Detour Dance’s ‘Fugue’ uncovers history of SF’s queer people of color

Photo courtesy of Melissa Lewis

Meet your guide at the corner of 23rd and Folsom streets on an overcast evening, just before the Red Poppy Art House starts buzzing, in front of four woodcut portraits of people passed but not forgotten. Choose a name for yourself, and prepare for a journey that has been two years in the making.

“Tonight we leave the city,” your guide will tell you.

Well, not exactly.  You will walk 210 feet down 23rd Street to stop in front of Parque Ninos Unidos, where you look across the street to a bay window two stories up. There on the ledge is where your first “fairy god” lived. His name was Leland. The day before he died he stayed up all night singing songs that beckoned you to come to San Francisco.

Push past Cal’s Automotive, down Treat Avenue and imagine catching a paper plane with a message tucked inside of it. It reminds you of a city where buildings float, skyscrapers kneel to the sunset, and no one can take you out of your home.

Eric Garcia and Kat Cole’s latest immersive performance piece, “Fugue”, is part Magic School Bus, part guided tour, and part contemporary dance meant to enchant or perhaps re-enchant its audience with the city by the Bay and its queer history of people of color.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Lewis

The journey begins at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church, where the audience is divided into small groups that will be led by a performer/guide through eight different routes that wind through San Francisco’s Mission District. The Mission was chosen, in part, because it has become emblematic of gentrification and displacement.

Each tour will stop at a unique set of alleys, murals, houses, and businesses that uncover a history of queer people of color in the Mission. The tours will also stop at locations personal to the performers. After walking through the area, participants will be led towards a fabled future city before arriving at Studio 210 at 3435 Cesar Chavez St, where they will watch a half-hour long performance that concludes the event.

Garcia and Cole, who have been collaborating since their time in college at UCSF, began the project two years ago with the understanding that it would start with San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society and their sense of longing for the city’s queer past.  

“We’re in this fog and we have a responsibility to learn what that history was or how people found community together, as queers, as people of color, and spaces,” Cole said.

During the research process, Cole said they found an undated flyer that called for people within the gay community to create a new city outside of San Francisco.  The flyer gave just an anonymous author’s physical address as a way to sign up. That moment served as the spark for a piece that would lead participants down different pathways throughout the Mission and toward this “New City.”  The latter was constructed, in part, through a lengthy questionnaire that asked for input from the queer and people of color community in the Bay Area.

The piece itself is a massive collaboration. The team involves additional directors, 13 performers that are part of their company Detour Dance, three playwrights and an entire crew of designers.

The final and perhaps largest collaborator is the city itself. The play is located outdoors so that San Francisco’s sounds, sights, denizens, and weather are not impediments to the play but central elements. 

Garcia said this play is a way to return to their roots as students of performance that is social-justice oriented. And it is partly inspired by a period of his life when he was reticent to share. Now, he said, “it’s like, hell no, we need to be telling these stories, and there’s sort empowerment with that.”

One of the effects of performing a play on the streets is that those very landmarks and sites will now have multiple meanings. I for one would have seen Leland’s boarded up window on 23rd Street as a mark of impending gentrification, but now that I have walked the performance, I can’t help but imagine it as the often boarded-up history of queer people that “Fugue” helps to uncover.    

Fugue opens today and runs from December 1 to 10 in the Mission District. For more details and tickets, visit here.

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