A New Generation Gathers Strength from the Courageous Queens of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot

Editor's Note: The performances in this video include reenactments of police brutality against transgender women and descriptions of sexual assault. Viewer discretion advised. 

When Shane Zaldivar showed up at the casting call for The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, a play presented by the Tenderloin Museum about the 1966 riot between cafeteria customers (trans women, drag queens and LGBTQ community members) and the San Francisco police, the 27-year-old actor had only recently learned about the historic event.

“If I had known that story earlier on, been taught it in high school,” Zaldivar recalls wistfully. “This is a group of people, fighting for their rights, as human beings, and they are still doing that fight today."

The riot, which took place a full three years before Stonewall, is the first known instance of militant queer resistance to police harassment in United States history, and in recent years—thanks to a 2005 documentary Screaming Queens, and this play, written by Mark Nassar, Collette LeGrande and Donna Personna—this seminal moment in LGBTQ and Bay Area history is finally getting the attention it deserves.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, which ran for just over two months in San Francisco’s New Village Cafe, collapsed the distance between audience and performer, lived history and theatrical retelling. Playgoers sat at the “Compton’s” counter, ate a meal and watched a group of transgender women and drag queens decide they’d withstood enough police harassment and brutality—it was time to fight back. What the audience didn’t see was the months of rehearsals and community workshops that shaped the play—and the deep bonds that formed across generations in the process.

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Peek behind the stage curtain into the real-life story of Donna Personna, who reflects back on her memories of Compton’s and translated her own experiences—of violence, marginalization and ultimately, hope—into the role Zaldivar embodied. “She’s lived this experience, she’s my elder,” Zaldivar says. “It’s nice to have someone like that as a friend.” -- Text by Sarah Hotchkiss

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