When you walk into Tenderloin, the new documentary play at the Cutting Ball Theater, you might find yourself disoriented, even doing a double take. You thought you were leaving some of the city's worst-off residents behind on Taylor Street and, with your upper-middle-class theatergoing peers, venturing into a fictional theatrical world. But this is not that kind of show. You might exit Taylor Street to enter the Cutting Ball, but it's there to greet you again on the inside.
The Cutting Ball is widely regarded as one of San Francisco's most adventurous theaters. Its shows are thoughtful and risk-taking. But in locating itself in the Exit on Taylor, in the heart of the Tenderloin, the Cutting Ball takes further risks, risks that don't burden theaters in the Marina or Mill Valley. It risks distancing itself from its neighborhood. It risks scaring away its target audience. Some might even say it risks the safety of its own employees.
At least, that's how many might perceive the neighborhood, a perception evoked by the show's opening moments. The six members of the ensemble (Tristan Cunningham, Siobhan Doherty, Rebecca Frank, Michael Uy Kelly, Leigh Shaw, and David Sinaiko) become a mirror image of a certain sector of Taylor Street denizen. They sputter nonsense. They hoot and holler. They revel in profanity, lumbering along with labored, uneven gaits. This all happens in front of a set, by Michael Locher, that makes towering, elaborately constructed sculptures out of discarded furniture. And as the characters become more grotesque, a soundscape, by Matt Stines, escalates city street rhythms to a feverish pitch so that car horns sound like a menacing swarm. It's a nightmarish vision of the neighborhood, and sadly not an unfamiliar one.
But the rest of the show isn't much concerned with this image of the Tenderloin, except as something to be complicated or corrected. Director and playwright Annie Elias and the ensemble conducted interviews with people who live and work in the area, and edited transcripts of those interviews comprise the script. The actors capture not just the accent and tone of subjects' speech, but also the tics and gestures and postures of entire physical repertoires. Sometimes all that demarcates a character switch is the pulling up of a hood or the donning of glasses, but the performers are so adept at capturing the essences of their characters they seem to be stepping into new skins. One moment, Cunningham is Jasper, a beatboxer whose everyday speech is spoken-word poetry and who bounces from side to side to accentuate the rhythm in his words; the next, she is Ester, a Filipina life coach with a fondness for reducing life lessons to nonsense acronyms and for ending almost every sentence with "okay?"
Watching these skilled actors — and there isn't a weak link among them — navigate the intricate mechanics of their craft is the chief pleasure of Tenderloin. The actual stories are more variable. In selecting interview subjects, Elias and team skew heavily toward do-gooders: volunteers, pastors, counselors, social workers. Their testimonies run together after a while, giving the show the tone of a grant application or a donation request.
At other times the show dwells too long in generalities. Characters who surely have more colorful, or at least specific, stories, share only their overall descriptions of the neighborhood: "It's an intense experience of the human condition." Or, "It's not ugly; it's life." These scenes seem meant to be a theatrical parallel to montage, but, accompanied by a series of projected photos, the effect is less of documentary than of academic lecture. Elias would have done well to focus more on specific and personal stories of actual residents; these anecdotes show the humanity, the compassion, the good amid the bad of the Tenderloin, better than any social worker's spiel.
In one, a man named Nappy Chin (Kelly) "uses his imagination" to figure out how to raise a baby in the Empress Hotel. In another, a battered wife (Doherty) who no longer lives in the Tenderloin goes to the police station there when no one else will help her because that place, more than any other, feels like home. She asks the audience, "How many places do you feel like you can go?" That encapsulates the case that the show is mounting: The Tenderloin is a place to find refuge in, not run away from. Given the vitality of that argument, it's a shame Elias so often uses such weak evidence.