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Biko Eisen-Martin’s New Play Grapples With a 1966 Uprising in Hunters Point

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One man standing at table in circle of seated people in theater space
Biko Eisen-Martin working with his cast at the Ruth Williams Opera House. (Courtesy Biko Eisen-Martin)

While the Vietnam War raged in 1966, and the onset of California’s prison industrial complex began to ravage Black and low-income communities in a dreadfully systematic way, San Francisco’s Hunters Point residents were hurled onto the frontlines of their own conflict. On Sept. 27 of that year, the Third Street Riot (or Hunters Point Uprising) ignited after an SFPD officer killed Matthew “Peanut” Johnson — a neighborhood teenager the police were pursuing after a crime.

Johnson’s violent — and presumably racially motivated — death ignited a series of community actions that crescendoed with a citywide outbreak of demands for justice. Though largely overlooked in modern history (despite being the largest riot in San Francisco history at the time), the event offers a critical look at San Francisco’s decades-long struggles with racial segregation, police brutality and community neglect.

Black-and-white headshot of man with facial hair
Biko Eisen-Martin. (Jeremiah Cumberbatch)

For local actor and filmmaker Biko Eisen-Martin, it’s an essential chapter of San Francisco’s past that has yet to be fully excavated by the public. For him, growing up in San Francisco and listening to his family members and elders speak about the revolutionary time inspired Eisen-Martin to write and direct 3rd and Palou — a community-centered performance premiering as a staged reading at the historic Ruth Williams Opera House (also known as the Bayview Opera House) on the night of Juneteenth.

“This is based on community testimonies. Right now, there isn’t a pipeline for these stories. This isn’t stuff that is readily available; it hasn’t been properly archived,” Eisen-Martin says. “But it happened right here on Third Street. There were tanks rolling down the streets of San Francisco. There are still bullet holes in the Bayview Opera House from it all. That’s why I wanted to make [the Opera House] ground zero and activate the community.”

Directly inspired by Eisen-Martin’s godmother, Ida McCrae — who was a teenager navigating issues of patriarchy, racism and rising incarceration at the time — the play is a semi-biographical coming-of-age tale that focuses deeply on one woman’s experience, rather than trying to abstractly retell the story of the entire uprising itself.


“[McCrae] is a revolutionary with a long, rich story,” says Eisen-Martin. “This is just a clip of it all. One year before the riots, the Youth Authority opened, a huge prison where Bay Area youth were sent. Ida was a victim of that.”

As a theatrical performance, 3rd & Palou is a dramatized depiction that takes creative liberties. But the core of McCrae’s story — who Eisen-Martin interviewed extensively while scripting his play — is central to much larger truths about Northern California’s Black communities, going far beyond just Hunters Point (the riots eventually spilled into other Black neighborhoods around San Francisco).

Black-and-white photograph of police crouched in street with guns while people stand in doorway of building
The Bayview-Hunters Point Community Center under siege during the 1966 uprising. (Photo by Jean-Antony Du Lac; Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

“It’s a moment in time but it’s also a microcosm of what we still see today,” he continues. “At the time, learning about imperialism was at the forefront of popular consciousness. Reading political magazines was a day to day thing, not just a subculture. [During the testimonies], I really could see the love the community had for each other back then. We need an entire curriculum, films, books about this. I’m just trying to be a spark; it’s a big, old oven full of stuff, and this is just the preheating.”

Additional research on Eisen-Martin’s part included correspondence with Stanford PhD candidate Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin — who was formerly the head of the African American Studies department at the City College of San Francisco. Her dissertation, “A Forgotten Community, A Forgotten History: San Francisco’s 1966 Uprising” was excerpted in The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South, which Eisen-Martin heavily referenced while weaving together various threads for his own work.

A former teacher at Berkeley High School and a product of the Bay Area’s Youth Speaks program for rising poets, Eisen-Martin has been comfortable with standing in front of an audience since he was able to walk. His mother, Arlene Eisen, was active in exposing Biko’s (as well as his older brother, San Francisco’s Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin) to the Bay Area’s diverse tapestry of arts, activism and community organizing. Offering free acting classes and directly asking for the community’s feedback is a part of Biko’s everyday existence as a writer and actor with generational ties to Frisco’s Black histories.

In both San Francisco and New York City — where the artist splits his time working and performing — Eisen-Martin is all too familiar with the erasure of not just the arts, but the deep-seated stories in communities who have long fostered them.

“It’s a great feeling to do a show off Broadway, being in New York and spilling out into the street with all the big lights, but there’s something to being in your own community and activating the future of your community with a craft you love and watching others fall in love with it, too,” says Eisen-Martin. “We don’t need the big lights, they need us. Some of the work gets shine, some doesn’t; but the work is what has a lasting impression.”

Eisen-Martin makes clear that he doesn’t have any answers. But, as poets and artists in times of struggle often do, he’s willing to ask questions in search of catharsis and healing.

‘3rd & Palou’ takes place as a free staged reading at the Ruth Williams Opera House (4705 Third St., San Francisco) on June 19, 2024 at 7 p.m.

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