For many San Franciscans, the Tenderloin is a place to pass through on the way to other neighborhoods. In “Tenderloin,” audiences have the opportunity for an extended visit.
This new play by writer-director Annie Elias, which made its world premiere at the Cutting Ball Theater last week, is derived from dozens of interviews with Tenderloin residents. Their words yield a raw and often riveting evening of documentary theater.
Featuring a six-person cast (who conducted the interviews and play multiple roles), the show doesn’t shy away from the Tenderloin’s problems.
The opening scene brings an onslaught of hustlers, panhandlers, sirens and street people. Michael Locher’s set — an impressive jumble of broken furniture and personal items — attests to the impermanence of life here. Stephanie Buchner’s lighting, Michelle Mulholland’s costumes and Matt Stines’ sound designs add authenticity.
Crime, drug use and prostitution are persistent issues. Just as often, though, the characters are simply poor or unlucky.
As we meet immigrants, veterans, seniors and kids, we see that their griefs are real. Some are minor — sore feet and dirty clothes.
Others are profound. An ex-con (Tristan Cunningham) explains how he lost his wife; a vet (Michael Uy Kelly) recounts the challenges of caring for a baby alone.
A consistent thread is the failure of institutions. One aging couple (Rebecca Frank and David Sinaiko) recalls the Tenderloin as a thriving Greek neighborhood transformed into a “containment zone” for the mentally ill.
A cop (Kelly) admits that his superiors told him to stop arresting drug offenders: “The system cannot handle the problem,” he shrugs.
Answers seem to come from the community itself. A heroin addict (Sinaiko) begins to recover when he takes up photography to record the “architecture of decay.”
A woman (Siobhan Marie Doherty) who’s been beaten in another neighborhood returns to the Tenderloin to report the crime. “I felt like I was safe here,” she says.
A minister (Leigh Shaw) and healer (Doherty) suggest simple solutions — it’s love and touch, they say, that mend broken spirits.
Elias isn’t the first to build a play around the words of real-life individuals — writers such as Anna Deavere Smith have been creating documentary theater for years.
But there’s something particularly potent about a company based in the Tenderloin, going into the streets to interview its neighbors.
What finally emerges is surprisingly hopeful. One character sums it up in four words you’d never expect to hear. “The Tenderloin,” he says, “is rich.”
Presented by Cutting Ball Theater
Where: Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes May 27
Tickets: $10 to $50Contact: (415) 525-1205, www.cuttingball.com