This month, the Tenderloin-based San Francisco Recovery Theater (SFRT) will stage portions of its original production, Night at the Blackhawk
, and excerpts of the classic musical Porgy
and Bess at SRO Hotels throughout the Tenderloin. SFRT founder and director Geoffrey Grier and Principle Actor and Executive Stage Manager Pam Coates sat down to talk about the company’s history and its mission to shake the NIMBY-ism out of San Francisco.
KD: How did SFRT come into being?
I was a consumer here in the Tenderloin and I used every social service available at the time. I worked with Glide Church when [Reverend] Cecil [Williams] discovered that most of his congregation was on crack or dope. My friend was a prolific writer connected to the black rights movement and he and I felt that we didn’t seem to fit in any orthodox recovery models like 12-step or other model like Walden House. I told him that if we ever got coherent enough to remember our own name, I’d love to put on a production. So, he penned a play, One Day in the Life. It opened in ’94 in Uhuru House in Oakland. It was a strong play and tales of recovery in the community, very point-blank, in your face. At first just a lot of women came—mothers daughters, sisters, wives. After a while they would drag the recalcitrant men who just got back from jail or just got let back in the house—it was like being dragged to your first 12-step meeting. But they liked it.
Then, one of Willie Brown’s minions came and asked us to come to San Francisco where we did a run in North Beach. In 2003, we became SF Recovery Theater and I got a 501(c)3 for it.
Realism theater is our main piece. It embodies the concept of reflecting reality back to those who don’t seem to have a clear picture of who they are, so that people have the opportunity to meet each other and themselves as they are. I cannot make a change unless I know it’s ok—I need for it to be ok for me to change. So what we do is bring that space, that opportunity to change. Along with physical hygiene you need an emotional, spiritual process. Theater is an event that allows you, gives permission for you to restart your life. If I’m on stage, I can pretend to be you and it’s an act but during my effort to be you, I take on the understanding of who you are and that gives me a dimension of compassion for you.
KD: The San Francisco Recovery Theatre has staged "Night at the Black Hawk" many times over the years. Tell me about this project and its current incarnation.
When I came across information about the Black Hawk Jazz Club I had an “I see the light!” moment. I started putting together a piece about the jazz club, did a fundraiser, and I integrated professionals and people from our club. From then on, I’ve just worked on that project. Eventually we’ll stage it as a full musical. On Friday, October 25th we will perform segments of it and have refreshments at the Jefferson Hotel (6-8 PM at 440 Eddy St.).
The Curry Senior Center has a plethora of people living there who either sang or went to the Black Hawk when it was open so we hope to have another performance there. It’s a true jazz musical.
KD: How do you see art interacting with reality?
Taking on the concept of Black art generally, it has a dualistic nature. It’s ornate but it’s also utilitarian. Drinking gourds can be gilded but they’re still for drinking. We’ve had some pretty successful stories [out of the SFRT]. We had a guy who said he couldn’t perform but he was a carpenter and so he’d build sets. He had a court date and he was going to be late so I gave him a check and wrote him a note. He told his judge that he was late because he was working and showed the judge the note. The judge issued a stay. Greater success stories have happened—Pam is without exception.
KD: Pam, how did you get involved with SFRT and how has it impacted your life?
I am a domestic violence survivor and [after becoming homeless], entered the Tenderloin Housing Clinic [which provides housing in Single Resident Occupancy hotels]. The Community Benefits District (CBD) is around the corner from the Boyd Hotel [where I live] and I saw a notice for interviews to be on their board. I thought it would be a good experience to occupy me because I had been with my ex-husband for several years and hanging out with unsavory characters.
At the time, the SFRT was rehearsing at the CBD’s offices. I just tried out. At my first show, I did Fever, very shakily, but I did it! I was going through my own recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and I got onto Social Security. I thought, “I’ve got the income, now I can go back to theater full time!” And so I started working and actively working on myself to be back where I was before my marriage sidelined me. I also took on being stage manager. I’m a Principle [Actor] and Executive Stage Manager. I’d always know I could sing but I didn’t know how much. I grew up in a household where mom was singing Ella Fitzgerald and the musicality was always there. I was never heavily into narcs or alcohol but what I’ve noticed is that people [in recovery] need things to take up the time. So that is what I did. If you allow it to, [performing] also lets you get in touch with different fears, the fear of falling on your face and the fear that the audience won’t like us—these fears that stifle us. What this group has done has allowed me to turn into a pretty strong professional singer and given me a new avenue. I was always one to really go for new avenues—and they used to get me in trouble! I have come back almost to where I was before [my marriage] but I have grown immensely.
When you’re locked in an abusive relationship you just expect crap to come your way. But now when criticism comes along I can evaluate it for what it is, not just get defensive. So what? You’ve got another chance to do it next week. Once you get used to doing that, you take it on board as a lifestyle.
KD: Geoffrey, what was your experience of this as a director?
from the perspective of director and friend, watching Pam go from where she came in to where she is now was really literally like watching a plant finally get some water, get that first leaf, second leaf and suddenly it takes off and the plant is going crazy. But you need to give it that space and opportunity to do that—and eventually Pam finds her own space and hones her own direction. As she became more confident. It was very cathartic for me and the others to witness because it was genuine. Even the falls—she can take them now.
We spend more time and energy recycling cans and cars than we do trying to re-inspire the human spirit. I’ve been told many times by my art friends that we’d get more money if we changed the name because people cringe when they hear recovery. Recovery is nothing more than discovery.
A lot of people, they’ve been told, “You need to get in recovery, you need to get in a program.” And it has a negative connotation. It takes a while for people to understand that it really is about them.
KD: Pam, you used to work for the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. How does the Recovery Theater compare to other professional acting companies you’ve worked with?
Performers are a law unto themselves and tend to have a lot of emotional issues. (“Oh my God, was I good enough, darling?”) [At the same time,] performers have an understanding of people’s foibles because you put yourself in their shoes and if you aren’t having compassion for the character then you aren’t doing it properly. If you don’t have compassion you aren’t a good actor and if you do, it allows you to know yourself more.
There’s another misnomer that people have that there is a division between professional theater and “community theater.” In the past I believed that there was a difference. Now I’m very proud of and endorse a high level of professionalism in the community. Professionalism means for the people by the people and, in our case, about the people. Community theater is very important in a compressed, disproportionate place like San Francisco. It appears very mixed, culturally, but you have very high disproportion of haves and have-nots. Community theater provides that platform and bridge to reality as a whole.
KD: Can you say more about theater being a “bridge”?
When we first conceptualized The Spot, it was in the 1990’s, the time of crack heads—people were afraid of what was going to happen. First of all you need to understand the pathology and psychology of drug use. You, as the person who has never stood in the Glide line, you need to understand the mindset [of those using drugs]. Once you do, the fear is removed. The NIMBY-ism ceases to be so fearful once you’ve had an experience like this. We would set up shows so that people could see the ups and downs of addiction.
Remember there are always a set of people that are directly affected by the issues you’re having, whether cancer or crack. Once that concept is brought into play and people take more ownership of the community as a whole, you can make the adjustments necessary for a more realistic judgment as to what’s best for all of us as a whole. If I’ve got two to three people walking around with tuberculosis, it’s to my benefit for those people to get treatment. That’s the way I look at it. We try to remove the fear element of, “That’s them, and this is me.”
My belief is that community theater provides that bridge, that opportunity to interface.
KD: Geoffrey, your title is “Crisis Intervention Director.” Why?
Well, when we started, we had actors coming in and out of the theater who were all fucked up, loaded, just getting out of jail. So we said, we can’t be just a theater company, we have to be the recovery theater. So I was always doing some kind of crisis intervention so that we could do something positive. Then, it became a bigger concept that we as a company are doing crisis intervention. It’s like, 5% of SF is black, 50% of the black population is in jail. And the only thing that is changing is that the black population is shrinking and the [mental/social services] consumer numbers stay the same. Just the fact that I’m black, I’m a male, I’m not on dope, I have a fairly stable lifestyle, that means I’m a rarity. I can put on a suit and people ask me where I’m from—because you must not be from here. Those are things that are worthy of a crisis conversation. Black history is world history. We are all part of it.
KD: What does the SFRT have in store for us in the future?
Just like Pam has evolved and grown, we are evolving. The full staging of Night at the Black Hawk is coming, we are restructuring the board, I want to explore more original pieces, I want to get into a piece regarding the health care system. The past few years I’ve had an extensive experience with the health care system—with my wife who died of cancer, my mother with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and with how to shore up my teenage son—and this is all part of long-term recovery. I want to make that real for people not as a sympathy story but as something that we are all going to be dealing with. This is a public interest problem.
I would love to get Carol Shorenstein of the Golden Gate Theatre to get us one night in the theater. I would love to do a big stage production of my play, The Spot. That’s my Christmas wish.
Totally independently, the health care system is near to my heart. I trained as an RN in England and I’m used to universal health care so this American system is just anathema—it’s an uncaring system. Education in health care through theater is just as good as anything else. I was in the theater during the AIDs epidemic. I was in management of the HIV unit at St. Francis during the 1990’s. It was like a horrendous conveyer belt. I think theater can be a great way to educate about these issues.
But really, just give us that one night at the Golden Gate Theater. We have a job to show what gold is here in the TL.
**The SFRT performs every second Saturday of the month at Martuni’s (4 Valencia St.)**
Boyd Hotel – Night at the Black Hawk
41 Jones St.
440 Eddy St.
Cadillac Hotel – Music of Porgy and Bess
380 Eddy St.
626 Polk St.
459 Turk St.