Poet Al Letson has a moving ‘Summer of Sanctuary’

There are many parts of Al Letson’s one-man show that are truly moving.

One is when he, a black man, offers to shake the hand of a white cop who stopped him in South Carolina, while he was driving from Florida to Maryland. He was in a van packed with poor black kids, and one white woman, who were on a trip to Baltimore for a brief getaway from their intense daily life in the ghetto.

When the trooper finds nothing amiss with the group and Letson puts out his hand, the officer limply reciprocates. Letson declares his own victory.

It’s one of many affecting moments in “Summer in Sanctuary” onstage at The Marsh in The City.

In the show, Letson details what happened during a summer he spent teaching writing to kids in Springfield, a tough neighborhood outside Jacksonville, and a far cry from his black middle-class young childhood home in Plainfield, N.J. (He compares himself to Urkel on “Family Matters.”)

His family moves to Florida, and he doesn’t make a great first impression. Other kids tell him “you’re too proper” and he feels uncomfortable hearing how “what once was a bad word has become acceptable” (and stylistically uses the N-word a lot in the show).

Letson, who went on to become an award-winning performance poet and NPR podcaster with “State of the Re:Union,” is recruited by the aforementioned white woman, Vicky Watkins, to work in Springfield at Sanctuary on 8th Street, a camp and summer school program.

He calls it the toughest job he ever had, and makes the experience come alive: with poetry, music, slides and videos, and impeccable impressions of the folks he changed, and who changed him.

He does the indefatigable Vicky (she literally rocks) and is hilarious as queen bee Danita, whose saucy attitude rocks his story circle.

But it’s the boys who really grab his heart: Alonzo, Chris, Deron, and especially the good-hearted, funny, lost Biko, who reminds him of his cousin and survives a gunshot.

Biko’s story becomes the subject of a successful movie-making project Letson (“Mr. Al”) convinces the kids to take on; he’s also the spotlight of a tear-jerking anecdote Letson tells near the show’s conclusion.

As “Summer of Sanctary” serves up Letson’s personal views on race relations, as well as the sad, difficult challenges facing kids living in poverty, it provides a spark for dialogue and movement toward change, shedding a hopeful light on reality.

REVIEW
Summer in Sanctuary
Where: Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; closes Nov. 26
Tickets: $20 to $100
Contact: (415) 282-3055, wwwthemarsh.org

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