'Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad' at the Magic Theatre

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday March 12, 2024
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Guillermo Yiyo Ornelas, Anna Marie Sharpe, and Jamella Cross in 'Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad' (photo: Jay Yamada)
Guillermo Yiyo Ornelas, Anna Marie Sharpe, and Jamella Cross in 'Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad' (photo: Jay Yamada)

Naima, the 29-year-old protagonist of "Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad," now premiering in a Magic Theatre/Campo Santo co-production extended through March 24, may be depressed and directionless, but she wields a wicked analogy.

Seeing the titular vehicles taking over the streets of her native San Francisco, Naima (Anna Marie Sharpe, a magnetic orator) explains that while "Black folks trip off of their white shoes being dirty...because it took so much time for us to get those shoes, and we probably won't be able to get another pair anytime soon, so we honor them."

Meanwhile, the city's four-wheeled Musketeers are willing to drive around dirty.

"What kind of privilege is that?" Naima wonders in one of many monologues that playwright Ashley Smiley surely intends to articulate inner thought rather than actual speech. "To have something that screams inaccessibility and classism and capitalism and not even have to worry about it being clean?"

Anna Marie Sharpe and Tanika Baptiste in 'Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad' (photo: Jay Yamada)  

High tech totems
Teslas are represented on stage by the presence of car doors and tires, but smartphones prove similarly ubiquitous, and more pernicious, in the show's storytelling.

They're essential to Naima, who sporadically works as an Uber driver ("Five different map apps and I still get turned around") and ultimately becomes entangled in a poorly explicated but quintessentially contemporary heist scheme: reconfigured iPhones are used to hotwire Teslas.

Designer Tanya Orellana's versatile set features two monumental curved white brackets. They're somewhat suggestive of automotive design but more highly evocative of iPhone iconography.

These units also serve as screens for Joan Osato's inventive projections, including several created to work in tandem with director Raelle Myrick-Hodges' blocking of the actors to create impressive simulated driving scenes.

Unfortunately for devoted local theatergoers, this stage design is strikingly similar to the one Orellana created for Act I of "Big Data," which closed at the Toni Rembe Theater just last week. Were it credited to someone else, it would be considered either a huge coincidence or a blatant rip-off.

Still, when an extraordinarily talented designer (Among Orellana's past triumphs: A.C.T.'s "Fefu and her Friends" and Magic's "Don't Eat the Mangos") comes up with such closely related designs for plays about very disparate characters, it does suggest how large the iPhone and its ills loom in our collective consciousness. But collectivity has its limits.

Guillermo Yiyo Ornelas, Anna Marie Sharpe, and Jamella Cross in 'Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad' (photo: Jay Yamada)  

Unintegrated impact
"Big Data" was painted in brilliant broad strokes and rooted in the context of upper-middle-class society. When it approached life and death issues, it did so in a darkly humorous, "Twilight Zone" mode.

In "Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad," local playwright Smiley very specifically trains her eye on poor Black and Brown people in contemporary Bayview Hunters Point; people struggling to keep roofs over their heads and food on their tables. people contending with crime, violence, and the continually compounded impact of structural racism. The life and death issues here are raw urgencies, not polished intellectual musings.

The diminished attention spans, emotional disconnection, and egocentric tunnel vision induced by smartphone-addicted living only exacerbate the neighborhood's preexisting conditions and widen the divide between San Francisco's haves and have nots.

"You're really going to look at your phone right now?" explodes Delcina (Tanika Baptiste), Naima's mother, as her daughter blithely shifts focus amid a weighty argument about their future.

Like the unprescribed pills Naima pops to induce a woozy dissociated haze, a handful of technology can provide a short-term escape route with a long run dead end.

Anna Marie Sharpe in 'Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad' (photo: Jay Yamada)  

Resorting to crime
The play's core storyline has Naima feeling directionless and desperate. A college graduate, she still lives with Delcina and between the two of them they don't earn enough to cover the rising rent for their apartment in relentlessly gentrifying San Francisco.

As Delcina makes painful but practical decisions, she steams at her daughter's apparent disengagement. (Phenomenally gifted, Baptiste gives us a frayed, raging character, who's a full 180-degree turn from the cunning sunshine of her last major role, a Nigerian Oprah in San Francisco Playhouse's "Nollywood Dreams".)

Meanwhile, Naima, slipping deeper into addiction, is pulled into the criminal enterprises of family friend Pappadeaux (Juan Manuel Amador) and his gender-fluid gang of lightly comical henchthem (Jamella Cross, Lauren Andrei Garcia, Guillermo Yiyo Ornelas, Jessica Maria Recinos).

Plot vs. poetry
But this plot serves primarily as scaffolding for the gorgeous flights of insight that Smiley lavishly drapes over it. While it's sometimes difficult, perhaps intentionally, to discern whether we're hearing conversation or cogitation, Smiley is at her strongest in the sharp-tongued fugues delivered primarily by Naima: Free-associative but emotionally coherent expressions of grief, nostalgia, anger, and spiritual hunger.

Here's Smiley summoning police violence, Jim Jones, and the ache of San Franciscan survival: "...the Blue and White cop cars and the red lining and the loss of damn near 1,000 souls to a Devil in gas station shades. I know this city better than I know my own hands. My veins are a map of bus lines, changing over time."

These riffs are occasionally overripe ("Bent by the weight of high expectations and zero resources marks of brown sugar stigmata rise from the skin like Lazarus gasping for salvation"), but more frequently inspired.

In their production notes, Smiley and director Myrick-Hodges effortfully suggest that "Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad" is not a play per se, but "a process," "poetry," and "a meditation." This feels like hedging, unnecessary insecurity.

Yes, the narrative scaffolding nearly collapses under the free verse, but that may be less tragic than its builders assume. The thematically linked riffs are more powerful than the near-surreal plot. When a project has been successfully completed, scaffolding becomes extraneous and can safely be removed.

Ntozake Shange initially used the term "choreopoem" to describe her unorthodox "For colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf" but it went on to win the 1976 Tony Award for Best Play.

Future productions of "Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad," which are well merited, might benefit by loosening (even losing) the constraints of traditional plotting to make more space for the work's spirit to reverberate.

'Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad,' through March 24. $30-$75. Magic Theatre, 2 Marina Blvd. Fort Mason, Bldg. D. (415) 441-8822. www.magictheatre.org

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