Navel-gazing gains novelty in Shotgun Players' Daylighting: The Berkeley Stories Project, a new play written by Dan Wolf and directed by Rebecca Novick.
Three years' worth of Berkeley stories — collected on city streets, in hills and parks, under bridges, and along fault lines and long-buried creeks — are combined in a "Berzerkely" bundle. Wolf, a recent "immigrant" from San Francisco, and Novick, also a Berkeley resident, use the true tales to lay the groundwork for the story of Bee, a high school graduate poised to enter the vast unknown of young adulthood. Daylighting is the third segment of Shotgun's Community Stories Project and taps Wolf's unusual suitcase of influences (hip-hop/Jewish culture/cross-genre theater), and Novick's expertise in directing theater that melds civic and creative themes into compelling collaborations.
Propelled by internal restlessness and anxiety about her future, Daylighting has young Bee cartwheeling through snarled family relationships and somersaulting backwards into the city's history. Following Strawberry Creek, she makes her way from a graduation party in the hills to her grandfather's home in the flats.
Water becomes a primary character Bee encounters throughout the play. Long buried, the city's waterways once provided sustenance (salmon for black bears) and separation (dividing lines between neighborhoods). Seen through the eyes of Bee (played with vigorous determination by Brit Frazier), and her grandfather, James (Donald Lacy, in a forceful portrayal), water becomes metaphoric: a place of respite and a soul's solace (Bee baptizes herself in an area creek, seeking to soothe her anxieties).
Blown like a leaf and carried by currents buried deep in her past, Bee has a climactic meeting with her mother, a drug-addicted figure who cheers her daughter's graduation from faraway hills. Their relationship is pierced with resentment and, like many themes introduced in Daylighting, left unresolved at the play's end. Loose threads are a contemporary theater construct: Wolf leaves a number of dangling sub-stories — and even Bee's primary decision about her future — up for interpretation.
Even so, there's clarity in razor-sharp performances by the cast, especially Juan Amador (charismatic and crisp in more than one role), Christina Chu (immensely believable as Tessa) and Mary Baird (adeptly capturing love's ambiguity as Suzy).
Michael Locher's slanting, platformed set design serves the small space well. The three-man band of musicians, encased in a center stage balcony, are terrific, if not used enough. Unsurprisingly, considering Wolf's background, some of the strongest writing comes in the hip-hop numbers. At those moments, Frazier's strength as a performer blazes and mostly outshines the rest of the cast.
If there's a lingering impression that the fictional Bee's story is more striking than Berkeley's rich history, it's partially because the city is in constant flux, like water. From Ohlone shell mounds turned by the Spanish into ranch land to the Free Speech Movement to restaurant rows and Berkeley Bowls, Berkeley is hard to pin down. But a young person's struggle to find his or her path is familiar and timeless, and so rings most loudly as the play's message.
In an extra note of interest, the production offers interactive opportunities for audiences: a Berkeley map, for "pinning" your location; a video booth, for recording your Berkeley story to upload to Shotgun's digital media library; and a portrait exhibition, with photos of real Berkeley navel-gazers and captions sharing their stories about the city they love.