Imagine a cast of hundreds, spanning decades, all emerging from the heart, soul, and vision of one spoken word stage performer. San Francisco’s solo series, WordsFirst and Solo Sundays, draw upon real-life material, sometimes performers’ actual lives, to create a blend of storytelling, stand-up humor, and offbeat social commentary, dazzling plenty of unexpecting audience members.
Last October’s lineup showcased a gay man’s tale of how he met his husband online, years ago with old 56K dialup modems and America Online CDs. “My Nichiren Buddhist temple’s full of my favorite people. Jews!” he exclaimed.
A real-life adoptive mother next took the stage, and she had developed a monologue from the hypothetical point of view of a baby’s birth parents. The lineup concluded with other characters’ reflections: a successful San Francisco Pakistani immigrant businessman returning to his native land to help with earthquake relief, and a Shakespearean actor turning to a Hendrix-inspired rockstar lifestyle through standup comedy to drown out childhood demons.
“If there’s ever a race riot in this country, what am I supposed to do? Start kicking my own rear end?” performer David Moss asked the audience. His character, a mixed-race child of divorce and dislocation, took refuge through various forms of performance and provided the audience with a chance to vicariously do the same.
Solo Sundays/WordsFirst are not your mother’s cultural lectures, as performers know how to engage and feed off of changing audience energy, and use the entire stage space for drama performance rather than simply speaking to crowds. At times I felt I were watching a stage play with a complete cast, and forgot the solo nature of the pieces.
Solo Sundays/Words First are also not your college son or daughter’s drunken poetry slams. Performers develop pieces through months of intensive group workshops and professional level education and critique.
Producer Bruce Pachtman says, “Solo performance is a collaborative art from beginning to end and those who don’t develop work with others tend to suffer for that reason.” Producer Kamau Bell effusively thanked another performer during October’s show, explaining that his own spoken word piece would not exist in its current form without Moss’ help.
Also, many of the presentations speak to larger societal issues, including race and cultural relations, family and intergenerational tensions, and how economic upheaval affects people’s creativity and well-being. Performers think through the larger context of their monologues, and make audiences reconsider their own cultural assumptions while empathizing with various characters.
However, the performers never lose sight of playing, and being, real people. There’s much more empathy and fun than overt sociology here. As Pachtman, who has himself written and presented a long-running hit production, says, “If comic performers are doing things right, it looks like we’re just fooling around. I’m sure outsiders get a little envious about how good a time we have while working.”
Of the several shows I’ve attended, I found myself identifying most with a character on paper very different from myself: an Iranian Muslim junior high student sorting out family, religious, and cultural pressures. The woman presenting that piece knew how to feed off of audience energy and tap into universal human concerns about growing up, starting a new school, and being different – and the show left me at once more educated about Iranian immigrants and better able to put my own junior high memories in perspective.
Every show, and every performer, I’ve watched through WordsFirst/Solo Sundays generated that type of positive, cathartic, entertaining audience energy, and, best of all, seemed extremely supportive of each other and of everyone involved. I’d encourage others to come on out and enjoy the show, and join in the San Francisco resurgence of an art form which probably has its roots in the distinguished Beatnik and jazz cabaret history.
Solo Sundays takes place the last Sunday night of every month, 7pm at SF’s StageWerx theater near Union Square…and Synchronized Chaos readers can get free promotional tickets. WordsFirst is the first Wednesday of every month, 7:30 to 9:30, Counterpulse Theater, 1310 Mission in SF.
If you’re interested in volunteering with the theater productions or joining the crew as a performer, please feel free to email Bruce Pachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org