Before the opening scene of Tree City Legends, a staff member informed us, the viewers, that this play was, "going to be like a really good funeral." I find that I agree with this statement. Like a “good funeral," this new work, written by Dennis Kim, directed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and currently playing at San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts is an emotional tour-de-force. If you want to feel stuff, go see it.
While this play is Dennis Kim's first work in the genre, he is well known to many as a spoken word artist and composer. These skills are certainly reflected in the strengths and structure of this work. To begin, large portions of the script are written as intersecting poetic monologues, as if each character is reciting a story written in the recesses of his mind. Secondly, the focal character, Junie Kane (Dennis Kim), is barely a physical presence on-stage, spending most of his time as a shadow behind a back-lit screen (designed by Joan Osato). We know him primarily through his vocals, accompanied by the band Dirty Boots and sung in-between performances by the other Kane brothers. Most notably, Junie's three brothers each deliver a seminal monologues at roughly the beginning, middle, and end of the play. There is a sermon delivered by the oldest brother, Sum Kane (Juan Armador/Wonway Posibul); a prayer from the youngest brother, Min Kane (Taiyo Na); and a closing eulogy by Denizen Kane (Sean San Jose).
All of this is fitting, you see, as Junie has died, and we are attending his funeral. Junie’s voice floating from the back of the stage is a sort of sensory hint at the legend-making that is this play’s namesake. Throughout, the play seems to imply the questions: What does it mean to remember someone? What does it mean to tell the stories of our homes? How do we find hope in impossible circumstances? Junie’s songs are visceral representations of an inner self that cannot be overwhelmed by the circumstances of his death, yet are not meant to exceed the vagaries of his life. In fact, it is the opposite; the lyrics come from his life and exceed his demise. The brothers do the remaining work of making Junie’s legend through their monologues in which they meditate on his passing, articulate their anger and frustration, and speak out about the injustices they see around them. Yet, each brother, in his own way, ultimately ends his speech with an offering of hope.
Before and in between these speeches, the brothers seamlessly transition from the implied context of a church and travel through their memories. The speeches ultimately serve as tethers to the present-tense plot-line, as the brothers must leave the present to narratively trace all the stories that factored into the making and un-making of Junie Kane. The staging reflects these continuous, circular movements from past to present, as much of the performance takes place in the aisles, as well as on the several raised platforms throughout the space. Denizen recounts, while at times nearly running through the middle of the room, a formative memory from when he was seven and Junie was ten. Min on occassion rises from the center of the audience, while Sum walks around all of us as he recalls a memory, he says, he cannot forget. And he is proud of this, glad for it. Because of his inability to forget, the other children in the neighborhood will have a chance.
In this work, it is as if each remembrance is an act, each story a method of giving voice to the loved ones society might too easily reject. This is not unfamiliar territory, but Tree City Legends' treatment of the content makes this work moving. Every narrative traces the outline of urban desolation, childhood abandonment, and being Other American without enacting an “I am” redundancy in the telling. It is simply the story, and that works.
Tree City Legends plays at 8 p.m. every Thursday thru Saturday until March 3. All shows are located at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. Tree City Legends also invites all audience members to bring the names, photos, and/or stories of their loveds ones for the community alter, located near the door of the performance space. For more information, please click here. Enjoy.