It began with a hot cup of coffee.
On a warm night in August 1966, a group of transgender women were hanging out at the 101 Taylor St. location of Gene Compton’s Cafeteria. Staff called the cops. An officer moved to arrest one woman for the then-crime of cross-dressing. She threw coffee in his face. In the resulting commotion, the windows were smashed. Although the press didn’t cover it at the time, people made a similar show of force the next evening. Owing to organizing work by nearby Glide Memorial Church and the gay-youth organization Vanguard, what might have been yet another desultory, late-night raid against trans people in the Tenderloin became a focal point of resistance against state violence.
The exact date of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot is not known; what is now understood to be the first LGBT uprising in U.S. history could very well have been the same night that the Beatles were playing their final live tour date, at Candlestick Park. Renewed attention in recent years — from a plaque embedded in the sidewalk outside the address to Susan Stryker’s documentary Screaming Queens — has begun to dislodge New York’s Stonewall Riots from their unearned place as the beginning of the LGBT rights movement. But many people still don’t know about Compton’s.
So the Tenderloin Museum wants to re-create that summer night, almost 52 years ago. Written by Collette LeGrande, Mark Nassar, and Donna Personna, and directed by AeJay Mitchell, The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot is an interactive theater piece in which audience members sit at a reconstructed version of the diner, order a late-night breakfast, and watch history unfold.
“The actors will interact with them as if they’re patrons of the cafe,” says Katie Conry, executive director of the Tenderloin Museum, who helped conceive of the idea.
“It’s really one night in the Compton’s Cafeteria,” she adds. “The events leading up to the riot, and then the riot is the climax of the play. It’s told from the point of view of a character named Vicki who’s inspired by [transgender drag performer] Vicki Marlane — not that she was there that night. A young Vicki is one of the lead characters and an older Vicki is a narrator.”
An ensemble production that also includes Clair Farley, who’s an adviser to the mayor of transgender issues, Compton’s went through extensive revisions based on readings and workshops, plus feedback from the Tenderloin’s trans community, including the perspectives of women who lived there during that era. The show debuts on Thursday, Feb. 22, at New Village Cafe, after a long gestation period.
“Marc took every single note that he he got, including some people who felt the play needed some sort of trigger warning because it details a time that was extremely homophobic,” Conry says.
But while the harsh physical and verbal treatment of a marginalized community might cause some people to wince, others said historical accuracy could be grounds for an even more unflinching portrayal.
“Another drag queen who’s a friend of Donna [Personna]’s came to one of the readings and said, ‘What you’re describing, it was actually worse than that,’ ” Conry says.
Director Mitchell got involved through serendipity, he says. Through a mutual friend, performer Rotimi Agbabiaka, he was introduced to Personna, and got on board as an actor cast in the role of Adrian.
“I came in, and I was reading the play and began to ask a lot of questions of Mark and Colette and Donna,” he says. “Through that question-asking, Mark began to call me me more often: ‘What do you think about this?’ I became another eye for the theatricality of the show, making sure it was truthful. I’m an annoying question-asker.”
His additional work with the Bay Area’s trans and queer POC communities through Theater Rhinoceros made the principals realize over time that Mitchell was well-suited to lead this production.
“So they asked me to come aboard as director about a month-and-a-half ago,” Mitchell says. “I said yes. My goal is to cultivate these stories, but with that came the difficulty of casting the show — and I’m sure the producers will say I was very annoying to work with, only because I demanded that we did not cast the show until we had a trans woman in the role who needed to be in the role, and people of color in the roles who needed to be in the roles.”
“That’s always a difficulty of a work like this,” he adds. “You want to be true to the ’60s, but you want to make sure the current zeitgeist is respected in the work.”
The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, Thursdays-Saturdays, Feb. 22-March 17, 8 p.m., at New Village Cafe, 1426 Polk St., $60; tenderloinmuseum.org
For more Tenderloin coverage check out these stories:
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A Tale of Two Tenderloin Businesses
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Who Lives in the Tenderloin?
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