Cy and Zahra's Picks: Hamlet Sings, Standing Up for Books, and a Desi Comedy Fest

7 min
Edward Nelson plays Hamlet in the Amboise Thomas opera (Photo: Courtesy of West Edge Opera)

We're welcoming back as co-host this week comedian, co-host of the Good Muslim, Bad Muslim podcast, and KQED Women to Watch honoree Zahra Noorbaksh. Somehow she and I couldn't fit in the Petaluma Music Festival, a terrific concert featuring the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Poor Man's Whiskey and other American roots bands Aug. 5 at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, which benefits music programs in Petaluma schools. Details are here. Now on with the show.

Aug. 3–6: We start with the cosmic jazz of the Sun Ra Arkestra, which carries on the Afrofuturist ideas of founder Sun Ra -- born Herman Blount, who claimed to be from the planet Saturn. Sun Ra died in 1993, but the band continues under the direction of longtime member Marshall Allen, who maintains Sun Ra's artistic vision for the band, including on-stage costumes that look like Egyptian spacesuits. Years after Sun Ra's seminal recordings, the music is still mind-blowing; a cacophony of free jazz resolves into a hard bop solo, chased with a chant about space travel. Zahra ran into a number of artists at the recent Sundance Creative Change Retreat who were deeply influenced by Sun Ra's Afrocentrism and surrealist approach to his art; even stars in the pop realm like Solange Knowles hail his influence. This series of concerts at SFJAZZ is as big a deal as the solar eclipse happening this month, and just as rare. Details here.

Aug. 5–Sept. 10: There are a handful of great storytellers in the Bay Area -- people like Brian Copeland, Dan Hoyle and Al Letson -- who can hold the attention of a roomful of people with the detail, warmth and humor of their tale-spinning. Don Reed belongs in that lofty company, and he’s bringing back one of his classic one-man shows, The Kipling Hotel. It's about his experience as a student at UCLA on a bare-bones scholarship that left him too broke for a dorm room or apartment. Zahra notes he brings the same level of energy and presence every night, something she strives for herself, and the shows reward repeat viewings. The Kipling Hotel returns to the Marsh in Berkeley starting Aug. 5; details here.

West Edge Opera presents Libby Larsen's opera 'Frankenstein'
West Edge Opera presents Libby Larsen's opera 'Frankenstein.' (Photo: Courtesy of West Edge Opera)

Aug. 5–20: West Edge Opera is a scrappy little Bay Area company with big ambitions, and they're experts at discovering little-known but deserving work. This year they're producing new versions of Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus by Libby Larsen, a rare opera by a (living) woman composer; The Chastity Tree, by Vicente Martín y Soler (the Valencian Mozart); and Hamlet, by the French composer Amboise Thomas, featuring some beautiful arias. Listen to the show (above) to hear former Adler fellow Edward Nelson nail the "To be or not to be..." monologue during a piano rehearsal. West Edge got kicked out of its former home at the old Oakland train station, but they landed safely at Pacific Pipe, an old factory and warehouse in West Oakland. There will be shuttles from the West Oakland BART station -- a good thing, because we hear parking is limited. Details here.

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Aug. 10–20: Here’s a new tradition in the making: the 4th annual Desi Comedy Fest, featuring comedians like Reyhaneh Rajabzadeh, a Muslim Iranian-American comedian, and Ahmed Bharoocha, who is Irish Catholic, Pakistani-Muslim, Indian, and Burmese. ("Desi" is a way that people of the South Asian Diaspora self-identify.) The festival celebrates the great melting pot of American standup comedy (think the Borscht Belt), and you don't have to travel far. There are shows in San Francisco at Cobb's Comedy Club, in Alameda at the Rhythmix Cultural Center, in Berkeley at Freight and Salvage, and at the Santa Clara Convention Center, The Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, and more. Find all the details here.

LA's Biltmore Hotel, the setting for Cherrie Moraga's new play
L.A.'s Biltmore Hotel, the setting for Cherrie Moraga's new play. (Photo: Courtesy of Biltmore Hotel)

Aug. 10–27: Playwright and Stanford scholar Cherríe Moraga has a brand new play called The Mathematics of Change opening soon at Brava for Women in the Arts (which she co-founded). Zahra says that when she was an English major at UC Berkeley, she came across a Moraga play, an adaptation of Medea, called The Hungry Woman. Zahra was so impressed at how Moraga took the canon of dead white males and adapted it to focus on a queer Mexican woman that she changed her major to theater, believing that was where she'd have more power to change the culture herself. The new play is set in L.A.’s Biltmore Hotel, with a Mexican-Indian woman based on Moraga's own mother succumbing to the early stages of Alzheimer’s and traveling through time. Details here.

Sedef Ecer, one of the playwrights whose work is getting a staged reading at Goldenthread Productions staged reading series
Sedef Ecer, one of the playwrights whose work is featured at Goldenthread Productions' staged reading series. (Photo: Courtesy of Goldenthread Productions)

Aug. 8 & 15: Zahra also wanted to highlight Goldenthread Productions' new play reading series, in which audiences can help shape the stories they end up seeing on stage. “New Threads” offers staged readings of brand new plays, including When Farah Cries by Mudar Alhaggi, set in Syria a year after the start of the Syrian civil war, and At The Periphery by Sedef Ecer, about migrants in Istanbul’s slums. Details for the shows at the Portrero Theater and at Brava are here.

Aug. 3–6: Like Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk was a jazz master -- little remembered today, but a powerhouse in his time. He was blind, outspoken on racial politics of the '60s and '70s, and could play a flute with his nose, while harmonizing on two saxophones at the same time. Kirk's been gone since 1977, but every year Cafe Stritch in San Jose (named for a saxophone Kirk himself designed) presents a Rahsaanathon: four days in Kirk’s honor, with a terrific band led by Steve Turre, a former Kirk sideman, with James Carter on sax. The shows have been some of the best jazz I've ever seen. Details here. 

Zahra Noorbaksh and Cy Musiker after recording the Do List.
Zahra Noorbaksh and Cy Musiker after recording the Do List. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Aug. 12: One more item -- a Noorbaksh performance. Berkeley's EastWind Books specializes in books on Asian-American culture and ethnic studies, and they're throwing the third annual Stand Up for Books fundraiser with some high powered comedic talent: W. Kamau Bell, Irene Tu, and, of course, Zahra Noorbakhsh. Details for the fundraiser at Alameda's Rhythmix Cultural Center are here.

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