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August 11, 2014

San Francisco’s Summer Free-for-All

Al fresco or not, summer is the best season to find free arts events in all disciplines around the Bay.

A photography exhibit at City Hall, a political comedy making the rounds of the parks and two summer-long al fresco festivals focusing on music—all admission-free (but donations encouraged)—are on offer in the city throughout August.

“The Valley/El Valle: Photo-essays from California’s Heartland”

“People here don’t necessarily look outside the radius of the city,” remarks Ann Jastrab, guest curator of a new exhibit at City Hall. We city-dwellers tend to not notice how other people, in a land not very far away, are sustaining their lives, she observes. Thus this exhibit, conceived by Jastrab (who is gallery director of the RayKo Photo Center) and produced by the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries, which examines life in California’s 450-mile-long Central Valley.

The photos (81 by nine individual photographers of various ages, both Caucasian and Latino) include images that go as far back as the farm workers’ movement of the 1970s, led by Cesar Chavez (who appears here, in shots by then-20-year-old Mimi Plumb, looking impossibly young, “like the Buddha, or Gandhi,” says Jastrab). Lou Dematteis’ photos from 1975 include a United Farm Workers protest march.

The photos, many in black and white, reveal the beauty, drama and destruction of the flat landscape. “I go to the dark side pretty quickly,” admits Jastrab, laughing. However, she made sure the exhibit represented not just serious issues such as water management, or the effect of pesticides on farm workers, or devastation wrought by Mother Nature, but also “joy and power.” Photographer Sam Comen, for example, went into a small farming and oil-producing town a mile off Interstate 5 and ended up with “beautiful, iconic photos of Latino workers,” points out Jastrab. An especially lovely one shows a young couple dancing; as Jastrab describes it in her curator’s statement, the boy’s sombrero doesn’t quite shade the girl’s face, which is “illuminated and full of all the hope and power of youth.”

Matt Black photographed sheep running through a misty, unplanted field. From among Antonio Olmos’ work, Jastrab chose a series of boxing pictures that reveal the “dream to do something more than work in the fields—so hopeful and positive,” she says. Then there’s Black’s “sublime yet horrible” image of a dust storm in Avenal ripping the roof off a house, and the startling dichotomy in Charlotte Niel’s picture of a girl in a pink dress with a tin-roofed house in the background (Niel’s huge landscapes are displayed separately in the North Light Room, above the main, ground-floor exhibit; a sampling of poster-size images from the exhibit are also on view on Market Street kiosks).

Adds Jastrab, “A lot of people have a preconceived notion of what the Central Valley is like, but all these pictures—some personal, some political, some historical—show a different story of what’s happening there.”

Through Sept. 19, City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place. 554-6080.

“Ripple Effect”

After 55 years of staging a new, original musical satire annually, the Tony Award-winning San Francisco Mime Troupe has pretty much patented the genre. In this year’s comedy, four longtime Mime Troupe actors, including head writer Michael Gene Sullivan, play multiple roles in a show that hits very close to home. Hugo E. Carbajal and Wilma Bonet direct; music and lyrics are by Ira Marlowe, with Michael Bello as music director and lead musician in the three-piece live band.

Two San Franciscans of diametrically opposed social milieus—Sunny (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro), a Vietnamese-immigrant beautician, and anxiety-ridden Jeanine (Lisa Hori-Garcia), a tech worker with a slight case of agoraphobia (“I’m overstimulated!” she gasps periodically)—end up together on a tour boat in San Francisco Bay operated by paranoid, tense, ’70s-style African-American militant Deborah (“That’s pronounced Deb-OR-a,” she annnounces), played by Velina Brown. Clashes ensue. Sunny is given to enthusiastically hugging the uptight Jeanine; Jeanine has created a surveillance app called SUSI in order to track the whereabouts of her demented grandmother but which clearly has other, less benign possible uses; Deborah doesn’t trust anything invented after 1988—the year when cell phones and Prozac emerged—and periodically considers throwing Jeanine overboard. And Sullivan wafts through the scenes in a variety of hilarious guises, including as an Octopus (representing the nefarious, many-tentacled corporation Octopus, where Jeanine works in a nice, safe little cubicle); as the operator of a haggis-sushi food truck; and as the revolutionary-minded poly sci major Marius (“pronounced Mar-I-us!”), who politicized love-struck Deborah back in their undergraduate days and whose mantra—accompanied by a heroic, raised-fist pose—was a memorable “By any means necessary.”

The Troupers (who do not practice the silent type of mime) cover a host of current local issues during the course of the play, written by Sullivan with Eugenie Chan and Tanya Shaffer: not just digital surveillance but also immigration, economic collapse, housing concerns and the tendency of the working class—the 99 percent—to in-fight. Each of the women takes the spotlight to tell her individual story: Sunny describes her immigrant background by way of a Vietnamese-style puppet show; Jeanine re-enacts scenes with her doddering grandmother (depicted by Shimosato Carreiro); Deborah tells of her lifelong search for the charismatic Marius, who mysteriously disappeared.

“What I wanted to get across,” explains Sullivan, who joined the Troupe as an actor in 1988, “is how we see the world: subjectively….”

2 p.m., Aug. 16 at Glen Park, Aug. 17 at Washington Square Park, Aug. 30 in Golden Gate Park, Aug. 31-Sept. 1 at Dolores Park (also Aug. 28 at Troupe studio, 7 p.m., reserve at 285-1717.

Yerba Buena Gardens Festival

In a city awash, in summertime, with street fairs and arts festivals, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, now in its 14th year, covers a particularly expansive range of performances: about 100 during its six-month tenure; sometimes, in midsummer, there are seven programs in a week. Most are musical, but some theater, children’s programming and dance are included (check out “Let’s Go Salsa@Jessie, the salsa lesson and community dance across the street at Jessie Square, at 6 p.m. on Aug. 21, music by Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca; 500 to 800 salsa enthusiasts show up for these monthly events).

Artistic/executive director Linda Lucero says that the objective of the festival is to highlight the richness and diversity of the performing arts community, with an emphasis on local performers. Audiences, too, are diverse, depending on the event, whether it be Cajun music or Latin jazz. Big draws this month are likely to be Kenny Endo along with Abhijit Banerjee and John Santos (Aug. 3); “Kenny has a big Bay Area fan base,” says Lucero, “and his percussionists come from diverse backgrounds and traditions.” Lucero also notes Grammy winners Quetzal, “well known for a Latin rock rooted in fandango—they’re amazing!” (Aug. 31) and Barcelona-based trumpeter and congo-drum player Jerry Gonzalez, who has collaborated with greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Tyner McCoy (Aug. 16, with the Fort Apache Band).

That’s not to mention AfroSolo’s Jazz in the Gardens (Aug. 2), the 21st annual Pistahan parade and festival (“the best of Filipino art, dance, music and food, Aug. 9 &10), the SF Son Jarocho Festival (celebrating the music of Veracruz, Mexico, Aug. 14) and Brazil in the Gardens (Aug. 17). Also: Thursday lunchtime concerts at 12:30; Poetic Tuesday at Jessie Square (Aug. 19); and the participatory children’s garden, where kids can sing, dance, clap and learn body percussion.

Lucero also points to Tiffany Austin and her quintet (“an amazing vocalist,” Aug. 7) and North African Rhythms (Aug. 21)—“reggae-groove music with some rock.”

Through Oct. 16, between Mission and Howard, 3rd & 4th Sts. 543-1718.

Stern Grove Festival

This equally music-heavy festival may be shorter in duration than the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival but it has longevity on its side: Rosalie Meyer Stern dedicated the scenic redwood-and-eucalyptus park, in the Sunset District, in 1932, specifically envisioning free concerts. Ten thousand music-lovers flock to the recently remodeled amphitheatre every Sunday afternoon over the course of the summer for performances as diverse as (this summer’s opener) Smokey Robinson or the San Francisco Symphony, which presented an unusual jazz interpretation of Ravel’s “Bolero,” and more, on a particularly foggy July 4th weekend.

Program director Judy Tsang, who has been attending Stern Grove festivals since she was a kid growing up in Chinatown, and who has been working for the festival for 13 summers, expects Chicago-based violin player/indie folksinger Andrew Bird and the Hands of Glory to be a big draw this month (Aug. 3, along with Bay Area bassist/composer Todd Sickafoos’ Tiny Resistors) as well as iconic Brazilian composer/vocalist Sergio Mendes the following week (his collaboration with Black Eyed Peas is attracting a lot of younger people, she says). A surefire attraction is Darlene Love on a bill with the local funk band Monophonics (Aug.10); the charismatic Love, featured in the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. Others performing this month are the San Francisco Latin band LoCura (on the bill with Mendes) and, closing out the season, the ’60s British rock band The Zombies (“She’s Not There”) with local indie folk band Vetiver (Aug. 24).

Every audience at Stern Grove is different. At the classical concerts, the crowd is respectfully silent, from the seniors in the front rows to the peanut gallery perched in the trees on the hillside. At other shows, says Tsang, everyone’s dancing salsa, or (as with Smokey Robinson) singing along. She adds, of the challenge of booking such world-renowned acts every summer, that it’s all about finding the right acts at the right time—“We might be competing with another festival anywhere in the world; there are so many performing opportunities in Europe over the summer”—and securing the budget to pay the talent. And there are always “nailbiters,” she adds (all big festivals have to cope at times with cancellations due to illness, scheduling conflicts, passport issues). “I don’t feel very relieved until they’re actually performing on our stage!”

2 p.m., 19th Ave. & Sloat Blvd. 252-6252.

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