Just when Marga Gomez thought she was out, leering shadows from her past pulled her back in.
Last year, after finishing an extended run of her 12th one-woman show Latin Standards, Gomez declared that she was done with the form. The pioneering queer comedian and founding member of the politically charged Latino performance troupe Culture Clash felt ready to move on and try something new, like maybe writing a play for a full cast of actors.
“I talked so much about my life I thought, ‘I don’t have anything else to say,’” says Gomez, who made her mark in the 1980s as one of stand-up comedy’s first openly lesbian performers. “I’m not dating anymore, so there goes a prime source of material. And I’m superstitious. I didn’t want to write the 13th show. I was pretty excited not knowing what would come next.”
But just as she was finishing the fall Latin Standards run at The Marsh in Berkeley, she started corresponding with a long-lost companion, “a childhood friend, someone I loved so much,” she says. “And he had all these stories from when we were partners in crime growing up in Washington Heights, both from Cuban families, both gay and closeted, and it unearthed a lot of memories.”
Instead of moving on to a new dramatic format, Gomez dug down into the muck and created Spanking Machine, her 13th (and final, really!) one-woman show, which runs at Brava Theater Center March 13 to 29. Gomez is known for her deft touch. Her pieces are generous and unsparing, like her loving warts-and-all Latin Standards portrait of her father, the Cuban-born impresario Willy Chevalier.
Spanking Machine is something different. Working closely with director Adrian Alexander Alea, a longtime collaborator, Gomez delves into the trauma of coming of age on the streets of New York, facing a gauntlet of stares, catcalls and worse every time she went down the block. It’s a piece that resonates at the frequency of #MeToo, and being funny is not the priority.
“Even with stories I’ve told that were tough I’ve banked on the humor,” Gomez says. “That’s not how I was going to write this show. Relations between women and men are part of the conversation we’re having now, and everything is coming out into the open. So it’s a cute and quirky story about two closeted gay Catholic Cuban kids, but also a very difficult story about assault.”
It’s hard to overstate Gomez’s pivotal role in San Francisco’s creative scene over the past four decades. A survivor from the city’s rapidly receding era when artists, musicians, dancers, poets, comedians and sundry bohemians could cover their rent with three or four shifts a week at a restaurant, she took refuge in San Francisco when her parents rejected her coming out.
She’d been in the orbit of the Mission ever since, and was at the center of the neighborhood’s 1980s cultural explosion as a founding member of Culture Clash. Launched on Cinco de Mayo in 1984 at the original Galería de la Raza, the group also included the three current members (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza) who are performing Culture Clash (Still) in America at the Berkeley Rep through April 5, Monica Palacios, and the late José Antonio Burciaga.
“That’s where I started really digging in and being embraced by the neighborhood,” Gomez says. “I’m inspired by the Mission every day. I cling to the presence of the Latino and working class community. I’d be lost without it. It’s my touchstone.”
In performing at the Brava, Gomez is returning to an institution she’s helped build. She served as an artist-in-residence at the theater for many years, and curated the theater’s New Year’s Eve comedy show fundraiser from 2012 to 2016. Around the same time, she launched a comedy night at the now-shuttered Mission District Latino drag club Esta Noche (an experience she details in Latin Standards).
More recently, she’s been hosting Who’s Your Mami at Brava every second Thursday since August, “a response to the bro culture in San Francisco and the Mission,” she says. “I really wanted to create a room for fans of progressive comedy and for comedians who are more thoughtful than you might find at a mainstream comedy club.”
Even at her goofiest, Gomez comes across as a razor-sharp observer of human foibles and folly, a gaze that she’s often turned on her own life. But with Spanking Machine, she discovered a lacuna that had escaped her notice. “I thought I talked about everything about my life, but not this thing that was the hardest,” she says. “It affected my relationship not just with half the population, but with myself.”
And about that title. Spanking Machine doesn’t refer to some kink-assuaging device from Good Vibrations’ catalog. Rather, it was an ominous and apparently apocryphal implement supposedly stored in the basement of the parochial elementary school that Gomez attended “that we were threatened with by the nuns” to keep kids in line.
Now that she’s excavated the traumas of childhood and adolescence, Gomez is ready to move on. “No more solo shows,” she says. “I mean it this time. At least, no more biographical pieces.”