Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Tenderloin, at the Cutting Ball

(Tristan Cunningham as Filipino Health and Wellness Director Ester Aure in the Cutting Ball Theater production. Photo by Rob Melrose.)

There was a lot that I left out of my review of Tenderloin, a documentary play at the Cutting Ball. And much of what I omitted was personal.

The play is about the theater's eponymous neighborhood, perhaps the worst-off area of San Francisco. Not coincidentally, the Cutting Ball is not the only theater there; there are also the Exit and the Boxcar Studios, in addition to all the companies just across Market Street.

If I go to the Tenderloin, it's almost always to see theater. (My only non-theatrical destination there is Shalimar, purveyor of cheap and delicious Indian food.) I always ride my bike or walk with a companion so that I feel safer, and I usually don't talk to, or look at, the people I pass on the way. I then have a routine for when I arrive at the Cutting Ball or the Exit. I maintain "street Lily's" stony expression, find a parking meter that doesn't smell like urine, lock my bike and check the lock, then duck inside as quickly as I can. There, I see other theatergoers who don't much resemble the people outside, and together we try to forget what's happening back on the street. Usually, the theater is more than happy to help us out. 

Not so with Tenderloin. And simply for that, I admire the Cutting Ball. But I couldn't help thinking that doing only one show that "engages" (that tricky word) a theater's neighborhood is almost an act of tokenism. Even if Tenderloin's audiences look slightly different from the folks who usually fill the Cutting Ball's seats, won't things go back to normal for its next project? Obviously, it's not the Cutting Ball’s job to singlehandedly, and in the long term, make theater more accessible, bring new audiences to the medium, and improve its own neighborhood. But if not these, then what is the goal of the show? To create cool art? To make the Cutting Ball's usual audiences rethink their relationships to the Tenderloin? 

For me, the show did not succeed along those lines. I already know that the way I approach the neighborhood is reprehensible, despite what little I can justify on vague notions of "safety," and I felt Tenderloin only bludgeoned me with the fact of that reprehensibility over and over again. (My review goes into the reasons why, but here I'll just say that there are a lot of monologues from social workers.) 

I wish I could say that the next time I go to the Tenderloin my attitude will be different, that I'll look around more, notice more, make some eye contact. I probably won't, though. Again, it's not a play's job to change me; it's my job. But it is a play's job to move me. This one, except for a few, isolated moments, did not.

Tenderloin continues through June 3; info here.

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