Sean San Jose, one of the founders of theater ensemble Campo Santo, asked actor and writer Roger Guenveur Smith to collaborate with the company on a piece for the Transform Fest, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. All the work at this festival asks one pointed question, “Where is our public imagination?”
Smith, who lives in Los Angeles where he teaches Performance History at Cal Arts, says his work often deals with the ideas of transformation and the public imagination, so he was excited to take on the project. He has been in many of Spike Lee’s movies and had recurring roles in the TV shows Oz and A Different World. He’s also written and starred in the solo shows A Huey P. Newton Story (for which he won an Obie) and Rodney King and Frederick Douglass Now. To create the piece for YBCA, Casa de Spirits, he enjoyed working with the ensemble, which he describes as multitalented, singers and dancers, as well as actors. Smith says he didn’t know what the show would be about, and he and the members of the ensemble all came up with it together.
“We all sat at a table and talked about history and about where we were from and everyone brought ideas,” he said. “People were writing things and bringing them to the table and talking about it. Then I wrote a script, and we’ve been trying it on for size.”
Casa de Spirits, a performance with movement and music, is set in a post-apocalyptic Tenderloin, and all that’s left is a liquor store with a flashing light. Smith says the Tenderloin has a lot of features that made it interesting to write about: its architecture, its demographics, and its musical history.
“There was the Black Hawk nightclub at the corner of Turk and Hyde, where Miles Davis and Cal Tjader and Thelonius Monk recorded albums and Johnny Mathis was allegedly discovered,” he said. “Billie Holliday had her last West Coast engagement there. Now, it’s a parking lot.”
Some people don’t know that the neighborhood has lots of families and children, Smith says. There are other surprises as well.
“It had one of the first strikes for gay liberation at the Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966,” he said. “Of all San Francisco neighborhoods, it has unique architecture with single-room occupancy rather than single-family homes.”
Writing about a post-apocalyptic world seemed to fit in the Bay Area, Jones says.
“We’re at a moment where we’re facing the unexplained death of sea creatures washed up in the bay. There was a mountain lion in Bernal Heights,” he said. “There’s natural phenomena continuing to affect the area as potentially devastating as earthquakes.”
Along with those natural phenomena, the play looks at manmade changes in San Francisco and how they affect people.
“There’s this outrageously vulnerable position people find themselves in,” Smith said. “We have the richest corporations throwing shadows on some of most vulnerable.”
Smith also thinks the 1978 Jonestown massacre (referenced in Casa de Spirits), in which more than 900 members of the People’s Temple from San Francisco died after drinking poison in Guyana at the urging of their leader, Jim Jones, still resonates 40 years later.
“Many of those people were from The Bay Area. When we talk about apocalypse to a Bay Area audience, we’re not simply speaking imaginatively — it’s a continued devastating moment,” he said. “The children who died would only be in their 40s now.”
Casa de Spirits, May 16 and 17, 7:30 p.m., Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St. $15, 415-978-2700 or ybca.org