Activism Takes Center Stage at SF International Arts Festival

by Jean Schiffman

Music and theater presentations take up social justice concerns in the 21st century.

The cogent political issues of the day—war, racism in all its varied forms, oppression, environmental concerns, religious conflict—are conveyed musically, dramatically, even comically, in this year’s San Francisco International Arts Festival at Fort Mason Center.

The festival, under the direction of founder Andrew Wood since 2003, includes other themes and genres, too, among its 100-plus performances by more than 50 ensembles, both local and international (from 12 countries, including Northern Ireland, Serbia, South Korea, Lithuania and Taiwan). Also on the docket are panel discussions, installations and exhibitions. According to Wood this event is now “the largest gathering of international performing artists in the Western United States.”

David Kleinberg's show, ”Hey, Hey LBJ,” was inspired by his tour of duty in Vietnam. Above, Kleinberg in 1967.

Among the offerings with a distinct political slant is Jon Jang Quintet’s “Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter!” a work-in-progress in collaboration with poet/performer Amanda Kemp. Jang expects it to take the form of seven vignettes, each one named for an African-American killed by police or white supremacists in the past year, including Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, and the eight men and women shot to death in the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre. A final vignette memorializes names from the past, as far back as Emmett Till, lynched in Mississippi in 1941 at age 14 for allegedly flirting with a white woman.

Jang, a San Francisco jazz pianist and composer whose music often explores his Asian roots, recently returned from New York, where he collaborated with Kemp, who performed a poem she’d written about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. That inspired Jang to create this new piece with her. He particularly wanted Kemp’s poem to accompany “Prayer for Melvin Truss,” composed by San Francisco saxophonist Francis Wong; Jang had included that recording in his 1987 album “The Ballad or the Bullet” and felt it was musically/poetically harmonious, “politically aligned,” he says, “with [the] Black Lives Matter [movement].” Truss, unarmed, was killed by a (white) San Jose policeman in 1985. “Because of the controversy surrounding Akai Gurley [an unarmed black man fatally shot by a Chinese-American police officer in Brooklyn in 2014], Amanda and I felt it was necessary that our work celebrate the history of black-Asian alliance,” explains Jang. The ensemble to perform at the festival is multi-racial and includes Hitomi Oba, a young woman tenor saxophonist. May 21, 7 p.m., Gallery 308.

In addition, Jang is a panelist on “#Black Lives Matter,” a free discussion moderated by former Black Panther Party activist Ericka Huggins. May 22, 3:30 pm, Chapel.

Also on that panel is Dr. Anthony Brown of San Francisco’s Grammy-nominated Anthony Brown Asian American Orchestra. Originally created in San Francisco in 1997 as the Asian American Jazz Orchestra and comprising musicians Brown, Jon Jang, Francis Wong, Mark Izu and others, the ensemble eventually morphed into its current iteration, headed by Brown.

The orchestra’s contribution to the festival is “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite: 2016,” featuring vocalist Amikaeyla Gaston of the Ojala Bata Ensemble (a local group of women vocalists and percussionists), poet Genny Lim and 12 musicians (including Ojala Bata performers) playing a variety of jazz and traditional Asian wind instruments plus traditional African percussion.

It was band leader/percussionist Max Roach and poet Oscar Brown, Jr., who recorded the original “We Insist! Freedom Now,” back in 1960; it is described as “the first overtly political jazz album LP.” A half-century later, it is still clearly relevant. Lim is contributing new poems, explains Brown, addressing “the political and social issues embroiling the planet, the madness and hate-filled violence rampant in our country and around the world.” He says that he and his collaborators feel a sense of urgency to share the message of social and racial justice promoted by Roach and Oscar Brown. June 5, 2 pm & 7 pm, Gallery 308.

Another local ensemble, the chamber music group Del Sol String Quartet, formed in 1992, takes on several different themes that address global concerns. Music by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, featuring prominent didjeridu player Stephen Kent, looks at global warming and environmental destruction, while Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz’s 2012 composition “The Named Angels” integrates melodies from a variety of Middle Eastern religions. And Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Milagros” explores “landscapes, beliefs and traditions of Peru,” says ensemble violist Charlton Lee.

The Del Sol Quartet—from left, Benjamin Kreith, Charlton Lee, Kathryn Bates, Rick Shinozaki—performs works that address environmental concerns.

Del Sol (including cellist Kathryn Bates and violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki) has worked in the past with all three composers and always chooses music that the ensemble musicians react to strongly—“whether that is sadness, excitement, even discomfort.” Lee notes that each of these composers focuses on the interaction between different cultures and traditions, weaving compelling musical tales. Del Sol is known for exploring such music—“narratives and cultures from around the world”—and has twice won Chamber Music America/ASCAP Awards for adventurous programming. June 3, 9:30 pm, Gallery 308.

David Kleinberg’s solo show “Hey, Hey, LBJ!” joins the festival roster with a look at a political dilemma of an earlier era—but one that also speaks to today’s ongoing wars. The local comedian/performer (and former “San Francisco Chronicle” editor) has been touring it around since 2014 to great reviews.

Kleinberg, drafted in 1966, initially supported the Vietnam War. But, assigned to be a combat correspondent and armed with an M14, a still camera and an 8-mm Kodak movie camera, he soon began to see things differently. The play, directed by Mark Kenward and developed with solo-play guru David Ford, includes four video clips (one is Kleinberg’s own film of Americans destroying a Vietnamese village “for no particular reason”; in another, LBJ explains “why Vietnam”).

For Kleinberg, who says he cried often while writing the script, the play demonstrates “how war taints everything it touches.” As the pivotal point in the play, he recalls his own worst day: May 10, 1967. “I was in Bangkok on the R&R, and a rocket hit the bunker I would’ve been in, killing three of my buddies and wounding all six others in the bunker.” As for the subject: “I think it took me 50 years to be ready,” he says, “not so much to look at the material but to be ready as a writer and performer.” May 27-June 5, see website for schedule, Southside Theater.

”White Rabbit, Red Rabbit," a solo play by Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour, will be performed by several local authors.

When the festival first staged young Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s solo play “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,” in 2012, it was electrifying, so Wood added it to this year’s program as well; it runs throughout the festival. The play was created to be read from a script by a different local actor at every performance—one who has not seen the script previously. Among this year’s game but clueless performers are Ava Roy, Tony Kelly, Russell Blackwood, Rob Melrose and Eliana Lopez (whose own solo show, “What Is the Scandal?” is also on this year’s festival docket, May 29-June 5, see website for schedule, Chapel). They will be told only a few things in advance, including the requirement to impersonate an ostrich and how to pronounce the author’s name. Their only prop: a small vial filled with a white powder.

Soleimanpour wrote the monologue in 2010 but it had to be toured by others because he could not leave Iran (he’d refused to serve in the military). An allegory about five hungry rabbits in a cage,
and a carrot placed tantalizingly atop a ladder, forms the play’s core. Soleimanpour uses a variety of theatrical ploys to explore social issues and existential questions. Audience members should expect to feel implicated, or at least uneasy. Check website for schedule, Chapel.

Other noteworthy performances addressing social/political issues: storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki’s “Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend”—acted out with infinite grace and accompanied musically by composer Mark Izu—about her great-uncle’s marriage to a white woman in Seattle in 1909. (They’d traveled there from California, where Japanese/Caucasian marriages were illegal.) May 19 -22, see website for schedule, Southside Theater.

Also: British performer Jessica Thom’s “Backstage in Biscuit Land,” in which she uses a variety of performance disciplines, including comedy, puppetry and song, to share her own frequently misunderstood-by-society syndrome, Tourette’s. June 2 at 8:30, June 4 at 4 pm (prior to that performance, Thom is interviewed at 2 pm by Cultural Odyssey’s Rhodessa Jones), June 5 at 7 pm, Southside Theater.

And the “bi-racial choreographing duo” of Misato Inoue and Felix Dumeril, aka T42 Dance Projects of Switzerland, takes a comical approach to cultural stereotyping in “Another Chopsticks Story,” which humorously references “Madame Butterfly.” June 3-5, see website for schedule, Firehouse.

San Francisco
International Arts Festival

May 19 -- June 5

Fort Mason Center, San Francisco

(415) 345-7575/