At the close of Chasing Mehserle, a new play by Chinaka Hodge at Intersection for the Arts, the all-black ensemble clusters and speaks in unison: "My name is Oscar Grant. Please don't shoot."
It could have been any of them, the line suggests: lying face down, unarmed, shot in the back, and killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale BART station on New Year's Day of 2009. Because of that, because horrors like these reduce us all to our skin color, to menace or be menaced, to approach the world as a black man is to entreat it to let you live one more day.
That's why Watts (Michael Wayne Turner III), the main character in Hodge's powerful play, doesn't approach the world at all. Since he saw the Rodney King riots on TV as a child, the West Oakland native has quarantined himself at home, leaving neither for school nor work even though he's "damn near 30." He's enabled by his mother, Willie (an excellent Halili Knox), who's part indulgent, part scarred by the loss of everyone else in their family, and part understanding of his rationale: "If that's what life is like, I'm never going out there again."
The day he finally steps outside is the morning after Oscar Grant was shot, but this doesn't feel like a coincidence so much as mythic destiny, thanks to poetic writing that paints a rich portrait of a city in crisis. Oakland, Watts says, "is lying about itself. It's going to eat itself."
Sean San Jose and Mark Bamuthi Joseph's fluid direction makes striking use of the five-person ensemble, which calls Watts on his bullshit and which creates the scenes on an almost-bare stage. When Watts "stands on the top step like it's the edge of a cliff," the ensemble, through breath-sucking and stiffening, makes that step a perilous drop.
Despite its urgent message and the talent delivering it, the play falters when Watts seizes his destiny: to find Mehserle and kill him. Scenes later, Watts's unshakable hanger-on Lyle (Dan Wolf) even tells him: "You're not really looking."
The search is less blood hunt than excuse to stay sequestered, collect maps, and make tangentially-related lists. Turner's performance, too, can be weirdly off-beat. He's like a crazy person without much charisma, so when other people listen to him, it's hard to understand why they waste their time.
A few blocks north, San Francisco Playhouse shows that comedy can be every bit as raw and probing as soulful dramas like Hodge's. New York-based playwright Theresa Rebeck has had plenty of work done in the Bay Area over the last five years, but Seminar, under the direction of Amy Glazer, is her funniest and most savage piece since Mauritius came to the Magic in 2009.
The play opens with four writing students (Lauren English, Natalie Mitchell, Patrick Russell, and James Wagner), all of whom have claims of various tenuousness on the professional world, a world the play cannily exposes as mere illusion and delusion for writers of every status. The quartet is awaiting the arrival of their professor on the first day of a writing seminar for which they've paid $5,000, and each copes with his or her soul-sucking desperation to get published in a different way: spouting polysyllabic bushwa like "interiority" in between each shamelessly dropped name, muttering snide remarks, primly reveling in good girl status, and swiftly bedding anything that moves. In walks Leonard (Charles Shaw Robinson, in a long-awaited return to Bay Area stages) a blitzed-out, superhumanly cavalier would-be man of the world who champions weird but expensive experiences as the only route to authenticity and good writing, even as he skewers his students for their own wealth.
Rebeck marks each scene with a student offering a writing sample to Leonard for comment as if he or she is slowly tearing out an organ for sacrifice. His remarks are delicious: "There is a level of competence here that's almost chilling;" "It'll be humiliating to be ignored to the degree you will be ignored."
If the plot's mechanics at times feel a little predictable — Why does the underdog outsider male have to be the best writer of all? Why can't one of the female characters have attributes other than ambition and nymphomania? — Rebeck also avoids some pitfalls like a trite love story that seems bound to happen. The uniformly superb ensemble milks the cascade of zingers for all they're worth; English, in particular, has a riotous bit in which she binge eats like "a feral cat."
These punch lines never get old because Rebeck expertly keeps the power balance shifting. The unlikely equilibrium the play reaches at the end is all the more satisfying because it feels destined to topple again with the next, unwritten one-liner.