Review: ‘Binding Ties’ from Oakland Theater Project (**1/2)

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

The history of Oakland’s working class labor struggles and victories is an endless repository of drama and inspiration, and it is no surprise that the Oakland Theatre Project, which specializes in site specific, relevant-to-the community theater, would want to revive “Binding Ties.

An installation art project by the late Michael Copeland Sydnor, “Binding Ties” focusses on the history of Black railroad employees (especially Pullman Porters) in   Oakland. It is a subject of great theatrical potential.

I was excited to drive into the 16th Street Station, an abandoned and haunting railroad yard tucked into a corner of Northwest Oakland. What a joy it was to see all the people (even in cars) coming together for a shared experience. The “ushers” (parking lot attendants with lighted wands) dressed as Pullman Porters pulled me right into the mood, as did the traditional songs of the railroad broadcast over my car’s radio.   I was pleased when an excellent actor (mysteriously uncredited) appeared in front of the rows of cars as “the conductor” to usher us into the world of the railroad workers.

But something wasn’t quite right. The actor was not elevated on any stage or platform—few in the audience could have seen him. And, even more puzzling, he was entirely unlit. After he had been speaking for a few minutes, a number of audience members (myself included) turned on our headlights which helped some, but should have been unnecessary. I did enjoy the sense of community, though, that produced this shared solution.

I waited, expectantly, for a performance that never arrived. What I saw instead was a slide show of various railroad workers, accompanied by old recordings of railroad songs (think of The Weavers performing “Rock Island Line” or Ledbelly singing about “The Midnight Special”) and recorded interviews of workers—who may or may not have been the workers appearing in the slide projections. The stories were interesting, but presented without drama or conflict—essential elements of a theatrical entertainment. What we got instead was an interesting history lesson in an interesting location. It wasn’t enough to warrant the expense of a $30 to $50 ticket, if one was expecting to purchase an evening of entertainment.

To put it bluntly, this experience would have been fine and interesting in a small auditorium in a museum of history. In a cavernous railroad yard it was, frankly, nothing to get excited about.   Still, for those of us who have missed theatre through these many many months of the pandemic, it was something special indeed to make any sort of theatrical outing, and the company is to be applauded for the effort made. They are a fine company and the cost of a ticket would be well-spent as a donation, even if the experience leaves something to be desired.   The Oakland Performance Project has inspired us often in the past. In spite of the flaws in “Binding Ties,” I remain excited about their coming season to be presented as “drive in theatre” and have little doubt that things will improve exponentially.

“Binding Ties” continues to play at The 16th Street Station in Oakland through February 28th. For further information, click here.
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Rating: **12/ (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“Binding Ties” created by Stephanie Ann Johnson with Michael Copeland Sydnor. Produced by Oakland Theater Project.  

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