Sunday, June 9, 2019

"OUT of Site SOMA"

OUT of Site SOMA
K.M. (Karl) Soehnlein & Seth Eisen

Ryan Hayes & Marga Gomez
The streets and alleys of San Francisco that we pass every day are brimming with stories and people often long forgotten.  While many natives and visitors today associate Folsom Street as the heart of the leather community thanks to the Festival that one Sunday every September draws upwards of a half-million people to its sweat-laced, kinky, few blocks, how many really know the rich, queer history that goes back as far as the indigenous people who once lived among its sand dues?  Just as Eye Zen Presents did a year ago for North Beach in their production of OUT of Site, the company now presents another walking tour, OUT of Site SOMA in the form of street theatre to bring once again to life the ghosts of the LGBTQ2+ heroes and history makers of the area we now know as South of Market.  Six actors take on twenty-plus parts on the sidewalks, back alleys, and present/past bars of SOMA as they bring important highlights and persona of a history that stretches the full twentieth century – a “performance driven queer history” conceived and directed by Seth Eisen, who also co-wrote the script with K.M. (Karl) Soehnlein.

Like the North Beach queer tour of history, OUT of Site SOMA begins by paying homage to the Ohlone people who once populated the area – a peaceful people who recognized and honored a third gender, the joya, who held a sacred role in that society.  As we gather in a community gem of flowers, trees, and outdoor art unknown by most of the opening-afternoon, walking audience (i.e., the Howard Langton Community Garden), a Two-Spirit Water Diva in native attire (J. Miko Thomas aka Landa Lakes) leads us in a greeting ceremony as we chant, dip our hands in water, and shake hands with a fellow time-traveler.

We quickly learn that long before being known as SOMA, this area has carried names like Happy Valley, South of the Slot, Valley of the Kings, and Valley of the Dykes.  What we also learn is that from the time the white man drove the Ohlone people out and into eventual extinction up until recent years, the land we stand on and will visit has always been “contested land,” with the more dominant society always trying to squelch and move out the working class, immigrants, and minorities of race and sexual orientation who have lived and worked here. 

Our first stop is to meet an early-twentieth-century journalist of the San Francisco Examiner who had served in the Spanish-American War before settling in San Francisco.  With a commanding voice and its touch of raspy smoke, Jack Garland tells us his life story, confidently relating with sweeping arm motions and a sure-stepped pace on the street in front of us how he was a reporter was “looking for stories in the night and young men in need.”  Margo Gomez in bowler hat and blue suit with burgundy vest relates how Jack – also known as Babe Bean and Uncle Jack – was actually raised as a girl with the parent-given name of “Elvira” (said by Jack in half up-chuck), thus becoming one of the first, out transgender men.  That of course did not keep him from being harassed and arrested from time to time for wearing men’s clothes.

Jack also aided SF’s homeless and hungry, and we learn that even in the 1920’s those down-and-out arrivals included as they do today many gay men who came to this City seeking refuge and finding the street as the only place to live.  Jack introduces us to one sleeping boy-barely-man, Arthur Powell, who also liked to cross-dress and perform as “Augustina,” even at the turn of the century.  The story we hear from the sweet-singing young man (played by Ryan Hayes) has a tragic ending that is all too familiar, sounding similar to the present-day suicides of young, queer folks who do not find in time the refuge or protection they seek and so desperately need in the City by the Bay.

Our tour of course leads us to some of the many gay and lesbian bars that once dotted Folsom and are now only memories.  We find ourselves in the year 1976 as leather-clad bartender and artist Chuck Arnett (Kai Brothers) welcomes us bare-chested and muscled to the “Church of the Secret Gospel,” known then officially as “The Ambush.”  The former ballet and musical theatre performer tells us his route to “The Great Leather Frontier” while also giving pointers to a nervous but anxiously eager photographer, Jim Stewart (Ryan Hayes) on how to find his own style in taking hot, kinky pictures that would someday lead Jim to be a well-known, leather artist. 

Chuck then leads us to the bar’s back room where gentle-mannered Alan Selby (Brian Freeman), aka “Daddy Alan,” gives us in his properly English accent (being originally from Yorkshire, England) an education in everything from his early kink inventions still in use today to the back-pocket handkerchief code used by the gay community to signal silently but plainly sex-play preferences. We also learn how this man who came to be known the “Mayor of Folsom Street” founded and ran for many years Mr. S Leather, one of the first leather-community businesses that is still in existence today.

Maria David
As we wind in and out of alleys and side streets, the two-hour, forty-minute series of staged vignettes continue hopping back and forth across the decades of the last century (the opening show running forty minutes later than scheduled).  We meet from 1980 the first owner of an all-women’s auto mechanic shop, Nancy Rupprecht (another stellar performance for Marga Gomez) who trained fifty female mechanics in the twelve years Labyris Auto Repair existed.  We hear of how gay and African-American union workers reached an alliance in 1936 to improve the treatment and working condition of both on cruise ships.  As we visit what was once in the 1980s the lesbian bar, nightclub, and upstairs hotel known as the Bay Brick Inn (present site of the Cat Club), we are not only entertained in full blues-rich tones by the swiveling, swirling, and sexy Candice (Maria David), we hear one of several accounts of how the leather community – both gay and lesbian – stepped up to help the ever-increasing victims of AIDS during those bleak years.

As we move from venue to venue, our guides often lead us in various protest songs of the decades we are passing through – chants like “We won’t move” used to speak out against displacing many aged, sick, gay men from the Yerba Buena district who lived in SRO’s that developers wanted to demolish to build Moscone Center and the Y.B. Gardens.  Our tour comes to a close as smartly dressed Kathleen Connell (Marga Gomez) and Michael Valerio (Ryan Hayes) – both out, proud activists for low-income residents – relate how they together created the idea and launched the first Megahood Festival in 1984 to celebrate SOMA’s leather and kink diversity, a festival that soon became known as today’s internationally famous Folsom Street Fair. 

J. Miko Thomas aka Landa Lakes
As we listen to their story and watch a drag queen performance by Doris Fish (Landa Lakes boldly lip-singing “This Is My Life” while stripping to a wildly red and proud, super-hero outfit), we also are led through a final tour on Ringold Street of memorials laid in small stone pillars and inlaid in gold footprints on the sidewalk commemorating the real-life heroes, all now past away, whom we have met today.

Eye Zen Presents’ OUT of Site SOMA is highly entertaining, enlightening, and educational.  At the opening outing that did run way over and probably points to some further editing needed, not all was yet perfect with especially one actor having some difficulty with lines and even needing note cards along the way.  However, these are aspects that can be soon fixed; and the performances overall are quite good, especially considering actors have to rush from one location to the next and then change costumes, decades, and persona in a matter of minutes.

In the end, we leave contemplating the words, “Remember us ... Our legacies never disappear” while we also are now able to replay in our memory banks scenes and sites that we pass by in our everyday, San Francisco lives that, just a few hours earlier, we had no idea ever occurred or existed.

Rating: 4 E

OUT of Site SOMA continues Saturday, June 15, 2019 (12 p.m. and 3 p.m.) and Sunday, June 16, 2019 (1 p.m.).  Tickets are available online at

Photos by Seth Eisen

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