Playwright Mark Nassar weds himself to the trans struggle with ‘The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot’

It was a trip through the Tenderloin Museum that inspired playwright Mark Nassar, the co-creator of the long-running interactive comedy “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding,” to pen a play about the historic Compton’s Cafeteria Riot.

Hitting it off with the museum’s Executive Director Katie Conry, Nassar got to talking about collaborating on a theatrical event. After Conry pointed him toward a Compton’s Cafeteria Riot display, he quickly realized that he had found his subject matter.

“I’d never heard of it before” Nassar, 60, said. “It also had so many elements that are compelling, so I thought, ‘Let’s try this.’”

But before writing what would become “The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot,” an immersive drama about the combustive elements that led to the historic disturbance — premiering Thursday at New Village Cafe — Nassar needed to familiarize himself with the first recorded LGBT riot against police harassment in U.S. history, occurring in August 1966 — three years before New York’s Stonewall Riots. The fracas, which took place at the now-closed Compton’s Cafeteria at Turk and Taylor St., culminating in broken dishes, overturned furniture and shattered restaurant and police car windows, also birthed a new era of increased transgender activism and support services in San Francisco.

“The rioting wasn’t covered by the media, so it’s very difficult to get specific info about what happened,” Nassar said. “We know that coffee was thrown on a policeman, which sort of triggered it, and there were fights between the patrons, and that’s why the owner called the police. There are just these bits and pieces.”

Nassar threw himself into online research and watched Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman’s Emmy-winning 2005 documentary “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria” for background info and potential storylines. James Hosking’s 2014 documentary short “Beautiful by Night,” about a trio of drag performers at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge in the Tenderloin introduced him to his future co-writers, legendary neighborhood drag queen and activist Collette Legrande and transgender artist, performer and rights advocate Donna Personna, who were among the film’s stars.

“Being a straight man, I didn’t want to tackle this without people that have lived the life,” Nassar said. “When I saw the honesty of Collette and Donna, who also happened to have experience going to Compton’s Cafeteria, I thought, ‘These are the people to work with.”

After the pair signed on, Nassar met with them each week for a year and a half to develop the play. After workshopping it at the Tenderloin Museum, the writers understood that it was vital to cast trans women in the lead roles for authenticity sake. For added realism, the trio decided to stage the play as a breakfast theatre event at the New Village Cafe, a stand-in for Compton’s Cafeteria.

“It was serendipitous that I ended up writing this story,” Nassar said. “But what I found through this whole experience is the bravery of these folks. It’s sad to say that we have to be brave to be who we are, but it’s the truth, even today.”

IF YOU GO: The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot
Where: New Village Cafe, 1426 Polk St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 22 – March 17
Tickets: $60
Contact: www.comptonscafeteriariot.com

Quentin Quick
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Quentin Quick

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