For poet and theater artist devorah major, there’s a lot of San Francisco history that still needs to be told.
That’s why she created “Classic Black,” a new play about 19th century African-Americans in pre-Civil War San Francisco.
Directed by Ellen Sebastian-Chang and featuring major, actor Brian Freeman, and the Destiny Muhammad Trio, the show makes its world premiere June 4 as one of the main events of the San Francisco International Arts Festival.
Running Thursday through June 7 at Fort Mason, the festival presents more than 100 theater, dance and music performances by an international roster of artists and ensembles. Companies from Poland, Taiwan, Belgium, Sweden, Ireland and El Salvador are among those scheduled to appear.
“Classic Black” began as a series of “persona poems” by major, the third poet laureate of San Francisco. But in a recent interview, she said she decided to bring the characters’ stories to life onstage, “to introduce audiences to African-Americans who were central to San Francisco – and correct a little bit of the mythology” surrounding them.
People often think that California history began with the Gold Rush – and that black Americans came to San Francisco as part of the war effort in the 1940s. Not true, said major: “In fact, the black population started when the city was still called Yerba Buena.”
Major will play multiple roles in the show, including Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was active on the underground railroad. Although California wasn’t a slave state, notes major, “slavery was legal if you came in from another state and brought slaves with you.” Pleasant used her considerable funds to free them, and she paved the way for blacks to ride San Francisco streetcars – a crusade that earned her the title “The Mother of Human Rights in California.”
Freeman will play characters including Alabama-born entrepreneur George Washington Dennis and William Alexander Leidesdorff, who sailed a schooner from New York to San Francisco in 1841. “He was San Francisco’s first treasurer,” says major. “There’s a street named after him, right off Pine near Sansome.”
Major, who grew up in San Francisco, has seen The City undergo dramatic changes in her lifetime. “It was almost 20 percent black when I grew up,” she says. “In the Haight Ashbury it was almost 40 percent black. It was a very different city then. Now that we’re so few, I think a lot of people are discouraged. So it’s good to remind them what a firm place we have in The City’s history.
“That’s why we’re doing this show. At the end, I hope people will have a very different appreciation of the roles blacks played in San Francisco.”
IF YOU GO
Presented by San Francisco International Arts Festival
Where: Southside Theater, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 8:30 p.m. June 4, 7 p.m. June 6, 5:30 p.m. June 7
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.sfiaf.org