Sean San Jose Play Examines Crack Epidemic
At EXIT on Taylor—a small theater venue just a block from Glide Memorial Church, where homeless people lie in sleeping bags and blankets on the sidewalk—Sean San José’s new play, “Superheroes,” is set to launch Cutting Ball Theater’s 16th season. “The Tenderloin is a living example of families, generations, devastated by an epidemic,” declares San José.
“Superheroes” is about that epidemic. It was inspired by the late journalist Gary Webb’s investigational series, published in the “San Jose Mercury News” in 1996, which revealed the shocking connection between the CIA and the crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged the African-American community here, starting in the 1980s.
Webb alleged that Nicaraguan drug dealers had been smuggling huge amounts of cocaine into California, where it was sold cheap in the inner cities, and that the money from the sales went to the Contras, the anti-communist group in Nicaragua—propped up by the CIA—that was fighting the democratically elected, left-wing Sandinistas. Webb’s book, “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion,” based on his series of articles, was published in 1998. John Kerry, for one, was convinced of the CIA’s complicity in the goings-on. (The recent film “Kill the Messenger” dramatizes the scandal.) After publishing the articles, the "Mercury News" distanced itself from the story; Webb committed suicide in 2004.
“Maybe unconsciously, when I first read ‘Dark Alliance,’ I was responding emotionally,” muses San José. He is a longtime local actor, playwright and director, former program director at Intersection for the Arts and cofounder of Campo Santo, Intersection’s resident, and influential, theater company. This world premiere, which he directs, marks a first-time collaboration between Campo Santo and artistic director Rob Melrose’s Cutting Ball, which developed the play in its “Risk Is This” series. The two like-minded small professional companies have similar—but distinct—aesthetics, artistic agendas and organizational values.
“I became a little obsessed,” continues San José, “with this notion that we had verification of the root of this epidemic but haven’t really responded to it as a society and a government.” “Superheroes” went through a long gestation period in his mind, as he examined the complexity of the story and its layers. The conundrum for him was the realization that “we had all these facts but it hadn’t changed our actions or our activities” in dealing with the crack crisis. And that conundrum provided a way in, theatrically. “Now that we have that information,” he says, “another layer of addressing the epidemic, as opposed to the conspiracy [angle], is, what do we do as a culture now? The reason that’s important to me is the lingering effects: the lives lost, everything affected by it, our economy. How do you focus that down and make it a little more human? . . . I think human responses are something we can do in theater.”
To reconstruct the tale for the stage in an imaginative way, San José looked to experimental theatrical forms, integrating dialogue—both lyrical and naturalistic—with music (an original score by Jake Rodriguez), movement (choreographed by Rashad Pridgen), projections (documents, letters and more) and elements of the surreal. He created a group of characters loosely based on some of the actual players in that deadly drug game: three central dealers, Bayuncoso, a Nicaraguan (portrayed by Juan Amador); Free, his African-American colleague in Oakland (Myers Clark); and the Nicaraguan immigrant Nico (Ricky Saenz), Free’s accomplice. The story is related in bits and pieces by a San Francisco journalist, Aparecida (Delina Patrice Brooks), to her pastor (Donald E. Lacy, Jr.), who himself is complicit in the spread of the drugs. It is Free’s wife, Magnolia (Britney Frazier), who alerts the journalist to the truth of the source of the cocaine. “I got a story and it’s definitely smoking,” she tells Aparecida. “A smoking gun story?” says the skeptical journalist. “Try this,” says Magnolia. “Smoking glass pipe.”
Says San José, “I created characters based on the mythology that the press and government gave us, characters I understood psychologically and emotionally.”
He says that as a theater artist, he is most influenced by the writers he’s worked with—Octavio Solis, Richard Montoya and many more.
The events unfurl nonlinearly, going back and forth in time from the 1980s to an out-of-time present; San José says that choice was a byproduct of the way he himself learned the story: by putting together bits and pieces of evidence until the puzzle, complicated and, as he says, unbelievable, eventually unfolded. In addition, he wanted the play to “stay connected to the people, the human face of them, rather than follow [an action-oriented] structure.” Thus, in the intensely dramatic world of “Superheroes,” the journalist and Bayuncoso are ghosts who haunt the living; Free is not free at all, but in jail (“Just working for the man in the end,” he says ironically); and Nico, the drug dealer with the most qualms, is trapped in a sort of guilt-ridden purgatory. “One of the byproducts of drug wars that doesn’t get addressed is, what happens to the Central Americans who were involved—the Nicaraguans and the Salvadoreans?” observes San José. In Nico he imagines a lost soul who was on the wrong side of the civil war in his own country but not part of our world either—someone who cannot recover his life.
At first San José wrestled with the challenge of fictionalizing fairly recent local history. How do you write about a Snowden, or about current elections, so it doesn’t feel like agit-prop or documentary—so it’s not like putting newspaper headlines into a theatrical context? he wondered. “Two things provided a chance for reflection,” he says. “It’s been about 30 years since the explosion of the crack epidemic. And Webb’s revelations came almost 20 years ago. It was distant enough that I could investigate and research it, yet the effects were so prevalent in my daily life that it allowed me a way into my own kind of storytelling.” San José grew up in San Francisco and Oakland in the 1980s—“in the heart of it,” he says.
In writing the characters, some of whose ethnicities represent the real-life players, San José wove in some Spanish and inner-city slang and allowed the characters’ speech to emerge rhythmically. “I think the world keeps rotating, and I write to try to follow that,” he says. “I let them speak. If I followed my own thoughts, it would be boring and one-sided and would border on soap-box. It’s more intriguing to me to hear the way the bigger questions are all of a sudden unearthed, or circled around.” By the sixth or seventh draft, he knows what the characters’ motives and morals are, and how they’re likely to finish a sentence. “And working with great actors in rehearsal… is where a lot of writing happens for me,” he adds.
One cast member in particular, Donald E. Lacy, was especially inspirational. “He and I were very drawn to ‘Dark Alliance,’” says San José. “He helped me break out of ‘Dark Alliance’ and do a story about our world.”
“This story is very personal for me,” says Lacy, a locally based actor, writer, director, comedian and talk show host who once interviewed Gary Webb. Lacy describes the character he plays in “Superheroes,” the Reverend, as a man with “the devil on one shoulder and God on the other.” “Millions of lives destroyed!” Lacy laments. “Who is going to be held accountable for this CIA crack cocaine distribution? … I’ve seen it first-hand. Some of the people who murdered my child [his daughter was killed at the age of 16] were involved in the crack cocaine trade.” He based the Reverend loosely on a preacher who was a family friend and who went through circumstances similar to the character’s. The Reverend, a charismatic sermonizer in San José’s writing—and in Lacy’s multi-layered portrayal—can’t resist Bayuncoso’s offer: cut-rate crack to sell to his parishioners; the income will bolster his struggling church. Nor can he resist the temptation to try some himself. “A man of God using crack—the dichotomy is rich on so many levels,” Lacy muses. “It speaks to the diabolical nature of the drug. It makes you turn against your very spirit—that’s the insidious nature of it.”
“They do not sell us what we do not want!” the Reverend roars to his congregation. “They sell us temptation. If we were not weak we would not want. Only a superhero can withstand that.”
“To me, Sean has written the most important play in the last 25 years,” Lacy avers. “They’re fictional characters, but this really happened.” For the black community, he says, no play—other than the works of August Wilson—is more important than this one. “What are we going to do with this truth?” he demands. “Hopefully this play, and ‘Kill the Messenger,’ will regenerate the conversation.”
It is perhaps with that thought in mind that in “Superheroes,” San José gives the final word in the play to the Reverend, who is the last person to see the reporter alive.
December 2 → 21
EXIT on Taylor
277 Taylor St., 415-525-1205
Photo via Cuttingball