SF International Arts Fest Returns

Neither the immigration man nor COVID-19 can stop the weeklong SFIAF at Fort Mason.

“In the future we’ll all be caramel and queer.”

So goes the prophecy of Ilana from Comedy Central’s Broad City. Then again, “prophecy” may be too strong a word. The suggestion that white people will soon be in the minority leaves this reporter with pearls firmly unclutched.

It’s not even news. Black Flag’s “White Minority” predicted it back in ’81. Greg Ginn, who wrote that tune, points out that it was sung by the Puerto Rican Ron Reynes, and added “The idea behind it is to take [a white supremacist] and make them look as outrageously stupid as possible.”

In a statement, the nearly 20-year-old SF International Arts Festival asks a more interesting question about the new majority: Will they “inherit the same levels of lethargic entitlement and consumerism that characterizes many other Americans?”

If there’s any risk of that, the SFIAF aims to preemptively combat it; the festival is an indoor-outdoor, online-offline, multi-culti, and multimedia extravaganza slated for Oct. 20-24 at Fort Mason. Says Executive Director Andrew Wood: “It’s been the theme of the fest for the last few years, among the main topics — the idea that the U.S. will become white minority. What are the implications? It could be pivotal, could be the same old, same old. Are the new arrivals going to beat the drum and wave the flag, or use this moment to reflect on policy and what democracy means?” 

More than a century ago, floods of immigrants arrived on America’s shores; commentators and politicians considered each wave a foreign menace before the newcomers were absorbed into the mainstream. 

What’s different this time? “A lot of these countries mentioned were not the subject of American foreign policy, nor were they from places affected by it,” Wood said. At the peak of those early immigration years, the United States was not the world power it is today. 

Wood continues, “If you’re from Bangladesh, or other parts of the world that are sinking, you’re aware of the seas rising. How does the U.S. lead, in a better way than in the past, based on those experiences?”

As with last year’s SFIAF, this year’s festival features a lineup of outdoor performances — including a small musical stage. Naturally, the festival is still grappling with COVID-19 safety protocols.

“I think as we try to re-emerge, falteringly, as a society, we’ll get people comfortable about being around each other again, and reengage… at a respectable distance,” Wood says. “We’re doing our best to get audiences back in front of artists. They haven’t seen each other in a long time.” 

In addition to COVID concerns, visas have been an issue. Immigration problems forced the cancellation of a play from Mexico City’s Bon Tempos Theatre Co., Qaddafi’s Cook — a fictional story of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s personal chef. A tie-up with the visas of a Russian troupe means director Semion Aleksandrovskiy will be directing a performance over Zoom in his own St. Petersburg time zone, where it’s 10 hours ahead.  

One of the highlights of the festival is Aleksandrovskiy’s Y.Y.aD.F.H.R.M.C.M.A.al.oH (please forgive me if I dropped a consonant). This word salad is an acronym of a Leo Tolstoy poem, written in chalk on a card table for the love of his life, Sophia Bers. (This was long before things went sour between the seminal realist author and his future wife.) The title stands for the phrase, “your youth and the need for happiness remind me cruelly of my old age and the impossibility of happiness.” Tolstoy later used a variation of that thought in Anna Karenina

On the Great Meadow at Fort Mason, an audience of 40 will split into two sections to walk with actors Megan Trout and Caleb Cabrera of Shotgun Theatre as they perform the play in different corners of the meadow. “We don’t know how busy the Great Meadow is going to be that weekend,” Wood adds. “That’s part of the charm of it, dodging the part of the crowd that isn’t the audience, with your audience.

“It’s easy to do the actual rehearsals, since everyone is used to Zoom now.” Still, working with Russian theatrical directors is not for everyone. “The Russians are fanatical about theater, and theater directors are treated there as major sports figures are here,” Wood explains. ”We have to get people who can stand up to Russian directors! Our stage manager Phil Lowery is like a boxing referee. He’s very detail oriented and keeps a record of the directions in case there’s a dispute. But they’re all very professional people. Respect grows through the process, even though they’re remote.” 

ACT’s Mark Jackson helped with the casting of this piece; he’s performed in Russia, and Trout went to school in that country. Flash-mobbing and public performances are part of the contemporary Russian theater. Wood told of how one group was evicted from a theater because authorities mistakenly thought the players were referring to Putin as a cockroach. 

“So pop-up theater is a form of theater that goes without government subsidies, or, hopefully interest by the police, in site-specific spaces such as bars,” Wood notes. Passing the hat keeps some of these artists alive.“You can live off the earned income, just about. Thin margins, but it can be done.”

On the evening of Oct 23, at Fort Mason’s Parade Ground, SFIAF hosts Larry Reed’s ShadowLight Productions. It’s an hour-long show of ‘wayang’ — Balinese shadow puppetry with live gamelan ensemble. The percussive jangly/tinkly music of Indonesia is hammered out on brass instruments. A single lamp illuminates a 15- by 30-foot screen from behind as Reed wields his puppets and does the vocal acting in English, one of several languages he speaks.

Founded in San Francisco, ShadowLight is almost 50 years old. No one seems sure of how ancient wayang is, but this art of Balinese puppetry certainly goes back to 900 CE. Over the centuries, puppeteers performed tales from Hindu epics, in open air, midnight till dawn entertainments occasioned by everything from political to ritual events. Wayang is considered rich with sacred significance, suggestive as it is of the performances we all put on every day.

Among the 60-plus performances at SFIAF is everything from capoeira to body percussion. On hand are Jenay “ShinobiJaxx” Anolin and Samara Atkins’ all female hip-hop ensemble Mixd Ingrdnts, and Latin street musicians Los Nadies (“The Nobodies”). There’s a set of Brazilian-inspired music from Homenagem Brasileira, as well as a slate of online films curated by Nola Mariano, interspersed with poetry selected by Kimi Sugioka.

This year New Orleans-Oakland musician Michelle Jacques and her band Chelle! and Friends are previewing a work in progress. Jacques is working on an upcoming project titled “Daughters of the Delta.” It’s about forgotten blues and jazz women: Performers whose music accompanied the mass movement of Black people from the rural South to the cities of the North and West in the 1920s and beyond.

Among Jacques’ subjects is Louis Armstrong’s one time wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, a musician and band leader. This Memphis Music Hall of Famer died 50 years ago last August. She’d been working on a memoir, but it vanished after her death. Hardin Armstrong also composed her husband’s early hit, “Struttin’ to Some Barbecue.” 

“She helped create the image of Louis Armstrong… making this man who he was,” Wood says.

SFIAF is experienced with the problems and opportunities of live streaming. Last year, the SFIAF’s coverage was described by Wood as “a single camera held by a gentleman laying on the ground.” Still, 2,500 watched, somewhere out in cyberspace. “Doing this dimension, we can switch back from being online to live in the field.”

I wondered if SFIAF had anything in common with that nexus of performances, the nearly month-long Edinburgh International Festival, the world’s largest gathering for performance art, theater, and music. One difference: “Ours is a curated festival — it’s small and ragtag, which gives it the impression of being like Edinburgh,” said Wood. 

“The festival came about because the U.S. is something of an insular place,  even though every type of culture exists in it. The difficulty of my job is trying to bring a town that has so many artists in it things they haven’t seen before. I need to stay one step ahead of the audience,” he said. 

There is a tension between San Francisco’s vision of itself as a city of refuge that welcomes the world and the problem of its inward-looking qualities. On the one hand, it’s the best city in the country. On the other hand, it’s a place that tends to stare at itself in the mirror. “What’s true of the U.S. is true of S.F.: we’re insular sometimes,” Wood says. “But when something new and different is brought from outside, people welcome it.”  

And he’s proud of the festival as a weather-forecaster, so to speak; he mentions a two-man play from Syria by the Al Khareef Theatre Troupe in 2010, titled “The Solitary.” Wood notes this play anticipated the Arab Spring, the wave of rebellions against authoritarian regimes that broke out from Cairo to Damascus. 

For decades, Wood’s time in San Francisco has been all about activism and performance. He protested against the first U.S. war of choice in the Middle East in 1991, and was involved in the anti-Columbus Day rally in the Mission in 1992 titled “500 Years of Resistance.” In the ’90s, he worked at the Crystal Pistol at 842 Valencia, which had previously been a chic restaurant called the Fickle Fox, popular with the crowd of gay folk who just then were emerging from the shadows. (Today, it’s The Beehive.) 

The Crystal Pistol was one of the hosts of Klubstitute, a moveable feast of club nights. Wood also worked on Life on the Water theater in Fort Mason, where live shows ran Thursday-Sunday. On weeks when there was no tech rehearsal, he presented queer theatre on Monday and Tuesday nights.  From there, he worked with the Ethnic Dance Festival and ODC.

“That’s when I first started travelling to see other parts of the world and realized how few of the artists came here,” he says. “It’s a dirty secret, but international artists will come here for a fraction of their fee, just to come to San Francisco.”

A native of England, Wood says that his trips back home remind him of something quite special about San Francisco.

In London, “you’ve got the money, or you go,” he says. “But here in San Francisco, there is resistance because of rent control, and because we’ve fought for every single block. Nobody knows what the future is going to bring, but here there’s still a sense of activism and holding the torch. And there’s just an energy you get when we’re all in the same room together. We can do it here — we can inspire others.”

SF International Arts Festival
Oct. 20-24, $36+
Fort Mason, San Francisco


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