Last year Stagebridge Senior Theater Company and youth-oriented Opera Piccola, two Oakland organizations on opposite ends of the generation gap, approached director Ellen Sebastian Chang about creating a piece for an all-ages cast. Her first thought was to arm teens with tape recorders and have them interview youths and elders all around Oakland to create a piece of testimonial theater in the mode of The Laramie Project. It was an interesting idea, and like many interesting ideas, it didn't work.
"I realized you really have to be trained in interviewing technique," Sebastian Chang says. "If someone said, 'Yeah, I live in Oakland, but originally I'm from Guam,' you or I would say, 'Guam? How do you end up going from Guam to Oakland?' But these teens say, 'Oh, okay,' and then ask the next question. So I read the interviews and said, 'I can't make a show out of this.'"
Sebastian Chang had already asked playwright Anne Galjour to help her create something out of the interview material, and now they had to create something out of nothing, that something being Being Something: Living "Young" and Growing "Old" in Oakland. So she asked Galjour and a few other local playwrights to write ten-minute plays for the group of actors she'd already cast -- three seniors from Stagebridge, three Carter Middle School students, and one twentysomething who'd simply driven the eldest of the elders to the audition.
Erin Blackwell contributed a mystical vignette summoning spirits of the famous dead, including Amelia Earhart, whose ill-fated around-the-world trip took off from Oakland. Tom Swift wrote a minifarce in which an elderly couple, a teen player and his two girlfriends, and an insistent Chinese woman keep crossing signals on their cell phones. Robert Henry Johnson explores another kind of mistaken identity in a short monologue about being taken for the demonized Other.
Issues of race, class, and the generation gap all simmer under the surface of a conversation about soup between a Chinese-American man and his African-American granddaughter in Eugenie Chan's kitchen story, from an idea that Galjour and Sebastian Chang had batted around in early brainstorming sessions. "There's so many grandparents from many cultures raising their grandchildren now," Galjour explains. "Eugenie actually knew of a similar situation, a Chinese grandfather raising his ethnically mixed grandchild, except the girl was actually Latino and Chinese," Sebastian Chang adds.
Galjour's own piece focuses on a brother charged with packing off his childishly rampaging sister to a senior care facility. Some of the memorabilia dredged up in the process recalls the Oakland Oaks, the local baseball team of the '40s and '50s. "There are so many great stories about the Oakland Oaks -- Allen Gettel used to ride up to the pitcher's mound on his horse," she marvels. "I really got into creating and celebrating a sense of place -- and a place that's sort of underestimated itself. A couple of the actors noted Oakland playing second fiddle to San Francisco. One of the teenagers described it as an elephant that's rough and big, but once you get to know it the elephant is really very kind."
Being Something previews Thursday, opens Friday, and plays through May 1 at the Oakland Metro, 201 Broadway, Oakland. 510-444-4755, Stagebridge.org
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