Saturday, October 29, 2016

When Politics Becomes Personal

Without a doubt, 2016 has proven that truth is stranger than fiction. Just consider this political ad for the campaign to re-elect Travis County (Austin, Texas) Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and then compare it to a political skit starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Cloris Leachman, and Jimmy Kimmel. Which is crazier? You be the judge.

Say what you will about the 2016 election, but one thing is for sure. It hasn't been boring.
Terrifying? Yes.
Ridiculous? You betch'a!
Surreal? No doubt about it.
Infantile? Words fail.

In recent years, San Francisco's spunky Left Coast Theatre Company has taken to offering two evenings of anthologies that showcase short plays written by members of the LGBT community. This fall's program took its inspiration from that old standard -- "Ripped From the Headlines" -- but added a distinctly gay twist to each story. While two of the more political plays on the program reflected topical stories, when viewed in the wake of the GOP's desperate attempts to rig the system, their humor took on a decidedly more sinister tone than usual.

Poster art for Left Coast News

Written by Terry Maloney Haley & Leslie Balfour (and directed by Haley), Poster Girl took a stab at showing how a certain conservative cable network devoted to "newsertainment" seeks to create malleable female pundits who can purge their conscience on cue in order to regurgitate right-wing talking points. As the producers (Neil Higgins and Richard S. Sargent) prep a woman for her audition, it's obvious that Amanda (Terry Bamberger) is not clear on the concept.

Saner, smarter, more liberal and more level-headed than the usual blonde bimbo hired by the network, Amanda doesn't flinch when two straight actors (Connor Fatch and Joel Canon) performing their idea of what gay men must be like approach her and state that they wish to apply for a marriage license. Amanda matter-of-factly complies with their request. In each subsequent retake, the producers keep coaching Amanda to become more homophobic, increasingly vicious, and insist that gay marriage is an insult to her religious beliefs.

The cast of Poster Girl (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

After several run-throughs, the two male actors have morphed into screaming queens who are practically dry humping each other on the set. Meanwhile, Amanda has been transformed into a rabidly homophobic, paranoid Christian nut job like Kim Davis and the producers have crafted the perfect new talking head to please their demographic of bitter, old, homophobic white men.

Written by Richard S. Sargent and directed by Neil Higgins, The Distraction goes behind the scenes of a conservative strategy meeting in which an aggressive Bible-thumping political consultant named Candice (Terry Bamberger) and a beleaguered bureaucrat named Dave (Karl Schackne) are struggling to find a talking point which can distract some angry Midwesterners from a local crisis (i.e. the contaminated water supply in Flint, Michigan). As they sit in a windowless conference room with a local party official named Brenda (Sabrina De Mio) who is a devout Catholic, they run up against an unexpected flaw in their argument. As she tries to work the old Republican playbook, Candice suggests using same-sex marriage as a political football that can distract voters and scapegoat the LGBT community.

Dan Schackne, Sabrine De Mio, and Terry Bamberger
in The Distraction (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

Under normal circumstances, the mere thought of gay men participating in anal sex might have a sufficient "ick factor" to do the job. However, there's just one problem. For Brenda and her friends, butt sex is hardly a deal breaker.

* * * * * * * * *
When it comes to poetic justice and serendipitous timing, I couldn't have lucked out better than attending a performance of Nogales one night and awakening the next morning to learn that U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton had signed an order holding Arizona's notoriously xenophobic sheriff of Maricopa County in criminal contempt of court. The 84-year-old Joe Arpaio's reaction to the initial charge came as no surprise to anyone.

A co-production by Magic Theatre, Campo Santo, and the Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona, Nogales was inspired by a tragic event on October 10, 2012 -- the day on which 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez was shot 15 times by an agent of the U.S. Border Patrol. The fact that Rodriguez died while walking down a street in the Mexican part of the fabled border town (and the U.S. Border Patrol agent was standing on American soil) was particularly infuriating.

In October 2013, three American artists with deep roots in the Bay area's theatre community traveled to Nogales, Sonora to begin their research into José Antonio’s murder. They were:
Sheriff Joe Arpaio (Richard Montoya) meets with actor Sean
San José in a scene from Nogales (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

What was it like for the three theatre artists to perform research in Nogales? As Montoya recalls:
“We were on the corner where the boy fell when a journalist with a camera just swooped around the corner. He was on us within seconds. It was a little bit 'Who are you? And who are you? And who are you?' and year of living dangerously. But he turned out to be a real journalist and we were in the front page of the little Nogales paper the next day. ('Artists, American artists, here to investigate this murder.') There are times in my life where I've felt like 'Man, this is what I was meant to do. I’m right at the right place where I need to be as an artist and a little bit of a war correspondent, and frankly, a little bit in danger.'”
Stephen Narcho as José Antonio Elena Rodriguez in a
scene from Nogales (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

The result of the trio's efforts was a provocative play written by Montoya and directed by San José that featured video design and photography by Osato. Further enhanced by installation artist Tanya Orellana's scenic design, lighting designer Alejandro Acosta, and sound designer Juan Amador, Nogales is a grandly satirical play which examines the inherent racism and good ol' boy mentality of a corrupt xenophobe and powerful American political figure like Arpaio and contrasts the man's seductively jocular, and deceptively grandfather-like nature with the basic inhumanity of his actions.

Richard Montoya as Sheriff Joe Arpaio in a scene from Nogales
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

In 90 minutes, Nogales covers a lot of ground as Montoya's play explores the hatred and animus spiked by Arpaio's rabid racial profiling, the socioeconomic challenges of life in a Mexican-American border town, and the tragedy of an innocent Mexican teenager who was murdered while walking down a street in his home town. As Donald Trump continues to belch out his battle cry about building a border wall and making Mexico pay for it, director Sean San José points to some of the harsher truths he witnessed during his research.
"The first time I went into Nogales was maybe a decade before. You could literally walk in and walk out. Even if you were brown, you could walk in, you could walk out. The wall is a foreboding, ominous, hideous, pronounced statement to the world that we are not equal, 'You are less. You are separated. Stay the fuck out.' What’s bizarre when you go to Nogales, Sonora, is you see the arbitrary nature of this idea of 'frontera' and 'border.' The money they spend to make this statement topographically? What they have to do to do it? What a waste of fucking money, time, science, engineering, everything -- to crush humanity. It’s just astonishing the lengths they go. We stood up on a hill in the safe houses and had to ask the homie: 'Which side is U.S. and which side is Mexico?'"
Eliana López as José Antonio's grandmother in a
scene from Nogales (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

As Magic Theatre's artistic director (Loretta Greco) is quick to point out, Nogales was a perfect project for a company devoted to new works.
"Nogales bridges the hunger of three artists: Montoya, San José, and Osato. It is born of their yearning for understanding, their hunt for agency, and their desire to build a more humane and just world at this very troubling moment in time through the rich tradition of theatre of testimony. It joyfully and spiritually mixes music, dance, traditional storytelling, spoken word, video, installation, and ritual to make a piece of theater that is lovingly informed by Culture Clash’s super-sized satiric storytelling, Campo Santo’s open, ever-excavating process, and Magic’s dramaturgical expertise in sculpting and producing groundbreaking theater of relevance. Melded together, it is neither pure Clash, Campo, nor Magic. It is an experience unto itself."
Eliana López and Richard Montoya (as Sheriff Joe Arpaio)
in a scene from Nogales(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)
"We hope Nogales unearths the kind of personal politics, humanity, and playful surprises for our audience that ignite rich, heartfelt dialogue and offer a vibrant opportunity to re-examine the character of our great United States. Montoya and Clash were born from the Bay’s fertile theatre soil, yet this marks the long overdue debut of Montoya here at Magic. It has been wonderful to support his dogged journalistic instincts, his uncanny sense of timing, his deep understanding of spectacle, and his great big heart. It is also an honor to continue our relationship with Sean San José and Campo Santo and to see their work continue to thrive in bold new ways. It is no accident that we scheduled Nogales in the frenzied final months of a presidential election year. What better place to wrestle with borders than with a community of theatergoers just days away from heading to the polls?!"
Although Juan Amador, Laura Espino, Eliana Lopez, Carla Pantoja, and Stephen Narcho lend solid support in smaller roles, Nogales rests primarily on the sturdy shoulders of its actor-creators, Richard Montoya and Sean San José. Separately and as a team, they deliver powerful performances that show the audience what can happen when two master craftsmen are at work. I truly hope this play has a longer life span than its initial co-production. Montoya's script is a most impressive achievement.