Historically unheard voices dominate S.F. theater this May

‘The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin,’ ‘Going Out,’ ‘Blood at the Root’ and more

Magic Theatre artistic director Sean San José surely spoke for many local theater-makers when he wrote in a recent news release, “We are wholly committed to rightfully centering People of Color in all ways” — in other words, focusing on historically unheard voices. This month offers a good example: “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin” explores the aftereffects of the Chinese Exclusion Act on one family. Black solo performer Don Reed recalls in “Going Out” the tiny, tentative steps he took outside after sheltering in place. Four Asian-American sisters grapple with life itself in the comedy “Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play).” “Blood at the Root” is based on a nationally shameful racist incident in the South. And the two major LGBTQ theaters, Theatre Rhinoceros and New Conservatory, are in full swing.

The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin

First up this month is New York playwright Jessica Huang’s fact-based drama, directed for S.F. Playhouse by Jeffrey Lo. During the 60 years of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration to the U.S., many Chinese people bought forged documents. “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin” is based on the true story of one such “paper son,” who kept his secret for the rest of his life. In preparing to write the play, Huang communicated with Chin’s daughter and decided to focus on the father/daughter relationship. Harry Chin (played by Jomar Tagatac) narrates the tale, described by a member of the National New Play Exchange as “an education, a ghost story, a history lesson, a family drama, a generational parable, and a sneakily raucous comedy …” Says Tagatac, who’s Filipino, of Harry Chin, “He’s dealing with loss — not just personal loss but the idea of one’s real true name. I’m fascinated with that, what that does to a person. There are ghosts around him and he has to deal with those ghosts. It’s a metaphorical and a literal thing — dealing with your past.” At the time, Tagatac was playing a Vietnamese immigrant in Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone” in San Jose. “With all these kinds of stories, these immigrant stories,” he says, “it makes me more and more curious where my parents come from, what brought them here.”

S.F. Playhouse, 450 Post St.

May 4-June 18


(415) 677-9596/sfplayhouse.org

(Courtesy The Marsh)

(Courtesy The Marsh)

Going Out

Second up is Don Reed’s comical musings on finally venturing into the world after the COVID shutdown. When the show premiered at The Marsh Berkeley last August, I wrote, “The best parts of ‘Going Out’ are the silent parts. But that’s not because the script itself is not an utter delight. It’s simply because Reed, from the moment he creeps nervously onstage, masked, taking little, hesitant baby steps — he’s inching forward on a long, slow-moving line to get a COVID vaccination — is such a wonderful physical performer.” Now, oh so many months later, presumably all vaccinated and boosted, we’re going places and doing things, and Reed, in transferring the show to The City, says he’s added some new material. How will Reed process these confusing days of mixed messages about masks, encroaching variants and personal safety? For sure, he’ll find the humor in it all.

The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St.

May 7-29


(415) 282-3055/themarsh.org

Playwright Sam Chanse (Courtesy Magic Theatre)

Playwright Sam Chanse (Courtesy Magic Theatre)

Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play)

This multilayered comedy, with its three titles (one of which echoes Chekhov’s famous “Three Sisters”), actually does concern sloths as well as coral reefs and more: climate change and the environment, sexual harassment in the workplace, shattered dreams, broken marriages, controlling boyfriends. At its core, it’s an involving, idiosyncratic look at the complex relationships among four Asian-American sisters — a marine biologist, a writer for a kids TV show about sloths (hence an entire live cartoon within a play), an elusive eldest sister and a feckless youngest one. The Magic Theatre previously developed this play by Sam Chanse and is now world premiering it, directed by Giovanna Sardelli and performed by a crack quartet: Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Rinabeth Apostol and Sango Tajima — who, yes, double as sloths.

Magic Theatre, Bldg. D, Fort Mason

May 11-29


(415) 441-8822/magictheatre.org

(Courtesy Theatre Rhinoceros)

(Courtesy Theatre Rhinoceros)

Harts’ Desire

Solo performer Mark Nadler does just about everything in this show, including singing, tap dancing, playing the piano and tap dancing while playing the piano. He uses text from playwright Moss Hart’s “Light Up the Sky” and combines it with lyricist Lorenz Hart’s songs from his collaborations with Richard Rodgers. “It’s like a (one-man) farce written by the two Harts if they had ever written a musical together,” says Rhino artistic director John Fisher — and if they’d been able to come out of the closet a century or so ago.

Theatre Rhinoceros at Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St.

May 12-15



(Courtesy Custom Made Theatre)

(Courtesy Custom Made Theatre)

Blood at the Root

If you’ve seen the blockbuster musical “Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations” and its total opposite, “Skeleton Crew,” you know that Dominique Morisseau is one of America’s best playwrights. “Blood at the Root” (a haunting reference to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”) is a choreo poem based on the true-life 2006 incident in which the Jena Six — six white teenagers in Louisiana — beat up a Black student. Rope nooses had been hung from a tree on the high school grounds. The entire event was racially divisive in unexpected ways. Darryl V. Jones directs the six-member cast for Custom Made in its new downtown venue.

Custom Made Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St.

May 13-June 5


custommade.org/(415) 798-2682

Pictured left to right: McKay Elwood, Anthony Rollins Mullens, William Giammona, Jacqueline De Muro and Catalina Kumiski. (Photo by Lois Tema/Courtesy New Conservatory Theatre Center)

Pictured left to right: McKay Elwood, Anthony Rollins Mullens, William Giammona, Jacqueline De Muro and Catalina Kumiski. (Photo by Lois Tema/Courtesy New Conservatory Theatre Center)


For something entirely different midway through the month and previewing on the same night as “Blood at the Root”: To celebrate its 40th birthday, New Conservatory, one of The City’s two longtime LGBTQ theaters, is choosing among the 50 or so musicals that the company has staged over the years to create a cabaret show. Artistic director/founder Ed Decker, director Dennis Lickteig and musical director/arranger Joe Wicht co-curate the program. Onstage: five singers with Tim Vaughan on drums and Lickteig on piano.

New Conservatory Theater Center, 25 Van Ness Ave.

May 13-June 12


(415) 861-8972/nctcsf.org

(Courtesy The Imaginists)

(Courtesy The Imaginists)

SDA (Someone Dies Again)

Surely there is no topic more of the moment (hello, Alec Baldwin) and more divisive in our country than guns. How interesting that a non-American — Hungarian director Árpád Schilling —would take on this prickly topic. He’s been working with the Santa Rosa-based company The Imaginists to devise this world premiere, which explores gun ownership in all its ramifications. The play, at times surreal, is expansive enough to consider personal relationships and to include humor; it features a 12-member cast. And need we be reminded of Anton Chekhov’s advice to young playwrights: If a gun appears onstage, it darn well better be fired by the final curtain.

The Imaginists at Z Space, 450 Florida St.

May 19-28



(Courtesy Theatre Rhinoceros)

(Courtesy Theatre Rhinoceros)

The Scottish Play

AKA the cursed “Macbeth” is performed here, in a brisk hour and a half, by 11 actors. Theatre Rhino’s John Fisher, who directs, jokes that he cut the text “ruthlessly, savagely.” Some of the more famous speeches are set to original music by Don Seaver. You follow the actors around Salesforce Park — a spooky place at night, says Fisher, “perfect for all the murders and fights.” It’s free — just go to the main Salesforce/Transbay Terminal entrance and head up.

Theatre Rhinoceros

May 27-29, 7 pm


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