After 25 centuries Sophocles’ Antigone is still the sharpest theatrical take on state power and dead bodies. King Creon’s refusal to bury his niece’s Antigone’s brothers and Antigone's defiance of the King's decree shows how politically and dramatically potent a corpse can be.
There have been too many corpses in San Francisco recently -- the bullet-ridden bodies of Alex Nieto and Mario Woods -- killed in strange and discouraging encounters with the police. The resulting outrage has produced hundreds of modern day Antigones: political activists storming City Hall calling for the resignations of Mayor Ed Lee and Chief of Police Greg Suhr; low riders shutting down Valencia Street; and, most dramatically, the 17-day hunger strike by the “Frisco Five” at the Mission Police Station which came at least to a temporary end over the weekend.
There is only one corpse in spoken word poet and novelist Paul Flores’ solo show, You’re Gonna Cry. Its understated and dismaying entrance into Flores’ portrait of Mission district in the mid-1990s is shocking, especially in the way the dead body just kind of appears and then just as quickly fades away. It’s a horrible sequence, not really related to state violence, and yet in spite of the 20-year difference in time between the events depicted in Flores' play and today, it somehow feels of a piece with what’s happening now.
It takes a while for Flores’ play to get going. When it does, it bounces deftly between sharp political commentary, goofy fun, and a surreal sense of tragedy. It’s one of those one-man shows that seems to include everyone in the world. Of the most important, there is Cesar, a young Chicano poet; Lydia, a Latina party girl; Richard, a tech worker and new homeowner; Ronnie, a drug-dealing puppeteer; Bianca, his 7-year old niece, who feels the dangers of the world with an aching calm; and Chingon, a kind of all-seeing hipster of the street. And that’s just the beginning of the neighborhood.
There’s not much of a plot, just the desire of each character to take on the world and experience everything that the Mission had to offer at that time. For Cesar, it’s the beginning of a political bohemia; for Lydia, a chance to escape her traditional and domineering father; for Richard, the white man’s journey into a world he sees as more vibrant and alive than suburban Palo Alto.
The tragedy is that Flores' characters can’t quite grasp what is happening around them, and the way that money is subtly influencing and controlling their lives. It’s as if Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market went about slyly killing hopes and dreams, and every once and a while, an innocent bystander -- just for kicks.
When Ronnie pleads with Lydia to watch his nieces (Bianca and Stephanie) so that he can bail his friend Willie out of jail -- arrested for disturbing the peace and tech worker Richard’s sleep -- you intuitively feel the makings of a disaster. There it is in Lydia’s blithe acceptance of caring for children she has no plans to watch and Ronnie’s promise to repay her in drugs. These are just two of the many exchanges of money, people, and favors that lead to a corpse on the street.
Later, in one of the most affecting scenes of the evening, Cesar, Lydia, and their friend Martin try to understand what happened. None of them is fully capable of doing so, and so Flores leaves it to time -- in the figure of Chingon -- to at least offer a sense of perspective. And without directly saying so, he comes up with something a little like this:
Once upon time there was a community in the Mission. It was imperfect and plagued by human failure. But the vibrancy of the people and life there was so alluring that the rich felt that this was something they had to have. And so they purchased the “lifestyle” and adopted the outlines of what they saw—smoked “Pall Mall cigarettes/ and set up a retro couch on the sidewalk." For these “Nuevo Mission Bohemians...Evan/Casey/Brian/Jen/Charlene/Zack…Nobody calls the police.”
And that brings us back to the present moment, with the bullet-ridden corpses of young men and the political economy that would prefer to see them disappear. Flores' play isn't perfect, but at its core is the type of political theater desperately missing in San Francisco and the Bay Area.
Flores has a vision of the world, and that vision sees two Missions: the present playground of the rich where you can sing in the streets with no fear of the police; and the older one, where the new Antigones do their best to properly bury and respect the dead, and hold onto the land where these tragedies are becoming all too common.
You’re Gonna Cry plays through Saturday, May 28 at the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco. For information and tickets please go to www.theatermadcap.com.