she says, especially when publicizing a show. But Aoki, whose grandfather was part of founding San Francisco’s Japantown and whose grandmother was a leader of a garment union in Chinatown, says that she feels like a native daughter of San Francisco and wanted to tell the story the city needed. 

“I got invited to a Navajo reservation as a [story]teller,” Aoki said. “They said they needed me for my medicine. That’s the first time I’d ever heard of what I do as medicine. I started thinking ‘This is my res, and what medicine do we need?’ I was a little scared putting it together so quickly, but it felt like the right show to give to my community.”

The show has her family’s stories of resistance but also of joy, Aoki says. For her, the point isn’t to compare scars to see who had it worse, but to take strength from what they’ve survived. 

“My family went through the Chinese Exclusion Act and incarceration and redevelopment, and we’re still here,” she said. “With Trump, it’s like: get ready to struggle. We’re just a couple of months into this guy’s agenda, and bitching and moaning is not going to cut it. We need to get strong and realize we will endure. It’s about resilience and tenacity and hard won happiness.”

Dana Zell, managing director of Children's Musical Theater San Jose

Other theatre professionals are echoing Aoki’s call to action. At Children’s Musical Theater San Jose, managing director Dana Zell is encouraging theatre patrons to be active and in touch with their political representatives. Looking for a way to respond positively to Trump’s threat to cut $148 million from the National Endowment for the Arts, which funds CMTSJ, Zell hit on giving out postcards to audience and cast members in the spring shows of Sweeney Todd, Once on This Island, and Evita. On the front of each postcard is a picture of Ariel from the theatre’s production of A Little Mermaid. On the back is a prompt: “Tell us how the arts are part of your world.” 

“At CMTSJ, I have grown to become a citizen for my local community and my community in the USA. The arts have taught me how to work with others to build stronger communities everywhere,” and “Love of the arts brings people together and unites people from so many different walks of life. This is NOT frivolous spending. This is essential to the well-being of MILLIONS of people,” are a few of the 10,000 responses. At the end of the spring, they will send the postcards to Senator Dianne Feinstein.

 Zell says the response has been even better than she had hoped.

“Oh my gosh, [the audiences] are so supportive,” she said. “Myself or the artistic director mention it before every performance and they’re all applauding and nodding their heads.”

In the Bay Area, the NEA gives out $2.5 million. It’s not just the monetary support that makes a difference to her theatre, says Zell, but the credibility it brings to what they do.

“We’re very grateful for that recognition,” Zell said. “If that money goes away, it’s changing our national priorities and saying the arts aren’t important.” 

San Francisco’s Magic Theatre has also been encouraging their audience members to reach out to local representatives in support of the arts. Patrons find a letter in theirprograms stating that the NEA only represents 0.004 percent of the federal budget. It goes on to say that the problem with defunding the NEA is not just about dollars but also about the potential “irreparable damage to the creative vibrancy of our wonderfully diverse country.”

The Magic also has a wall for people to write their thoughts, and a new sign hanging in the lobby, which artistic director Loretta Greco says came in response to the exclusionary language in politics, begins “Welcome to the industrious, the lazy, the curious, the vain—lawyers, librarians, fans of Giants or the As,” and goes on to welcome everyone by letting them know that the Magic includes everyone. 

Nora El Samahy will tour Bay Area kitchens in Golden Thread’s Oh My Sweet Land. Photo courtesy of Golden Thread Productions

In October, Golden Thread Productions will extend a welcoming hand beyond the confines of a theatre building when it presents Oh My Sweet Land, a one-person show in which an actress recalls a meeting with a Syrian refugee as she prepares the Syrian dish kibbeh, made with bulgur, onions, and meat. 

“It’s not an education piece even though it’s about the refugee crisis,” said Torange Yeghiazarian, the artistic director of Golden Thread and director of Oh My Sweet Land. “It moves you emotionally.”

Because the piece will be performed in a kitchen, Yeghiazarian hopes to reach an audience that may not usually come to the theatre. Some shows will be in community kitchens and some in private homes, she says, with about six potential hosts in the Bay Area so far. Asked about the most challenging part of putting on this production, Yeghiazarian said, “Acting while frying onions.”

Like Oh My Sweet Land, some pieces are responding to the current political climate without directly addressing the current administration. 

“It doesn’t all have to bash Trump,” said Andrew Wood of SFIAF. “For example there’s Abada Capoeira. The artistic director is a migrant lesbian. Capoeira was born of slave culture, and they don’t have to change anything they’re doing to fit in with what we’re doing. It’s all about struggle, and nothing to do with Donald Trump per se.”

Emily Wilson writes for print, the web and radio. She also teaches at City College of San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter: @ehw415