'The Red Shades' - Adrienne Price's trans superhero rock opera

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday October 18, 2022
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Mizz June and Tommy Clifford-Carlos in the 2019 workshop production of 'The Red Shades' (photo: Tristan Crane)
Mizz June and Tommy Clifford-Carlos in the 2019 workshop production of 'The Red Shades' (photo: Tristan Crane)

"People tend not to believe me when I tell them that I wrote a trans superhero rock opera by accident," says Adrienne Price. "But that's the truth."

That happy accident, which eventually came to be called "The Red Shades," is now being presented in a world premiere production at Z Space, San Francisco's boundary-pushing incubator for new performance works. But it began seven years ago as a series of voice memos.

At the time, Price, 33, who is queer and trans, has been writing songs and performing as a vocalist and violinist in rock bands since her teen years, endured a daily cross-Bay commute for a teaching job.

"To pass the time, I was recording song ideas on my phone," recalled Price in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter immediately preceding the show's first technical run-through last week.

"Songwriting is kind of the clearest way for me to express myself. I'm always coming up with song ideas. It's like journaling is for some people. A lot of times, the songs don't go anywhere."

"A lot of my life seemed really chaotic when I wrote the first songs for the show. I was having a lot of very complicated feelings that I really needed to get out. It was something of a therapeutic exercise for me at that point."

Clearly "The Red Shades," a comic book-influenced adventure story built around the real life Compton's Cafeteria riots of 1966, in which the Tenderloin trans community rose up against police harassment, is not autobiographical.

But, in retrospect, Price —who had begun delving into the history of San Francisco's trans community around the same time she was dealing with her emotional struggles— realized there was an artistic alchemy when she mixed her personal feelings with the historical record.

Deep-seated feelings

"I've heard authors express the sentiment that writing fiction somehow helps them get closer to the truth than non-fiction would. That's kind of how I felt in writing these songs. I think I was able to allow myself to express some of the deeper layers of my unconscious that I would have blocked off if I if I had said, 'Okay, I'm gonna write about myself.' Through the fictional characters that I've invented, I've been able to channel some of my own deep-seated feelings."

After she'd developed the songs and storyline for what ultimately became Act I of "The Red Shades," Price brought the work to her friend Jeanine Adkinson, and the two collaborated on refining and arranging the music (A third composer, Matt Fukui Grandy, eventually joined the fold). The work's first public showcase was a reading and concert at the El Rio bar in November 2017.

"It was unbelievable," said Price. "200 people showed up. We'd done a flyer and advertised on Facebook, but we never expected so many people. It was the first year of the Trump administration, though; dark days. And I just think seeing the words Trans Superhero Rock Opera must have felt energizing for the community."

Those words surely helped, but it was the lyrics and music of the songs themselves —along with the palpable excitement they generated in an audience— that captured the attention of Z Space interim producing director Rose Oser and executive director Shafer Mazow, who were in the crowd that day and soon after took "The Red Shades" under their wing.

Four years, four concert presentations, two workshops, a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a global pandemic later, the show has bloomed into the rowdy three act extravaganza blazing its way onto scenic designer Sarah Phykitt's sleek multi-tiered set this week.

Asked about artistic influences, Price cites the genre-blurring queer cinema of Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant. And when it comes to theater, "One thing that has been a big influence on me is 'Spring Awakening.' I remember seeing that on Broadway when I was 19 and it really blew my mind that you could have angsty rock music in the theater that way. So that's definitely part of 'The Red Shades' DNA."

"But the melding of history, fiction, fantasy and rock music in this show? I don't think there's anything quite like it out there."

'The Red Shades,' through Nov. 5. Sliding scale from free-$50. 499 Alabama St. (415) 626-0453. www.zspace.org

Mizz June and Tommy Clifford-Carlos in the 2019 workshop production of 'The Red Shades' photo: Tristan Crane

playwright-composer Adrienne Price

Tommy Clifford-Carlos in the 2019 workshop production of 'The Red Shades' photo: Tristan Crane

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