Spring Festivals Feature Notable Work by Women

by Jean Schiffman

To see what women in the performing arts are exploring (which is everything from burlesque to the environment), consider these three spring festivals: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' "Transform," PlayGround Festival of New Works and the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Among each festival's eclectic lineup you'll find notable work by women, some of which is highlighted below.


The opener for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ second annual spring edition of “Transform,” curated by chief of program and pedagogy Marc Bamuthi Joseph, is the West Coast premiere of award-winning New York choreographer/writer/performer Okwui Okpokwasili’s “Poor People’s TV Room” (May 9 and 10). It premiered in November of 2016 and is touring the country.

The movement-based piece for four women was created in collaboration with Peter Born and incorporates song, video and text. Okpokwasili, of Nigerian descent, was initially inspired by two events: the Nigerian Women’s War of 1929 and the more recent Boko Haram kidnappings that led to the Bring Back Our Girls campaign.

On the phone from Houston, where she is developing a new project, Okpokwasili says, “My interest started with thinking about self-advocacy among African women—what are those traditions?… I was interested in how African women have a face in the larger Western imagination that reduces them to victims. Whereas there’s a long legacy in Nigeria of self-advocacy.” She researched the 1929 war, in which women from six different ethnic groups, each with its own indigenous language, banded together in an anti-colonial revolt. “How do I access that [ancestral] memory?” she wondered. “Is there cellular memory? Do you access it through movement?”

Questions led to other stories.

In developing the piece with the other three performers, Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid and Nehemoyia Young, Okpokwasili experimented with how the dancers—”these four black women”—lead and balance one another, propel and attract one another, mark and imprint on one another.

The election of Trump, the Women’s March, “these deep diseases in the American social and economic project,” says Okpokwasili, brought the themes of “Poor People’s TV Room” into stark relief. “Women—where are we? What are we repeating? What are we newly making?” she asks rhetorically. “What are we suffering from?” Those questions, for her, form the heart of her concerns, guiding her creative process.

Also on the “Transform” lineup: Roger Guenveur Smith with theater company Campo Santo, Lars Jan, Mark de Cline-Lowe, Jodi Lomask’s Capacitor, DJ Spooky and Printz Dance.

May 9 → 20

Yerba Buena Center for the
Arts Forum and Theater

701 Mission St., San Francisco 978-2700

PlayGround Festival of New Works

As an organization devoted to developing and producing new plays, PlayGround, led by founder/artistic director Jim Kleinman, presents this annual festival that includes a fully produced showcase of the six best short plays from its past season, staged readings of four plays in development and full runs, in rep, of two commissioned world premieres: William Bivins’ “Scapegoat” (May 21-June 17) and Julianne Jagour’s “Bright Shining Sea” (May 14-June 16). Altogether the festival comprises more than 40 performances over six weeks.

“Bright Shining Sea,” coproduced with Planet Earth Arts and directed by Tracy Ward, began as part of PlayGround’s 10-minute play series with the assignment to tackle an environmental theme—specifically, water. For Jagour, who lives in Los Angeles, where the play is set, this was not an unfamiliar topic. Expanding the play to full length, she ultimately created three sets of characters, each character with a distinct relationship to water: Maya, grieving over a miscarriage, longs for the solace of the ocean; her relationship with Brian, who has a deathly fear of water, is crumbling. Maya’s sister, Eileen, is an oceanographer researching acidification who’s becoming worrisomely forgetful and says all she can think about is the plight of the threatened ocean; she lives with her teenage daughter, a champion swimmer. Brian’s psychotherapist, unhappy Wendy, lives with her son, a coastal fisherman who surfs. Amidst a devastating drought, their lives interconnect in unexpected ways.

“The ocean is so rich with metaphorical possibilities,” says Jagour in a phone chat. “It’s a model, or metaphor, for the human brain, what we know and don’t know, how it’s a mystery—that was really compelling to me. And it’s a metaphor for human consciousness, and I wanted to play with characters losing consciousness.” Maya drinks herself into a stupor; Wendy finds herself dozing at inappropriate times. “I was interested in exploring what happens to our sense of self, and our relationships, when we’re dealing with the unconscious,” she explains.

The play is divided into the four seasons, the weather getting warmer while the chance of rain continues to be zero percent. Climate change, environmental degradation, the way we interact on this fragile planet—all those things were on Jagour’s mind as she wrote “Bright Shining Sea.”

May 10 → June 17

Potrero Stage

1695 18th St., San Francisco 992-6677

San Francisco
International Arts Festival

Amidst the 40 different ensembles appearing on multiple stages for this annual festival, two circus troupes show what women circus performers can do in the air and on the ground—without men. (Susie Williams, managing director of Seattle’s Acrobatic Conundrum, noted on her company’s website that at a recent high-profile Montreal Complètement Cirque festival of performers from all over the world, only one ticketed event out of nine had more than one female performer in it. “Where are the women?” she wrote. “Why aren’t they on the big stages?”)

“Women play all roles of support that are traditionally given to a man,” says Cirque du Soleil alumna Aloysia Gavre, founding director (with her husband, Rex Camphuis) of L.A.’s Troupe Vertigo, in describing “Tableaux” (June 1-3 at the Cowell Theatre), a piece for five women; in it, the performers are trapped on an island of three black and white boxes, a metaphor for the ways in which women have historically been trapped by the conventions of society. Through contortion, dance, aerial acrobatics and comedy, they discover the ways in which they do, and don’t, fit into the whole.

The “Tableaux” performers come from Trinidad, Azerbaijan, Mongolia and Los Angeles; Gavre herself got her start with San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus. “We generally see men in the fierce and strong role, holding up beautiful women,” she continues. “Here . . . two or three or four might have to support one.” She adds, “It’s incredibly important to show that your gender doesn’t limit you.” She encourages the women in the cast to be vocal when they’re uncomfortable, something she says women don’t do often enough—they tend to go with the flow. “Harmony and love happens more in this project, and the ability to listen, and not talk over each other. I love men, their ferocity, what their bodies can do, but this process of working with women has been painless.”

In Montreal’s six-year-old, feminist-identified, seven-woman Coopérative Cirquantique, it sometimes takes several women to hold up one woman—a trio rather than a duo—which makes it interesting, according to founding member Mélodie Couture, whose specialty is hula hoops and trapeze. Five of the troupe’s members are performing in this U.S. premiere of “Bang! Bang!” (May 31-June 2 at Gallery 308), set in the “dark world of Prohibition-era Quebec,” in a bordello, where the girls are fighting against the (male) Mafia in order to manage their own business and their own bodies. Hula hoops, static and dance trapeze, contortion and more are involved.

“The energy, the way we work, is very different than men,” says Couture. “For sure we have less strength but more communication [skills] and we understand each other and have a synergy.”

Free panel discussion with Gavre and Circantique artistic director DaÏna Michaud, June 2, 2 pm, SF Library Bookstore, Building C. 

May 24 → June 3 Fort Mason Center
for Arts & Culture, San Francisco 399-9554