Review: Cutting Ball Theater and Campo Santo present ‘Superheroes’ at The Exit (****1/2)

(from l to r) The cast of Cutting Ball Theater's production of 'Superheroes': Myers Clark as Free, Donald E. Lacy as Rev, Delina Patrice Brooks as Aparecida, Juan Amador as Bayuncoso and Ricky Saenz as Nico. Photo Credit: Cutting Ball Theater.
(from l to r) Myers Clark as Free, Donald E. Lacy as Rev, Delina Patrice Brooks as Aparecida, Juan Amador as Bayuncoso and Ricky Saenz as Nico in Cutting Ball Theater’s world premiere production of “Superheroes”. Photo Credit: Cutting Ball Theater.

(Charles Kruger)

(****1/2)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Superheroes” will play at The Exit through December 21, 2014). 

The opening of “Superheroes” as staged by playwright/director Sean San José is powerful. Six actor/dancers explode across the stage against a set depicting an urban outland, perhaps beneath a freeway overpass, as images and text from news coverage of the contra wars and the crack epidemic of the 1980s are effectively projected against the back wall. The actors shout and almost sing in sometimes rhyming language, hitting hard with their passion to tell this story. It is a brilliantly choreographed directorial performance, evoking the work of great theatre pioneers such as Bertold Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski, and Louis Valdez. I was so excited by what I saw and heard that I scribbled in my reviewer’s notebook: “THIS is what theatre is for!”

Although I did not sustain that first rush of enthusiasm throughout this production, I left the theatre sure that I had seen something rare and special.

“Superheroes” is inspired by the work of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb who famously wrote a series of articles linking the CIA to drug dealers who were using earnings from the sale of crack cocaine to help fund the Contras’ battle to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. At the time, Webb’s work was dismissed and his career destroyed. Eventually, unable to find work and facing mounting personal difficulties, he committed suicide (although conspiracy theorists believe he was murdered). As the crack cocaine epidemic went on to devestate communities of color in America’s inner cities, some folks theorized that the CIA had intentionally released this scourge upon the community with genocidal intent. The entire story is complicated by the war on drugs, and the legal penalties for possession of crack cocaine (an inner city drug) versus powdered cocaine (a drug favored by the wealthy and privileged) which has led to the disportionate incarceration and criminalization of young people of color. The whole story is a sordid, dirty, complicated, horrifying mess.

Since Webb published his articles as a three part series called “Dark Alliance” in the mid 1990s, the mainstream press has come to recognize that many of his allegations were substantially correct. Charles Bowden wrote a significant article in 1913 in Esquire Magazine to that effect, and the fact that some contras (backed by the CIA) were funding their activities through drug smuggling was confirmed in 1988 by a Senate subcommittee headed by our current Secretary of State, John Kerry.

The “Superheroes” of the ironic title might include the self styled “freedom-fighting” contras, the brilliantly gifted drug dealer Free, Free’s crusading but addicted girlfriend Magnolia, and investigative reporter Aparecida (modeled after Gary Webb). At one point, a character suggests that the superheroes are the nameless inner city victims of the crack epidemic, dragged, drugged, or seduced into a nightmarish addiction, who miraculously manage to keep their humanity alive under nearly unthinkable conditions.

The telling of the story hinges on the efforts of journalist Aparecida (Delina Patrice Brooks) to get at the truth of the CIA/Contra/Cocaine connection after being tipped off by Magnolia (Britney Frazer), whose drug-dealing boy friend, Free (Myers Clark) is on trial. Other characters include a cocaine-addled fundamentalist preacher (effectively played by Donald E. Lacy, Jr.) and Free’s young partner-in-crime, Nico (Ricky Saenz). Bayuncoso (Juan Amador) is a mysterious, seductive, devilish character associated with the Contras and the CIA.

The details of the story are explored in an almost random fashion, moving back and forth in time. Some scenes are acted out, but such traditional narrative is interwoven with slide projections full of informative graphics and headlines, as well as dance interludes accompanied by rhythmic chanting and angry commentary, with the six performers slipping in and out of character, often functioning in the manner of a Greek chorus that comments on the action. It is the actors that matter here, as much as the characters: we are confronted with the company’s passionate desire to tell this story, using whatever means they have at their disposal, not just characterization and scene playing.

The result is that the details of the story are unclear, which can be rather frustrating to the viewer. On the other hand, the passion of the telling is enormosly moving and potent and the message comes through: a great injustice occurred that resulted in tragically undeserved human suffering while the perpetuators escaped unscathed.

Britney Frazier gives a standout performance as Magnolia in the world premiere of "Superheroes" at Cutting Ball Theater. Photo Credit: Cutting Ball Theater.
Britney Frazier gives a standout performance as Magnolia in the world premiere of “Superheroes” at Cutting Ball Theater. Photo Credit: Cutting Ball Theater.

All of the actors perform well, but Britney Frazier as Magnolia is a stand out. Magnolia is many sided: desperate drug addict, perhaps a street hooker, angry girlfriend, brilliant analyst, dancer, poet, potential revolutionary, she’s all that. Frazier’s performance tells it all and tells it like it is.

The production disappoints, though, in maintaining a too frenetic pace that never seems to pull back from the onslaught of images and angry rhythms to allow the audience to register the tragedy, so that we might cry deeply and experience a catharsis. There were moments, especially in the early parts of the show, and especially in the scenes featuring Frazier as Magnolia, when I and other audience members were moved fully to sobs, a rarer occurrence in the theatre than you might think. But there was not enough of that.

Still, this is important work, brave and ambitious. Injustice needs to be called out and its sources confronted and held accountable. It is a fine and worthy thing when theatre seriously sets out to do just that, and we should pay attention.

For further information, click here.

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“Superheroes”, written and directed by Sean San José, a word premiere produced by Cutting Ball Theater in association with Campo Santo. Movement Director: Rashad Pridgen. Scenic Designer: Michael Locher. Costume Designer: Courtney Flores. Lighting Designer & Projection Designer: Alejandro Acosta. Score and Sound Designer: Jake Rodriguez. 

Bayuncoso: Juan Amador. Aparecida: Delina Patrice Brooks. Free: Myers Clark. Magnolia: Britney Frazier. Rev: Donald E. Lacy, Jr. Nico: Ricky Saenz. 

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