Volume 48 Number 37

Fogged in

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THE WEEKNIGHTER Weekends are for amateurs. Weeknights are for pros. That’s why each week Broke-Ass Stuart (www.brokeassstuart.com) will be exploring a different San Francisco bar, bringing you stories about the places and people who make San Francisco one of the most phenomenal cities in the world. Who wants a drink?

We decided to walk around the Tenderloin. I had my computer, Gene had his bike, and Sabrina had a bag of things I’m sure she didn’t want taken from her as well. We were coming from my weekly Wednesday gig at Monarch where I do a coloring book happy hour.

“It’s very San Francisco out,” I said as we came up Taylor and saw the fog sliding its fingers down the sides of Nob Hill’s buildings. “I love summer in San Francisco,” I mused. “Me too,” Sabrina said, “I hate when people bitch about it. It’s part of San Francisco and loving it is part of being a San Franciscan.”

As we got to the entrance of Jones (620 Jones, SF. www.620-jones.com), the three of us landed on something we felt was important at the moment, that before this current gold rush, it was San Francisco’s summers that weeded out who would stay and who would go. You couldn’t take the mist and the fog? Then you got the fuck out of town. That fog is our inheritance and our merit badge and such a part of The City that you have to love it to live here.

Walking out onto the patio at Jones we were surprised there were no heat lamps. The entirely of the joint’s drinkers were crammed into the little sidebar adjacent to the patio, and as we sat down at the short end of the bar, the three of us gave each other a knowing glance. It said: How many of these people are experiencing their first San Francisco summer? How many would be considering packing up and heading back to wherever they’re from if they weren’t here for the gold rush? How many are living in apartments recently vacated by people whose love for the fog, and all it represents, just wasn’t enough to be able to keep them here?

Gene tipped the barman with a two-dollar bill. “Oh wow,” the bartender said, “you’re still doing that after all this time?” Gene told us he’d met him years before, during the first dot com boom, when the guy tended bar at 111 Minna. “Back then Minna was just a small one room space, not like it is now, Gene explained. “And I remember being there and learning for the first time how badly cocaine got on top of some people when these two girls, up from LA, were offering to blow people for blow.” As I looked around the room at all the pretty and well-dressed people, I wondered what they’d all be willing to do to get something they really wanted. I wondered the same thing about myself. What was I willing to do to stay in San Francisco if push came to shove and shove came to eviction.

Across the bar I noticed a friend who was obviously on a date and even more obviously drunk. “Hey look who it is,” I said to Sabrina who was also friends with the girl, and our conversation changed to the fact that, another integral part of living here is being ok with your past. “You can’t burn bridges,” Gene said, “since you’re bound to run into that person on a barstool sometime soon.” To which I replied, “If you burnt San Francisco’s bridges, all we’d be left with was the Peninsula…” The joke hit all three of us harder than expected. We looked around, looked at each other, and then left the bar. We felt more at home amid the fog anyways. 

Stuart Schuffman aka Broke-Ass Stuart is a travel writer, poet, and TV host. You can find his online shenanigans at www.brokeassstuart.com  

Volume 48 Number 37 Flip-through Edition

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Housing crisis requires creative thinking

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EDITORIAL Does the construction of brand new high-end towers represent the only possible opportunity for new affordable housing in San Francisco? To hear the arguments of those bemoaning the passage of Proposition B, the ballot measure overwhelmingly approved June 3 requiring voter approval for increased building heights along the waterfront, one would think so.

Shortly after Prop. B had been decided, the Washington Post ran a headline proclaiming: “Voters in one of America’s most expensive cities just came up with another way to block new housing.” The idea seems to be that by making it harder for developers to build waterfront towers incorporating a small percentage of affordable units, San Francisco has sealed itself off from any new affordable housing, forever.

To buy this argument, you must resign yourself to a world where the only conceivable pathway for housing average-income people is to hope high-end developers decide to incorporate them into massive complexes for the wealthy on a narrow strip of waterfront property. Which just isn’t a terribly creative solution.

Surely, alternatives exist. The city is brimming with clever people who are skilled at creative thinking and aren’t afraid to dream big. Why not apply some brainpower to the housing crisis? Here are a few ideas.

• Change city law to allow people to build their own backyard cottages to rent out at affordable prices. Here we must holler at the Public Press, which is hosting a conference Fri/13 called “Hack the Housing Crisis,” and recently calculated that San Francisco could theoretically add another residence to each of its 124,000 single-family lots if the city were to legalize backyard cottages. That would increase the total number of households by 33 percent; no luxury towers required.

• Make the most of public land holdings. A Budget and Legislative Analyst’s report dating back to March of 2012 determined that city agencies have in their possession at least 27 underutilized “surplus” properties. Under the Administrative Code, the top priority for such lands is affordable housing, yet they go unused. Why not prioritize the transfer of these parcels for 100 percent affordable projects?

• Figure out some alternative financing schemes. Recent changes to federal law sanction crowdfunding for real-estate projects, an option that didn’t previously exist. Say some affordable housing people got together, started an online fundraising campaign, bought vacant properties for conversion into affordable units, and secured public funding to make the whole thing pencil out. Real estate investors won’t give a project a green light unless they’re guaranteed a stupidly high return; maybe under this scenario, thousands of nontraditional investors who care about the city they live in could reap small bonuses for pitching in.

And by the way, developers are still free to propose highly affordable projects under Prop B. In fact, voters might be much happier to sign off on that idea than high-end luxury condo towers.

 

Puff piece

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Sometimes a movie can only be called a gift — a gift intended for somebody other than the viewer. Clearly a film is a vanity project if its primary intent seems to flatter its maker. But what about when it’s a love letter from one rich, entitled celebrity to another? Then the vanity grows complicated, not least by the fact that we’re expected to pay for the privilege of watching one ass kiss another.

Anyone who blinked probably missed Super Duper Alice Cooper, which mostly did just one-night showings across the nation in April. That rockumentary was duly “authorized” but awfully entertaining, with the wit to tell its original shock-rocker’s tale entirely through archival footage plus a running oral history of latter-day interviews. Mike Myers’ directorial bow Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon tells the same story for its first half hour — Gordon being the “Jewish kid from Long Island” who stumbled into being Cooper’s manager, shepherding (har) him to fame with an uncanny knack for promotional stunts and image-shaping.

He eventually provided those services and more to a highly eccentric roster of talents including Wonder Bread pop thrush Anne Murray, R&B vibrator Teddy Pendergrass, and (an end-scroll informs) King Sunny Ade, Ben Vereen, Raquel Welch, Michelle Shocked, Rick James, and Frankie Valli. He co-founded Alive Films, which produced and distributed an innovative slate of indie and foreign features. Discovering that the world’s greatest chefs were “treated like shit” (?!), he had the foresight to create the whole “celebrity chef racket” in which they have reality TV shows and hawk their own supermarket products, for which we presumably must be grateful.

In a respite from bedding and occasionally marrying other “tens,” he kept Sharon Stone off the dating market for two years, for which we should probably also be grateful. She introduced him to the Dalai Lama, of whom he says, “Every time His Holiness walks into a room I feel like I’ve taken the greatest shower of my life.” (Apparently, he feels spiritually cleansed.) Dropping more names than a telephone book in a shredder, Gordon shares amusing anecdotes about Cary Grant and Steve Jobs alike. He is a wellspring of generosity who supported an ex-girlfriend’s orphaned grandchildren and secured financial stability for an elderly Groucho Marx. Meeting Myers via Cooper on the set of 1992’s Wayne’s World, he subsequently housed the famously difficult comedian turned (here) documentarian for two months at his Maui compound when the erstwhile Austin Powers was going through a rough stretch.

“He’s the nicest man I’ve ever met, hands down,” Myers gushes onscreen, while some other famous person (Michael Douglas? I forget) calls Gordon “the nexus for everybody who means anything in the entire world.”

Supermensch is a professional funny guy’s documentary, which means it can’t help manipulating things (wacky klezmer soundtrack; campy re-enactments; celebrity testimonials from Tom Arnold, Sammy Hagar, and Sylvester Stallone) in ways that beg for approval. Gordon is no doubt a great host, a good cook, a consummate cocksman, and a social and business genius. But watching this movie is like paying to see a $5,000-per-plate benefit dinner via closed circuit TV — as if it were a humbling honor to witness famous people pat each other on the back.

It’s a given here that the tragedy of Gordon’s life is his not being able to foster a biological family of his own — no matter that he’d out-bachelored many a former lover who might have realized it. “I felt really lonely for him,” says one loyal personal assistant re: the moment he woke up from near fatal surgery (cue Radiohead track “Everything In Its Right Place”) and was disappointed her less-than-gorgeous self was at his bedside. The by-association narcissism Supermensch exudes is exceeded only by the depressingly low self-esteem of she who pities a man who hasn’t yet found his impossible feminine ideal. *

 

SUPERMENSCH: THE LEGEND OF SHEP GORDON opens Fri/13 in San Francisco.

Anxious art

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Poland had not been a major hub of film production in the early decades of the medium, and its industry stabilized without getting very interesting in the years after World War II, when a Soviet-backed Stalinist regime founded state-controlled Film Polski. This shotgun wedding of art and bureaucracy wasn’t ideally conducive to creative expression, however. By the mid-1950s younger filmmakers, many graduates from the recently founded National Film School in Lodz, agitated for more independence — which, surprisingly, they won.

The resulting United Groups of Film Production almost immediately began producing work that won international attention and came to be known as the “Polish Film School” of cinema. Then in the 1970s a second wave of distinctive talents arrived, their troubled and ambivalent movies coming to be known as the Cinema of Moral Anxiety movement. Presented by Martin Scorsese, the touring “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema” retrospective playing Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive offers 13 features spanning three decades.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-CQj8n3Rek&feature=kp

The series kicks off this weekend with perhaps the most famous films by two polar (ahem) opposites of the school’s first wave: fantasist Wojciech Has and sober, socially conscious realist Andrzej Wajda. The latter sounded a new Polish cinema’s opening salvo with 1955’s A Generation, and is still at it 60 years later. Last year he continued his never-ending project of dramatizing 20th century Polish history with the biographical Walesa: Man of Hope (as yet unreleased in the US), and might yet be active when he hits 90 in 2016.

An honorary Oscar winner, Wajda has been the most imposing presence in Polish cinema for nearly his entire career, even if he’s not the nation’s most fabled cinematic son — that would be Roman Polanski, a sensibility as slippery as Wajda is solid (and sometimes stolid), as well as a director who fled to the West at his first opportunity. (Polanski made a rare return after the fall of Communism, acting the lead in Wajda’s atypical period comedy Zemsta in 2002.) The four features representing Wajda in the PFA series see his development from an edgy young voice to the master artisan of large-canvas, often polemical works on subjects of official import.

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) introduced the striking screen presence of Zbigniew Cybulski — one consciously modeled on the magnetic malcontents of James Dean, and Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One — as one of two resistance fighters tasked with assassinating a Communist official just days after the end of World War II. While his partner copes with this now-pointless mission by going on an epic drunk, Cybulski’s Maciek expresses his ambivalence in distracted pursuit of a barmaid (Ewa Krzyzewska). His iconic death scene would influence many others, notably those in Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (both 1960). The actor coped with his subsequent international stardom by doing everything to excess; there was grief but not much surprise among those who knew him when he died in a drunken fall at a train station in 1967, not yet 40 but looking much older.

He also has supporting roles in Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1959 slice-of-life demi-thriller Night Train, and in Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers from the next year — both long journeys toward dawn, the second set in a jazz-soaked, raffishly disillusioned Warsaw where it’s “harder to catch a taxi than a girl.” The two other Wajda titles here are later epics: 1975’s The Promised Land, a long, lavish and shrill indictment of worker-exploitative Industrial Revolution capitalism; and 1981’s Man of Iron, dramatizing the rise of the Solidarity movement. Man won the Golden Palm at Cannes, but also angered Polish officials sufficiently to drive its director abroad for some years, making films in Germany and France.

By contrast, political — or any — reality is infrequently found in the works of the late Has, whose best films are hothouse phantasmagorias rich in surreal imagery and dreamlike illogic. The PFA series kicks off with his 1964 The Saragossa Manuscript, perhaps that decade’s first “head” film, and duly named by Jerry Garcia as his favorite film. (The musician was involved in the PFA acquiring a print before his death.) Its picaresque maze of tall stories, with beautiful available women ornamenting most of them, remains a stoner’s delight. In a similar vein, Has’ The Hour-Glass Sanatorium a decade later is a triumph of Gothic jumble-sale production design, its own hapless hero pulled down a richly colored rabbit’s hole of dress-up role playing and various perversities at the titular institution.

A much more straightforward costume extravaganza is 1960’s Black Cross, aka Knights of the Teutonic Order, about the 15th century struggle between Poles and Christian invaders that led to the Battle of Grunwald. Its director Aleksander Ford was a major figure in establishing the post-war state film industry, yet not long after this expensive epic he was purged in a late-decade anti-Semitic campaign, and his unsuccessful attempts at a career overseas ended with suicide in 1980 Florida. A very different historical piece is Kawalerowicz’s 1961 Mother Joan of the Angels, a treatment of the same 17th century alleged convent demon infestation that inspired Ken Russell’s 1971 The Devils, and one that’s as quiet and stark as the latter film is hysterical.

The leading lights of the later Cinema of Moral Anxiety movement—which mostly eschewed such grand gestures and bizarre subjects for small, disquieting modern narratives — are represented in three films toward the series’ end. Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1976 Camouflage and 1980 The Constant Factor are terse, bitter portraits of institutional corruption. The late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s pre-Three Colors series breakout A Short Film About Killing (1987) is, if anything, bleaker: Drawn together by chance and then by tragedy, its protagonists live in a Warsaw where injustice is practically in the air — thanks to the oppressively tinted cinematography — and the climactic events of a murder and an execution have their existential pointlessness underlined by each being excruciatingly prolonged. *

MARTIN SCORSESE PRESENTS MASTERPIECES OF POLISH CINEMA

June 14-Aug 21, $5.50-$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk

www.bampfa.berkeley.edu

Tropical impressions

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM We’re neck-deep in local film festival season right now — which, yeah, is kind of 12 months out of the year around here, but the SF Silent Film and Green Film festivals just ended, DocFest is underway, and Frameline starts June 19 — but there are plenty of reasons to carve out time for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ outstanding New Filipino Cinema mini-fest this weekend.

A big one is opening-night selection How to Disappear Completely; director Raya Martin, a bright light in the Philippines’ burgeoning indie film scene, will appear in person at the screening. This is a good thing, since Disappear is a bit of a head-scratcher, but in a commendable way — part coming-of-age drama, part dreamy puzzle, part old-school exploitation flick (I can’t be the only viewer who sees Martin’s shot of someone pawing through a pot full of intestines and immediately thinks of Herschell Gordon Lewis). Martin told the Philippine Star that Disappear was partially inspired by 1980s American horror filmmakers like Wes Craven, and there are fragments of 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street lurking in this tale of a troubled tomboy (Ness Roque) whose vibrations of high-tension fear conjure a sinister spirit only she can see. This, on top of threats both natural — her island home is dark and lush, with nature’s stormy menace permeating every frame — and domestic: “You think the road home is safe? No one will hear you when you scream,” snarls her mother, who has a bit of Carrie White’s Bible-thumping mama in her.

Mom’s not even the biggest issue, though — that’d be the girl’s drunk, leering father (Noni Buencamino, one of the country’s most acclaimed actors — along with his wife, Shamaine Buencamino, who plays his wife in Disappear), who lurches around with a loaded shotgun and spends all his money betting on cockfights. Aside from its more experimental sequences, which are set to a buzzing electronic soundtrack (and thankfully, no Radiohead), Disappear‘s deliberately loose narrative pivots around strained dinner-table conversations among this dangerously dysfunctional family. Most of the longer passages of dialogue take the form of recitations: Bible stories (Lot and his daughters get a thematically appropriate shout out); folklore (a surprisingly funny tale involving a royal chicken); and a school recital on Filipino history, in which the young heroine plays a gun and her classmates, portraying vengeful villagers, warn the parent-filled audience: “We are going to hunt you down!”

Disappear‘s title card appears a full hour in, or nearly at the end of this 79-minute tale; it’s a blazing beacon in a film otherwise dominated by water imagery. Things only get bleaker, more surreal, and more shockingly violent from there. “If you’re wondering why we’re making such a fuss about new Filipino cinema, this is a great place to start,” explain series co-programmers Joel Shepard and Philbert Ortiz Dy in their program notes.

A far sunnier view of youth in the Philippines emerges in Sigrid Andrea P. Bernardo’s Anita’s Last Cha-Cha, also about a tomboy, whose coming-of-age through first love begs the question why this film isn’t called Anita’s First Cha-Cha instead. Anita is 12 and not ready to embrace puberty, despite her widowed mother’s best efforts to dress her up like a princess for the community’s annual fertility festival. This all changes when she catches sight of long-limbed lovely Pilar, the former town beauty who’s returned after a stint studying physical therapy abroad. As Pilar sets up a massage practice in her house (not surprisingly, the local men line up for appointments), Anita begins spending all of her time daydreaming about the older woman.

Of course, her fantasy girlfriend — who has a tortured romantic past with Anita’s age-appropriate male cousin — is just that, and the two become allies as the story takes a melodramatic turn. Writer-director Bernardo will attend the screening in person to discuss her feature debut.

Probably the most high-profile entry in the YBCA series is Sean Ellis’ urban thriller Metro Manila, which won an Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, as well as the top prize at that year’s British Independent Film Awards. Ellis is a Brit, but Metro Manila is acted (splendidly) by an all-Filipino cast. After a meager harvest, naïve farmer Oscar (Jake Macapagal) convinces his wife, Mai (Althea Vega), to move with their small children to the big city in search of work. But the grimy metropolis proves a dangerous place, and what’s essentially a predictable tale of country-bumpkin-learns-a-hard-lesson-on-the-mean-streets is elevated by a ruthlessly desperate tone and a killer performance by John Arcilla (as Oscar’s shifty new co-worker). Even better: a couple of clever last-act twists that shake up the story’s seemingly inevitable arc.

These three films are just a surface glimpse of what New Filipino Cinema has in store. Closing night’s screening of Brillante Mendoza’s Thy Womb, starring veteran superstar Nora Aunor, is already sold out, but fret not: The film, the much-praised latest from the director of 2009’s controversial Kinatay, returns to the YBCA for its own engagement June 26-29. Also screening post-fest is Lav Diaz’s acclaimed Norte, The End of History (June 19-20), a 250-minute epic inspired by Crime and Punishment. *

NEW FILIPINO CINEMA

Wed/11-Sun/15, $8-$10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

Dark/light

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marke@sfbg.com

SUPER EGO Vampires beware, or at least grab a pair of killer shades. A recent, very late walk of shame (both heels broken but my rep intact) revealed that afternoon outdoor parties are currently raging full-tilt. So invite me to your dang retro-fidget-yacht-goth-IDM BBQ already! I promise not to spill anything. Everybody looks great in hot sauce, anyway.

Soundtracks for this week: infamous local synth-dance act The Soft Pink Truth’s brain-melting return Why Do the Heathens Rage: Electronic Profanations of Black Metal Classics, Quivver’s groovy (and timely) extended rework of “Ain’t Nothin’ Going On But the Rent,” and DJ Greg Wilson’s psychedelic-funk mixtape Blind Arcade Meets Super Weird Substance In The Morphogenetic Field. OK, let’s go.

 

HI LIFE

Glorious global soul weekly Afrolicious may have moved on to conquer the world as a touring act, but don’t cry: In its place is this tropical beats and live funk jams showcase from key Afrolicious members. “Expect elevation,” say DJs Pleasuremaker and Izzy Wise.

Thursdays starting Thu/12, 9pm, $6. Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF. www.elbo.com

 

RANDOM RAB

Beautifully constructed, all-encompassing post-Orb grooves that hit a global ambient-funk sweetspot from this San Franciscan. Support from local bass-tech heroes Justin Martin and J. Phlip (and a dozen more), plus mindbending décor and organic treats from the Symbiosis crew.

Thu/12, 9pm-3am, $15–$20. 1015 Folsom, SF. www.1015.com

 

ADULT.

Live Detroit art-tech darlings were lumped in with electroclash back in the day, but they cut oh so much deeper. With brainy-cute goth-raver Pictureplane, ghostly White Ring, and evil siren/playmate Tamara Sky, this will certainly be an edgy night of stylish Friday 13 dread.

Fri/13, 9pm-late, $15–$20. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com

 

DANNY KRIVIT

Body and Soul legend (and my eternal DJ crush) brings his rare Latin house and gorgeously smooth mixing style to the Salted party, with Miguel Miggs, Julius Papp. and much-loved Naked Music vocalist Lisa Shaw.

Sat/14, 10pm-late, $10–$20. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com

 

JACQUES RENAULT

Beam me up! The DFA disco-funk addict possesses one of the sharpest sensibilities out there, sending dancers to truly cosmic places. Hosted by the fantastic, female-powered Isis party.

Sat/14, 9:30pm-3:30am, $10 advance. Public Works, 131 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com

 

SUNSET ISLAND

Our incomparable summer nightlife season continues, marked by the Sunset crew’s passing annual parties. Time for this “electronic music picnic” on Treasure Island, which — squee!!! — features Phuture, the dudes from Chicago who basically invented acid house. Also on hand: Detroit whiz kid Kyle Hall and Awesome Tapes From Africa, which is exactly what it sounds like. Acid sunshine, y’all.

Sat/14, noon-9pm, $10–$30. Great Lawn, Treasure Island. www.tinyurl.com/sunsetisland2014

 

DAYTIME REALNESS

I admit it, I had my doubts about this monthly afternoon party at first — everyone seemed to be smiling so hard in the pics, I thought they’d eat me. Especially towering drag hostess Heklina (who just bought the old club Oasis at 11th and Folsom, btw.) Then I went and got completely sucked in, in a non-oral way. Gorgeous mixed crowd, insanely good beats from DJs Stanley and Carnita — special guests this month Guy Ruben and beloved Trannyshack regular Pinky Ring — synchronized dance numbers, wild drag shenanigans, and Sneaky’s BBQ. Shit got real.

Sun/15, 2pm-8pm, $6 before 3pm, $8 after. El Rio, 3158 Mission, SF. www.elriosf.com

 

DISCO DADDY

Who knew a gay leather biker bar could get this steamy? If you’re looking for an authentic homosexual disco experience (who isn’t), DJ Bus Station John and his crate of vinyl 12-inches will put some soul in your gloryhole at this monthly get-down.

Sun/15, 7pm-2am, $5. SF Eagle 398 12th St, SF. www.sf-eagle.com

 

The dual

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Circus Automatic’s In the Tree of Smoke is a fun and greatly entertaining show that aims to place circus acts, traditionally viewed as club and variety show entertainments, into a more mainstream theatrical context. Tree‘s organizers could not have chosen a better place than Chinatown’s recently resurrected Great Star Theater, an old-time movie house that had fallen on hard times.

In the spirit of its venue, the show was interspersed with newsreel-like video collages that proposed a perspective of the world more inclusive than the one we tend to encounter. They included vast landscapes suggesting hunters and foragers, an homage to Blade Runner (1982), and depictions of catastrophes both natural and man-made. They created a dreamy, perhaps phantasmagoric environment — one in which a contortionist feels just at home as a would-be stripper wielding claws instead of fans, or a lusciously adorned queen dragging a bunch of black balloons behind her. On opening night the connection between the narrated video clips and the live show was not yet well enough established. Yet it is hoped that by the time this ambitious but low-budget performance closes June 27, the kinks will have been ironed out.

Circus artists face a conundrum. Because what they ask of their bodies is often so extreme, it is tempting to not look beyond their sheer physical accomplishments. But Tree‘s performers tried to go deeper, via technique, discipline, and the sheer bravado of it all. Jewel-encrusted contortionist Inka Siefker ritualistically rearranged her body parts until she finally shaped them into an eerily beautiful image involving two feet and a bow and arrow. When ballet dancer Micah Walters played with verticality and gravitational pull, he seemed to transcend and affirm his own humanity. You couldn’t miss the dance elements in Katie Scarlett’s dramatic give-and-take between her and her silk apparatus; at times the silk appeared to control her as much as she did it. When Chloe Axelrod, in white, brilliantly “danced” with, in, and around her hoop, she was highly controlled, yet ever so free. But freest of all was Fleeky Flanco, a superb apparatus juggler, varied contortionist, and clown — not to mention the brains and heart behind this brave and much-welcome artistic endeavor.

 

LAST WALTZ?

In its seventh incarnation, Nol Simonse and Todd Eckert’s “Shared Space” became a celebration of dance, dancers, and two fine choreographers. Eckert is heading for the Midwest, and the future of what has become a popular showcase may be in doubt. Both choreographers have long and distinguished performance careers, which may account for the superb dancers they have been able to enlist for a long time, but they were particularly fine in this program.

Simonse’s new trio Mistakes and Gifts is an intimate yet translucent meditation on what it means to live as a gay man, with James Graham swinging the proverbial about-to-drop other shoe like a Damocles sword, and Christy Funsch as a haunted, fearful, but ultimately embracing spirit.

Eckert’s problematic Previously Published Or I Could Never Make You Stay — Revisited is a synthesis of four earlier pieces. It traces the relationship between two couples, Crystaldawn Bell with Eckert and Norma Fong with Victor Talledos. The men find each other in glorious dancing by Talledos and Eckert; they leave the women contemplating their own futures as they are holding the T-shirts the men left behind. Previously looked like both a movie romance and a soap opera, though the quartet engaged in its tasks with such passion, competence, and individuality that I almost bought into the premise.

No such reservations came with Eckert’s mesmerizing Yaw, for which Bell, Fong, and Talledos returned in a work of pure dance that explored physical forces that affect an object in motion. Light on their feet, comfortable in the air, and close to the ground, they listened to their bodies, and then followed their impulses wherever they went.

Not every episode in Simonse’s infectiously exuberant yet thoughtful What’s Important is Not Always convinced equally. The high-intensity, unison trio (Dudley Flores, Juliann Witt, and Simonse) of money-chasing business types was brilliantly comedic and scary. However, the quartet of pole-dancing males (with one ending up as a carcass) needed more complexity. Simonse also engaged a white-clad Hannah Rose in a ghoulish courting duet. But then the pace picked up with Stella Adelman and Jerry Lin exploding into a Lindy Hop-inspired duet that segued into a large-scale beach party in which couples hooked up but just as quickly dissolved. What’s closed with a stunningly beautiful solo for 17-year-old Mia Chong that explored the dancer’s relationship not with others but with her own body, carefully, curiously, and completely. *

IN THE TREE OF SMOKE

Through June 28

Thu-Sat, 8pm, $25

Great Star Theater

636 Jackson, SF

www.circusautomatic.com

www.sharedspacesf.org

 

Drought legislation would undermine endangered species protection

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By Mike Lynes

OPINION California’s ongoing drought has brought hardship to nearly every corner of the state, but the Central Valley has been ground zero. Communities are struggling just to fill their taps, farmers are letting fields go unplanted, and dry conditions are decimating habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Clearly, our elected leaders need to pull together, put aside political agendas, and take steps to minimize harm from the drought by improving how we manage our water in California. Sadly, some have chosen to exploit the crisis for political points rather than find reasonable solutions.

As you read this, negotiations are just getting started between backers of drought relief bills from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. These will be difficult negotiations, as each piece of legislation contains an entirely different vision of a future California. We can only hope that common sense prevails.

Earlier this year, several members of the House of Representatives descended on the Central Valley for a series of press conferences at which they blamed the water shortages on environmental protections that placed fish before farmers and habitat before crops. They then returned to Washington and passed a drought relief bill, authored by Rep. David Valadao [R-CA21], which would override the Endangered Species Act, suspend the San Joaquin River Restoration efforts, and divert critically important water from the 19 Central Valley wildlife refuges.

Efforts like endangered species protection, water for the wildlife refuges, and the San Joaquin River Restoration settlement became necessary only after decades of habitat destruction due to water diversions that resulted in the loss of more than 90 percent of the Central Valley’s wetlands and riparian habitats. The changes in California’s water system to benefit cities and farms has resulted in population declines in more than 80 percent of California’s native fish species while migratory shorebirds and waterfowl populations have also endured significant declines.

Drought legislation should not make it even harder to hold on to our last remnants of habitat.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has proposed legislation for drought relief without gutting environmental protections. While the version of Feinstein’s bill that recently passed the Senate no longer has provisions to actively help birds and habitat that it initially had, it nonetheless preserves several essential environmental protections.

Some in the House are vowing to ensure that any drought legislation will include Valadao’s provisions to gut the Endangered Species Act and disregard management of wildlife and habitat. This effort is really just the same they have made for years under the guise of “drought relief.” It’s cynical opportunism to serve a particular special interest. If successful, this policy shift will have long-term negative impacts without providing any real relief to farmers.

We are already seeing the biological impacts of the drought. Just last week, a report from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife showed a 20 percent decline in the number of breeding mallards over last year. While the survey showed that the total number of breeding ducks was only slightly slower — 448,750, compared to 451,300 last year — this year’s number is nonetheless 23 percent below the long-term average. Department officials cited the degradation of Central Valley habitat due to the ongoing drought as the cause. We’ve seen similar declines in breeding efforts in other birds as well, including pelicans, hawks, and owls.

Hardship due to the drought hasn’t been caused by the Endangered Species Act or the small amounts of water that go to Central Valley wildlife refuges. It’s been caused by an inadequate water infrastructure, decades of poor management worsened by California’s byzantine water laws and policies, and, of course, Mother Nature herself.

The smarter way forward is for the House to adopt Feinstein’s bill without playing political games with the Endangered Species Act, Central Valley wildlife refuges, or the San Joaquin River restoration.

The House’s version of drought legislation will only divide the various interests in the Central Valley, pitting one beneficial use against another, at a time when we need unity and sound, sustainable policy.

We hope that Feinstein will hold firm against that House resolution’s supporters.

Mike Lynes is the Public Policy Director for Audubon California

 

Cristina Lopez, East Bay Recycler

3

“I first applied for a job at the Select agency in 2000. A lot of people had told me that this job was really bad. At first they put me on the cardboard line. That didn’t seem so bad because it’s not so dirty. It’s just that the cardboard stacks up so fast. But then they put me on the trash line, which was a lot dirtier. But the thing is, I needed the job. So I worked hard, and the years passed, and I was still there.

“The worst position — the one with the heaviest and dirtiest work — is the trash line. All the really terrible things are there. Things like dirty diapers. There are dangers too. Broken glass. Rusty iron.

“I got punctured twice by hypodermic needles, and they sent me to the hospital. I was really scared. You could get HIV. They kept checking my blood at a clinic in Castro Valley for eight months afterwards, for AIDS or hepatitis or other illnesses.

“Afterwards, the agency said the company had checked my papers and found out that they weren’t any good. I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I couldn’t give them new papers within a month. I told her I wanted to see this in writing, and I’d take it to a lawyer before I signed anything. I told her, ‘With the lousy wages you’re paying us, do you think you’re going to find people with good Social Security numbers?’

“After the month was up they didn’t say anything. I knew three people after that who were called into the office after they’d been punctured by a needle, and the company then checked their papers. But they lost their jobs, because they didn’t speak up the way I did.

“Once I was sorting on the line and a heavy piece of equipment fell on me. It really hurt me bad, but they didn’t pay me anything for that or send me to the doctor. Last November I slipped and fell while I was putting a cylinder on the forklift, and it hit me in the stomach. They didn’t do anything for me that time either.

“We don’t have any medical insurance. No vacations. Nothing. They call us temporary workers … but we’re not really temporary. Many of us have been working at ACI for many years.

“When I started at ACI they were paying me $8 an hour. They made us work 10 or 12 hours every day, standing in one place. If we got sick and asked for time off they’d deny it. Every Saturday was mandatory. If we went to the bathroom, they’d look at their watch to see how much time we were taking.

“Then in 2012 they started two shifts and raised the wages to $8.50 for nights and $8.30 for days. I don’t think that’s a fair wage. In one safety meeting I asked them to give us a raise. Then the manager yelled at me … Afterwards he told me I had to go apologize in the office.

“Once a woman said we’d go on strike and Brenda, the manager, said we’d all be fired if we did.

“Then they decided to motivate us by giving us clocks as presents, but they didn’t work. When I asked why they’d give us broken clocks the company was insulted, but I see better stuff in the trash.

“We never knew that San Leandro had a living wage law. We learned about it when we talked with the union organizer, Agustin. We decided to file a court case to force them to raise the wages.

“Then in February they began calling us in to say they’d started checking our papers. When I asked a manager why, she said it was partly because we’d sued the company and partly because the company had been audited by la migra [immigration authorities]. People have worked here for 14 or 15 years, and no one ever said anything to them before. Now that we filed the suit, we’re getting fired.

“Since I got fired, I’ve been very worried about my situation. I can’t get hired and my sons lost their jobs in Los Angeles and came up to live with me. My PG&E bill is very high, $258. The water bill came — $239. The rent is $1,250. We’re all living in one room and renting out the others just to be able to pay it.

“I’ve been here 14 years, and it’s impossible for me to go back to Apatzingan, in Michoacan, where I was born. I may not have a job right now, but I don’t regret anything. I’m going to struggle, and continue moving ahead.”

Editors’ note: Cristina Lopez’ name has been changed to protect her identity

 

Luis Valladares, East Bay recycler

0

“My father is a farmer in Chiapas, and grows corn, mangoes, and bananas. Our land wasn’t enough to support our family, though. The little we were able to grow was just to eat.

“When I was 16 I left home and school, and went to Mexico City. Parents never want their children to leave. But we … can’t stay. The majority of young people in my town have left, like me, looking for a way to help their families survive.

“In Mexico City I found work as a musician, because I play the marimba. Then I met my wife. I was the one who suggested to her that we come here. I came first and found a job with this same agency. After five months, I put together enough money to bring my wife.

“We had a daughter we had to leave behind. She was just 3 when we left, and she’s 16 years old now. This was very hard for us. We send money home for her, but she doesn’t want to come live here and leave her grandmother. We don’t want to force her. And now, of course, it’s much harder to come. It’s not just more expensive, but you’re risking your life.

“When we were thinking about coming here, my idea was that we’d stay here for two or three years, save up some money, and then go back and build a house. Now we’ve been here 14 years, and we can’t go back. My children belong here, and there are a lot of benefits for them here.

“I worked at ACI for 12 years. When I started I was a sorter on the line. Then they asked me if I wanted to operate machinery. I ran the packing machine. My job was to watch the line, and calculate the weight of the material going into the machine. If I let too much go in, the machine would seize up. It would be a big headache.

“No one is irreplaceable, but it takes anyone time to learn. You can’t go to sleep on this machine. If you fall in, you’ll wind up in pieces. This is a very dangerous place to work.

“At another company, a friend of my wife reached in to free a piece of metal that had jammed the machine. The machine grabbed his foot. He didn’t lose it, but he’s disabled now.

“When I started at ACI they paid me $6.75 an hour. I left in 2009 because they were only paying me $8.50. But the person they hired to replace me wasn’t very good at the job. After a year, the agency called me and I went back at $10 an hour.

“I didn’t know about the living wage, but some women at work talked with Agustin from the union and decided to file the suit. I never imagined they would fire us for this.

“I thought if we filed a suit, it might lead to having a union. Instead, [the agency managers] said, ‘We want you to re-verify your Social Security number, and bring us proof that you can continue to work here.’

“If we had good numbers we’d never have the kind of problems we have now. By 2001, when I came, you could not get a real Social Security number, although long ago you could.

“At first I was very angry. I felt helpless. And then quickly I began to worry. I have to pay the rent, the bills. The kids have to eat. When you’re working, you only make enough just to live.

“I haven’t been able to find another job. My wife is working, but only part time. Lately I’ve been going out to work with some friends. But it’s just two or three days a week. Every penny I make I’m putting away to pay the rent.

“I don’t believe that what happened to us at ACI is just. We’re looking for the welfare of our families, trying to get a fair wage so we can live better. People need to understand what happened to us — the abuse and low pay that immigrants have to live with.”

Editor’s note: Valladares’ name was changed to protect his identity.

 

Invisible no more

9

We all want to be responsible for our environment. We sort our trash. We put the right things into the right containers, and feel good when we see them at the curb on trash pickup day.

Then the trash disappears. End of story.

But really, it’s not the end. Not only does the trash go somewhere, but people still have to sort through what we’ve thrown away. In a society full of people doing work that’s unacknowledged, and often out of sight, those who deal with our recycled trash are some of the most invisible of all.

Sorting trash is dangerous and dirty work. In 2012 two East Bay workers were killed in recycling facilities. With some notable exceptions, putting your hands into fast moving conveyor belts filled with cardboard and cans does not pay well — much less, for instance, than the jobs of the drivers who pick up the containers at the curb. And the sorting is done almost entirely by women of color; in the Bay Area, they are mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, as well as some African Americans.

This spring, one group of recycling workers, probably those with the worst conditions of all, finally had enough. Their effort to attain higher wages, particularly after many were fired for their immigration status, began to pull back recycling’s cloak of invisibility. Not only did they become visible activists in a growing movement of East Bay recycling workers, but their protests galvanized public action to stop the firings of undocumented workers.

 

ILLEGAL WAGES FOR “TEMPORARY” WORKERS

Alameda County Industries occupies two big, nondescript buildings at the end of a cul-de-sac in a San Leandro industrial park. Garbage trucks with recycled trash pull in every minute, dumping their fragrant loads gathered on routes in Livermore, Alameda, and San Leandro. These cities contract with ACI to process the trash. In the Bay Area, only one city, Berkeley, picks up its own garbage. All the rest sign contracts with private companies. Even Berkeley contracts recycling to an independent sorter.

At ACI, the company contracts out its own sorting work. A temp agency, Select Staffing, hires and employs the workers on the lines. As at most temp agencies, this means sorters have no health insurance, no vacations, and no holidays. It also means wages are very low, even for recycling. After a small raise two years ago, sorters began earning $8.30 per hour during the day shift, and $8.50 at night.

Last winter, workers discovered this was an illegal wage.

Because ACI has a contract with the city of San Leandro to process its recycling, it is covered by the city’s Living Wage Ordinance, passed in 2007. Under that law, as of July 2013: “Covered businesses are required to pay no less than $14.17 per hour or $12.67 with health benefits valued at least $1.50 per hour, subject to annual CPI [consumer price index] adjustment.”

There is no union for recycling workers at ACI, but last fall some of the women on the lines got a leaflet advertising a health and safety training workshop for recycling workers, put on by Local 6 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. There, they met the union’s organizing director, Agustin Ramirez. “Sorting trash is not a clean or easy job anywhere,” he recalls, “but what they described was shocking. And when they told me what they were paid, I knew something was very wrong.”

Ramirez put them in touch with a lawyer. In January, the lawyer sent ACI and Select a letter stating workers’ intention to file suit to reclaim the unpaid wages. ACI has about 70 sorters. At 2,000 work hours per year each, and a potential discrepancy of almost $6 per hour, that adds up to a lot of money in back wages.

The response by ACI and Select was quick. In early February, 18 workers — including all but one who’d signed onto the initial suit — were called into the Select office. They were told the company had been audited by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security a year before, and that ICE had questioned their immigration status. Unless they could provide a good Social Security number and valid work authorization within a few days, they’d be terminated.

Instead of quietly disappearing, though, about half the sorters walked off the lines on Feb. 27, protesting the impending firings and asking for more time from the company and ICE. Faith leaders and members of Alameda County United for Immigrant Rights joined them in front of the ACI office. Workers came from other recycling facilities. Jack in the Box workers, some of whom were fired after last fall’s fast-food strikes, marched down the cul-de-sac carrying their banner of the East Bay Organizing Committee. Even San Leandro City Councilman Jim Prola showed up.

“The company told us they’d fire anyone who walked out,” said sorter Ignacia Garcia. But after a confrontation at the gate, with trucks full of recycled trash backed up for a block, Select and ACI managers agreed the strikers could return to work the following day. The next week, however, all 18 accused of being undocumented were fired. “Some of us have been there 14 years, so why now?” wondered Garcia.

In the weeks that followed, East Bay churches, which earlier called ICE to try to stop the firings, collected more than $6,500 to pay rent for nine families. According to Rev. Deborah Lee, director of the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, “after they had a chance to meet the fired workers and hear their stories, their hearts went out to these hardworking workers and parents, who had no warning, and no safety net.” Money is still coming in, she says.

 

ONE OF MANY BATTLES

Because cities give contracts for recycling services, they indirectly control how much money is available for workers’ wages. But a lot depends on the contractor. San Francisco workers have the gold standard. Recology, whose garbage contract is written into the city charter, has a labor contract with the Teamsters Union. Under it, workers on its recycle lines are guaranteed to earn $21 an hour.

Across the bay, wages are much lower.

ACI is one battle among many taking place among recycling workers concerning low wages. In 1998, Ramirez and the ILWU began organizing sorters. That year 70 workers struck California Waste Solutions, which received a contract for half of Oakland’s recycling in 1992. As at ACI, workers were motivated by a living wage ordinance. At the time, Oakland mandated $8 an hour plus $2.40 for health insurance. Workers were only paid $6, and the city had failed to monitor the company for seven years, until the strike.

Finally, the walkout was settled for increases that eventually brought CWS into compliance. During the conflict, however, it became public (through the Bay Guardian in particular) that Councilman Larry Reid had a financial interest in the business, and that CWS owner David Duong was contributing thousands of dollars in city election races.

Waste Management, Inc., holds the Oakland city garbage contract. While garbage haulers have been Teamster members for decades, when Waste Management took over Oakland’s recycling contract in 1991 it signed an agreement with ILWU Local 6. Here too workers faced immigration raids. In 1998, sorters at Waste Management’s San Leandro facility staged a wildcat work stoppage over safety issues, occupying the company’s lunchroom. Three weeks later immigration agents showed up, audited company records, and eventually deported eight of them. And last year another three workers were fired from Waste Management, accused of not having legal immigration status.

Today Waste Management sorters are paid $12.50 under the ILWU contract — more than ACI, but a long way from the hourly wage Recology pays in San Francisco. Furthermore, the union contracts with both CWS and Waste Management expired almost two years ago. The union hasn’t signed new ones, because workers are tired of the second-class wage standard.

To increase wages, union recycling workers in the East Bay organized a coalition to establish a new standard — not just for wages, but safety and working conditions — called the Campaign for Sustainable Recycling. Two dozen organizations belong to it in addition to the union, including the Sierra Club, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Movement Generation, the Justice and Ecology Project, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, and the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy.

ILWU researcher Amy Willis points out, “San Francisco, with a $21 wage, charges garbage rates to customers of $34 a month. East Bay recyclers pay half that wage, but East Bay ratepayers still pay $28-30 for garbage, recycling included. So where’s the money going? Not to the workers, clearly.”

Fremont became the test for the campaign’s strategy of forcing cities to mandate wage increases. Last December the Fremont City Council passed a 32-cent rate increase with the condition that its recycler, BLT, agree to provide raises. The union contract there now mandates $14.59 per hour for sorters in 2014, finally reaching $20.94 in 2019. Oakland has followed, requiring wage increases for sorters as part of the new recycling contract that’s currently up for bid.

Good news for those still working. But even for people currently on the job, and certainly for the 18 workers fired at ACI, raising wages only addresses part of the problem. Even more important is the ability to keep working and earn that paycheck.

 

CRIMINALIZING IMMIGRANT WORKERS

When ACI and Select told workers they’d be fired if they couldn’t produce good Social Security numbers and proof of legal immigration status, they were only “obeying the law.” Since 1986, U.S. immigration law has prohibited employers from hiring undocumented workers. Yet according to the Pew Hispanic Trust, 11-12 million people without papers live in the U.S. — and not only do the vast majority of them work, they have to work as a matter of survival. Without papers people can’t collect unemployment benefits, family assistance or almost any other public benefit.

To enforce the law, all job applicants must fill out an I-9 form, provide a Social Security number and show the employer two pieces of ID. Since 1986 immigration authorities have audited the I-9 forms in company personnel records to find workers with bad Social Security numbers or other ID problems. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) then sends the employer a letter, demanding that it fire those workers.

According to ICE, last year the agency audited over 2,000 employers, and similar numbers in previous years. One of the biggest mass firings took place in San Francisco in 2010, when 475 janitors cleaning office buildings for ABM Industries lost their jobs. Olga Miranda, president of Service Employees Local 87, the city’s janitors union, charges: “You cannot kill a family quicker than by taking away their right to find employment. The I-9 audits, the workplace raids, E-Verify, make workers fear to speak out against injustices, that because of their immigration status they have no standing in this country. They have criminalized immigrants. They have dehumanized them.”

One fired janitor, Teresa Mina, said at the time, “This law is very unjust. We’re doing jobs that are heavy and dirty, to help our children have a better life, or just to eat. Now my children won’t have what they need.”

Similar I-9 audits have taken place in the past two years at the Pacific Steel foundry in Berkeley, at Silicon Valley cafeterias run by Bon Appetit, at South Bay building contractor Albanese Construction, and at the Dobake bakery, where workers prepare food for many Bay Area schools. All are union employers.

Sometimes the audits take place where workers have no union, but are protesting wages and conditions. Like the ACI workers, in 2006 employees at the Woodfin Suites hotel in Emeryville asked their employer to raise their wages to comply with the city’s living wage ordinance. Twenty-one housekeepers were then fired for not having papers. Emeryville finally collected over $100,000 in back pay on their behalf, but the workers were never able to return to their jobs.

Last fall, as fast-food workers around the country were demanding $15 an hour, several were fired at an Oakland Jack in the Box for being undocumented. “They knew that when they hired us,” said Diana Rivera. “I don’t believe working is a crime. What we’re doing is something normal — we’re not hurting anyone.” The Mi Pueblo Mexican market chain also fired many workers in an immigration audit, during a union organizing drive.

Because the audits are not public, no exact total of the number of workers fired is available. ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice would not comment on the audit at ACI. In response to an information request, she stated: “To avoid negatively impacting the reputation of law-abiding businesses, we do not release information or confirm an audit unless the investigation results in a fine or the filing of criminal charges.” Neither ACI nor Select Staffing responded to requests for comment.

San Francisco became a leader in opposing the firings in January, when the Board of Supervisors passed unanimously a resolution calling on the Obama administration to implement a moratorium on the audits and on deportations. Other cities, like Los Angeles, have also opposed deportations, but San Francisco added: “End the firings of undocumented workers by ending the I-9 audits and the use of the E-Verify system.”

Gordon Mar, of Jobs with Justice, urged the board to act at a rally in front of City Hall. “When hundreds of workers are fired from their jobs,” he declared, “the damage is felt far beyond the workers themselves. Many communities have voiced their opposition to these ‘silent raids’ because they hurt everyone. Making it a crime to work drives people into poverty, and drives down workplace standards for all people.” Like many Bay Area progressive immigrant rights activists, Mar calls for repealing the section of immigration law that prohibits the undocumented from working.

The Board of Supervisors urged President Obama to change the way immigration law is enforced, in part because Congress has failed to pass immigration reform that would protect immigrants’ rights. The Senate did pass a bill a year ago, but although it might eventually bring legal status to some of the undocumented, other provisions would increase firings and deportations.

Like the Board of Supervisors, therefore, the California Legislature has also passed measures that took effect Jan. 1, to ameliorate the consequences of workplace immigration enforcement: AB 263, AB 524, and SB 666. Retaliation is now illegal against workers who complain they are owed unpaid wages, or who testify about an employer’s violation of a statute or regulation. Employers can have their business licenses suspended if they threaten to report the immigration status of workers who exercise their rights. Lawyers who do so can be disbarred. And threats to report immigration status can be considered extortion.

It’s too early to know how effective these new measures will be in protecting workers like the 18 who were fired at ACI. While a memorandum of understanding between ICE and the Department of Labor bars audits or other enforcement actions in retaliation for enforcing wage and hour laws, ICE routinely denies it engages in such retaliation.

Yet, as difficult as their situation is, the fired recyclers don’t seem to regret having filed the suit and standing up for their rights. Meanwhile, the actions by the cities of Oakland and Fremont hold out the promise of a better standard of living for those still laboring on the lines.

 

Still hungry

1

arts@sfbg.com

THEATER A figure wanders into the void — a pristine wooden stage, that is, pinpointed by four delicate weights hovering pendulum-like at the corners, alive to the slightest ripple of air. In the back, behind a scrim and awash in crepuscular light, a large and blooming tree floats exquisitely in space. For the wanderer, the time (if such a thing can be said to exist here) is ripe. “This must be bardo, then,” thinks the ghost. “I’m cool with that. I was beginning to think I’d live forever.”

The bardo, the in-between state between one life and another in the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation, affects different people in different ways — our wanderer is only one of 28 characters we come across — but throughout New York playwright Chiori Miyagawa’s witty, dreamy, and discerning Bay Area debut, the bardo becomes a supreme vantage on a reality burdened by desire and that transubstantial baggage known as karma.

Now enjoying a splendid world premiere (in a limited two-week run) as part of Theatre of Yugen’s 35th anniversary season, Miyagawa’s This Lingering Life freely adapts nine 14th-century Noh plays, infusing them with a decidedly present-day sensibility. Under artistic director Jubilith Moore’s expert touch, the production amounts to an exceptional blend of modern Western dramatic style and traditional Noh influences. And at its best, it strikes one as some of the more contemporary theater around.

Miyagawa’s astute grasp of the human comedy of living and dying does not always translate with equal force across the various plots — which include, for instance, a mad woman’s desperate search for her abducted son; a Romeo and Juliet–like tragedy involving two drowned lovers; the suicide of an old man who falls in love with a spoiled young princess; and the fallout between a rich father and his disinherited son, in which the impoverished younger man goes blind but ultimately grows wiser than his father. Nevertheless, the majority of the scenes (underscored by a transporting sound design from Michael Gardiner, sitting with laptop offstage right) are remarkably successful, and cumulatively powerful as characters rub shoulders in the afterlife.

Moreover, the nine-member ensemble (composed of Theatre of Yugen’s Moore, Sheila Berotti, Sheila Devitt, Alexander Lydon, Norman Munoz, and Lluis Valls; joined here by Nick Ishimaru, Hannah Lennett, and Ryan Marchand) does fine work running the gamut of earthbound emotions, from visceral anguish to driving lust and petty cruelty, while freely trading genders too in a hint of the promiscuous cycle of rebirth. Particularly fine comedic performances make the most of the playwright’s hilariously down-to-earth dialogue, while expert Noh-inflected vocal modulations and movement add a frisson to decisive moments.

San Francisco’s dedicated practitioners of classical Noh and Kyogen styles, Theatre of Yugen has long been adept at channeling Western stories in these ancient Japanese dramatic forms, setting them in a highly ritualized context that can set off their content with surprising intensity. In fact, Yugen (which takes its name from the Japanese word meaning “mysterious elegance”) led off its anniversary season last November with a Noh-inspired staging of an enduring American tragedy and Civil Rights Era–case: a beautifully composed, movingly effective meditation entitled Emmett Till, a river. The hour-long poetical-musical treatment by co-writer Judy Halebsky and lead writer and composer Kevin Simmonds not only explored the role of individual action, or inaction, in the perpetuation of systemic racism, but also opened up a space for reflection, communion, and an unsettled yet pointed act of reconciliation with the past.

This Lingering Life in a way takes the opposite tack, and thus is something of a departure for the company, since it mines the contemporary in a Westernized, interlocking set of ancient Japanese stories — supporting it all with a few choice elements of the Noh aesthetic. The hybrid creation, spread over 24 scenes, retains a Buddhist worldview, however, in which a person’s actions in one life determine the nature of the next. This lends a particular moral force to what we see, including an abiding sympathy with the dead that is both affecting and thought provoking. But, as the play suggests, karma is not always destiny. In the in-between space of the bardo, clarity and free will can penetrate the hazy sleepwalking of existence, and even fate can be renegotiated.

THIS LINGERING LIFE

Wed/11-Thu/12, 7pm; Fri/13-Sat/14, 8pm, $15-50

Z Space

450 Florida, SF

www.theatreofyugen.org