Cutting Ball Theater's "Tenderloin" hits a sensitive zone.
Against a towering backdrop of junked furniture, which looks as if someone had collapsed the “Defenestration ” building on itself and dragged it into the EXIT  on Taylor, Michael Uy Kelly as Captain Gary Jimenez extols the virtues of an oft-maligned district. “The Tenderloin is the best part of the gut,” he grabs his own to demonstrate, “and it’s the best part of the city. It could be.”
Jimenez was one of 40-plus neighborhood fixtures to have been interviewed by a group of actors involved in The Cutting Ball Theater’s latest work, a documentary-style play called “Tenderloin ,” and like most of the voices who made it into the play, his is sympathetic to his surroundings. Kelly, who also plays a trans bartender, an elderly gentleman named “Nappy Chin,” and a former Vietnamese “boat person,” is similarly sympathetic to his subjects, imbuing each with a quiet dignity and an almost stoic streak of optimism.
Located as it is in the tenderest parts of the ‘loin, an expedition to the EXIT Theatre on Eddy Street, and its sister outpost on Taylor, where resides The Cutting Ball, can be somewhat disconcerting for those unaccustomed to San Francisco’s meanest streets. But though the district is home to a large percentage of the city’s theatres, it’s the theatre verite featuring its other residents that most characterizes the neighborhood. Or, as resident amateur historian and self-taught documentary photographer Mark Ellinger puts it in his interview (performed by actor David Sinaiko), there’s “a lot of human drama that has taken place in these buildings.”
Said buildings, an imposing bank of Beaux Arts architecture, somewhat camouflaged from public admiration by a veneer of city grime, house the densest population in the city, and one of the most diverse, a diversity reflected in the characters performed by an ensemble cast of six, each with a compelling story -- and a different perspective on what it means to be in, and of, the Tenderloin.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” says Kelly as barmaid Collette Ashton.
“I’m trying…to get the F@#% out,” growls Tristan Cunningham as street cleaner (and ex-con) Shomari Kenyatta.
All told, “Tenderloin” (which plays through June 3), is an ambitious amalgam of oral history, social commentary, and reality check. In certain ways, it hearkens to Marcus Gardley’s “Love is a Dream House in Lorin,” commissioned by the Shotgun Players as an ode to the working-class neighborhood where they’ve been located since 2004. But while Gardley’s lushly sprawling storyline compressed hundreds of years of history into its community-based theatrical tribute using interview material as a jumping off point rather than as the entire script, “Tenderloin” is more tightly focused on the present day and on word-for-word enactment of the interview material. Documentary rather than docudrama.
The other major difference between the two productions lies in the sensitive zone of community engagement. While Shotgun was able to utilize members of their community as cast and crew and filled the theatre seats with their families, Cutting Ball limits its acting pool to a cadre of (very!) capable professionals, none of whom actually hail from the Tenderloin, and while they’re offering a limited number of pay-what-you-can “neighborhood tickets” to Tenderloin residents, the crowd on the day I attended appeared to be mostly comprised of Cutting Ball subscribers (to be fair, it was a Saturday matinee). Despite this layer of missed opportunity, however, “Tenderloin” is a multi-faceted, mostly unsentimental snapshot of one of San Francisco’s most unique terrains, and is well worth the visit, not just as a play, but as a home.
Through June 3
EXIT on Taylor
277 Taylor, SF