The tender line

Cutting Ball's docudrama Tenderloin explores its own backyard

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The world's a stage: Cutting Ball Theater presents the premiere of Tenderloin.
PHOTO BY ROB MELROSE

arts@sfbg.com

THEATER A couple of days after the opening of the Cutting Ball's documentary play, Tenderloin, I spotted independent filmmaker Rob Nilsson crossing the street at Taylor and Eddy, less than a block from the theater. Drawn to the neighborhood and its residents for decades, Nilsson is one of the more prominent artists who have found inspiration, collaboration and a kind of authenticity in the Tenderloin, long among San Francisco's poorest and liveliest districts.

Director-writer Annie Elias and her Tenderloin team continue this tradition, with a clear concern to do right by their subjects (among whom happens to be Nilsson himself, played by actor Tristan Cunningham). The action emerges from an opening tableau of street life, featuring the colorful sights and harrying sounds of a rowdy inner-city intersection (nicely augmented by sound designer Matt Stines). Upstage rises scenic designer Michael Locher's ceiling-high mound of furniture and bric-a-brac, which is fronted by two rows of hanging photographs, loving portraits of local people and places whose panels double as projection screens establishing context for each of the scenes that follow.

The play presents a spectrum of Tenderloin denizens whose stories reflect the dire straits normally associated with this congested low-income slice of downtown, but also the sense of freedom and community some have found there. We hear from the desperate and lonely but even more often from people who have grown to prefer the Tenderloin to more stifling environs.

That positive note lands too forcefully at times, especially when it comes from relatively privileged members of the commuting class (the plugging of the neighborhood by some middle-class patrons at the Nite Cap bar, for instance, begins to sound a little like an ad from the visitors bureau), or professional advocates like Reverend Karen Oliveto (played by Leigh Shaw) at Glide Memorial Church.

By contrast, the play excels when the voices are both genuinely local and agenda-free, as is the case with the story by a man from Sixth Street who haplessly agrees to accept responsibility for a newborn baby from an acquaintance on her way to jail (a story as charming and resonant as a well-crafted short story, and beautifully recreated by actor Michael Kelly).

A set of discrete interviews naturally runs the risk of becoming an aimless narrative, especially without a single dramatic episode or storyline at the center (as is the case with the better-known works in the docudrama genre, such as Tectonic Theater's The Laramie Project). Elias sets out to mitigate this problem in several ways, first of all by casting well — in terms of both the selection of interview subjects and the delicate portrayals marshaled by her exceptional ensemble of actor-documentarians (aided by additional writing from David Westley Skillman).

In addition to Michael Kelly's standout performance throughout, Rebecca Frank does particularly subtle work with a number of memorable personalities, including Leroy B. Looper, the (recently deceased) owner of the Cadillac Hotel, who appears here with wife and longtime business partner Kathy (played gracefully by David Sinaiko). (Siobhan Doherty rounds out the production's admirable ensemble.)

Elias also relies on dynamic staging, often setting a couple of interviews in alternating tension with one another, a technique that generally serves the production well — as in a sly point-counterpoint between former Tenderloin police captain Gary Jimenez (Kelly) and a homeless person (Cunningham) — even if some scenes prove unnecessarily busy.

Comments

Tenderloin needs less drugs and more of a clean working class environment. This glorifying picture of human misery is not helping. It feels like people coming from the outside looking into this suffering and trying to make something "artistic" out of it and then go home to a clean suburb life. Try to live here and you will get a more real view of the reality down here.

Posted by Guest on May. 09, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

You should see the piece before you judge it.

It, in no way, glorifies the human misery that is so present in the neighborhood.

The show, speaking through the verbatim words of people who have lived and worked in the Tenderloin for decades, addresses the issues of creating a clean working-class environment for residents and the horrible drug problem head-on and with a candor you might find surprising - if you are open and willing to be surprised.

Though it may seem, from the review, that play is full of facile bromides about how wonderful the neighborhood is. I don't think Rob is saying that, and I know the play doesn't.

What it does say is that there are many real, fundamental aspects to the neighborhood that are far less visible than the bad smells, the drug dealing and the homeless. Those are the parts of the place that everyone sees. Those are the parts of the place that make it an "area to avoid" in city guides. It should be seen as a positive thing to promote parts of the neighborhood that are positive. And if you do, in fact, live there, you know that.

Posted by Guest on May. 10, 2012 @ 9:40 am

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