Waiting for Gentrification in the Tenderloin
by Barry David Horwitz
Plays about housing, gentrification, and exploitation of poor people are beginning to populate local stages. The Bernie Revolution is coming home and the arts are reflecting our discontent with “business as usual.” At the Exit Theater, the exhilarating “Campo Maldito” is set in the gritty Tenderloin, both on and off stage. Acclaimed at the New York and San Francisco Fringe Festivals, this production by People of Interest makes its mark in the very neighborhood facing techie takeover and revamping. The play asks, “What will happen to the people who live here, on the edge?”
“Campo Maldito” (Cursed Field) by Bennett Fisher, tightly directed by Jesca Prudencio, depicts a struggle between two men, who stand for forces beyond themselves. One, a muscular, depressed geeky white guy, Ken Ingersoll (the multi-faceted, explosive Walker Hare); and second, the tightly coiled, self-assured Hieronymo Acosta (the volatile and hypnotic Luis Vega). The big white geek is failing at his start-up that he claims will help displaced tenants in the gentrifying Tenderloin, as dot.com comes to take over downtown San Francisco. Ingersoll is falling apart, haunted by computer crashes in his decaying Tenderloin office. He hasn’t slept for days and he is driven to admit that the damned residence hotel is haunted by ghosts.
Ingersoll is passed out over a bean bag chair in his tenement office, much the worse for wear and booze, as the play opens. He cannot get his programs to run, and the hotel is a war-zone of dirt and depression. He claims he wants to help the displaced tenants—and oh, by the way, make money off his program; but things are sliding downhill fast—and yes, he’s a mess. So, of course, he hires a Santeria priest to Ghostbust the place—a desperate boozed-up last resort. Ingersoll hires Acosta, a local Santeria mystic for a hefty fee, even though he doesn’t believe in spirits. Here we have an unlikely pair of partners in the Tenderloin.
Hieronymo Acosta appears at 5 AM on a Sunday in the office, a tough, street-wise recovering alcoholic, who will use his magical powers to cleanse the building of its malevolent spirits. is the opposite of the educated frazzled white dude: He is calm, stoic, and and self-aware. He takes charge and forces the big guy to kowtow to the spirits he doesn’t believe in. These two guys hate each other from the outset, but Hieronymo, a macho dude in his red 49ers jersey, knows all the in’s and out’s of practicing jiu-jitsu on a bigger, stronger rep of the ruling classes.
The arc of their conflict bends in the direction of the dominating Acosta, but then some strange possession of spirits takes place, which you have to be there to see. The white guy who is sinking into himself is no match for Acosta. They engage in a titanic physical and mental struggle between class, race, and outlook—the future is at stake.
Their acting skills are ultra-terrestrial, as they argue, debate, fight, and out-talk each other. Vega’s Hieronymo is proud, powerful, and pliant—agreeing to help, but on his own terms. Proud and compact, he turns the tables on the declining giant, who has the money and the build to crush him, but is powerless in spirit.
The god-damned Tenderloin is Occupied Territory. It takes on symbolic value in the age of corporate dominance. This Cursed Ground becomes a holy battlefield of comedy and tragedy.
They keep us on the edge of our chairs, as Hare subtly embodies the spirit which is haunting his body and soul. Everyone’s secrets are slowly exposed, even the nexus of philanthropy versus profit. No spoilers here—you have to see and feel it for yourself, in the Tenderloin—brave the streets, mingle with the people, smell the scent. And find out who is occupying Ingersoll!
The forces of clever computer-age manipulation and sinister Santeria meld and reform with intense battle, boozy rages, and blinding black-outs.
We could use even more of this too brief existential struggle over ownership, property, and magical realism. We could ask for a second act: We want more of this theatrical and political brilliance from Bennett and Prudencio. Give us more script fireworks, more sweet direction, and more of Vega’s and Hare’s stellar performances.
No wonder the Fringes trembled in NYC and SF when “Campo Maldito” came to town. Let’s Occupy Exit and demand more from People of Interest, the freshest force in town.
Let’s see more of this top flight theater magic from People of Interest. Soon. Bravo.
“Campo Maldito” by Bennett Fisher, by People of Interest at Exit Theater, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco, through August 13, 2016. For info: theexit.org
Directed by Jesca Prudencio. Stage Manager: Kasson Marroquin. Scenic Designer: Lily Bartenstein. Lighting Designer: Sarah Winter. Sound Designer: Chad Goss. Costume Designer: Janet O’Neill.
Cast: Hieronymo Acosta: Luis Vega. Ken Ingersoll: Walker Hare.