Wednesday, March 14, 2018

"OUT of Site"

OUT of Site
Seth Eisen

Cast Members of OUT of Site
“We have been here, laying the stones, paving the way for you.”

The ghosts of LGBTQ heroes of the past 150 years come to life in the very back alleys, neighborhood bars, and hidden basements where they lived in both flair and fear in what we now know as North Beach, San Francisco. Twenty or so of us are led on a two-and-a-half hour walk in queer time and space with a number of stops along the way, meeting some thirty historical figures played by thirteen actors.  While some of the names may be familiar to us (for example, Disco Queen Sylvester or the first-ever Latino and openly gay politician, José Sarria), most are both people and stories long forgotten.  That is, forgotten until Seth Eisen of Eye Zen Presents took on the task of excavating from locked-away archives their histories and turning them into a highly entertaining and educational, theatrical walk entitled OUT of Site. 

Beginning with a welcoming ritual that is led by Two-Spirit of the now-extinct Ahwahnee tribe in the shadows of both the Trans America Building and giant redwoods, we quickly learn that the queer community of San Francisco has deep roots.  We also soon understand that immediately after the Gold Rush beginnings of the City by the Bay, there were writers in the late 1850s like Charles Warren Stoddard (played by Ryan Hayes) who were describing and living the lives of what he and his buddy Mark Twain nicknamed the “bohemians.”  And jumping up to 1908, we get a full demonstration of the most deviant dance of the times, the scandalous Turkey Trot, as same-sex couples step in tandem and hop back-and-forth in what was then the first queer bar in SF, “The Dash.” 

Cast of  OUT of Site
As we head to various stops in what was once the notorious but thriving Barbary Coast, we meet more and more women and men of various races and nationalities who add much color and detail to a history about which we knew little-to-nothing.  A celebrated poet of Japan who immigrated to the U.S. in the late nineteenth century, Yone Noguchi (a sleek and high-voiced Earl Alfred Paus) chases after his “Daddy” (Charles Stoddard) in Hotaling Alley, where their relationship was once known by friends and fellow writers like Walt Whitman.  In that same little street, we view the original iron lampposts designed by a pair of lesbian lovers named Emily and Lillian.  Our fascinating journey that jumps here and there through time and location is just beginning.

In full black dress and Spanish veil, Miss José Sarria (J. Miko Thomas who also plays Two-Spirit) meets us outside what was once the famed Black Cat Café where she sang in full drag and helped fight in court for the legal right of gays and lesbians to gather in such places.  As the walk progresses, we will eventually visit the sites and hear about other, now-defunct watering holes and performance venues that were places of social refuge and of employment for the queer and cross-dressing community – places like Mona’s 440 Club and Finocchio’s.  Re-enacted performances from these venues as well as from The Palace where the famed Cockettes drew crowds by the thousands in the early 1970s are a part of the afternoon’s outing.

North Beach’s City Lights Bookstore has a long and well-known association with the beatniks and beat poets of the late ‘50s.  What may not be as well known is the deep connections and support of the gay and lesbian writers, poets, and outspoken activists of the time.  In the alley outside the famed bookstore, Ryan Hayes, Lisa Evans, and Earl Alfred Paus step up on the “Soapbox for Cultural Sanity” to recite the queer-inspired poems of Robert Duncan, Madeline Gleason, and James Boughton, respectively.  They are followed by a supposedly spontaneous and rousing reading of one segment of Alan Ginsburg’s “Howl” that is punctuated by louder and louder cries of “Holy” by not only we as tour participants, but also by an ever-growing crowd of passers-by who pause to join in with great gusto.

While performance quality among this enthusiastic cast varies greatly, each character is portrayed with enough credibility to add an overall important piece to the total picture of the rich queer legacy of these several city blocks.  Jean-Paul Jones flamboyantly kicks, prances, and flaunts in dangerously high heels on a busy street corner as his Sylvester comes to full-voiced life (despite a terrible, portable sound system), singing in glittering drag “You Make Me Feel.”  Drivers in passing cars and folks waiting to cross the street hardly turn an eye, but then this is San Francisco.  Mr. Jones’ wonderfully sexy and sassy falsetto voice later wows us as he reenacts Sylvester’s nightclub act in a setting more conducive for us to enjoy the actor’s vocal abilities.

Impressive also in different ways is Silkey Shoemaker as the cross-dressing Milton Matson who made his living in the late nineteenth century as a male impersonator at the notorious Pacific Dime Museum, San Francisco’s so-called showcase for “freaks of nature.”  Matson’s story is told in the tunneled depths of the current Hippodrome Art Store, performed in a moving yet restrained monologue by Mr. Shoemaker.

Other noteworthy performances include that of Lisa Evans, whose dusky voice sings as the tuxedo-and-top-hat-attired Gladys Bentley, an out-lesbian performer in both Harlem and San Francisco, known as the Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Song, who also was often harassed for her masculine appearance.  And it would be remiss of me not to give special mention to Diego Gómez in the role of Queen of the Cockettes, whose crowning performance of the afternoon (along with fellow Cockettes) left us with lip-synched words that nicely sum up the live-and-let-live message echoing throughout the afternoon’s trek through North Beach’s history of a different bent:

“Share your stories; be heard and be seen.
We’re happy you’re here; we’re a family of queers.
Everybody here’s welcome.
Who wants a drink?”

Rating: 3.5 E

OUT of Site continues through March 25, 2018, Saturday at noon and 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.  Tickets and starting site instructions are available online at

A "Part 2" of OUT of Site focusing on the queer history of San Francisco's Tenderloin will run May 12-27, 2018.

Photos by Robbie Sweeny

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