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Documentary play portrays real Tenderloin characters

Courtesy of cuttingball.com
Kathy and Leroy Looper (Rebecca Frank and David Sinaiko), owners of the Cadillac Hotel and Tenderloin community activists, describe the Tenderloin as a “containment zone”

San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood can be a difficult place to live. Almost a quarter of the neighborhood’s residents live below the poverty line. According to the police department, the Tenderloin accounts for more than a third of the city’s drug-related offenses.

Statistics like those make it easy to forget that the Tenderloin is also a historical landmark. After the 1906 earthquake, the neighborhood was rebuilt in the Beaux Arts style with arched windows and cornices. Long an entertainment district, it had restaurants and theaters as well as brothels and gambling joints. Movie director Frank Capra lived there; so did writer Dashiell Hammett. Boxer Muhammad Ali trained there. Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane all recorded in Tenderloin studios.

A new play, Tenderloin, in the neighborhood’s Cutting Ball Theater, aims to highlight some of that old vibrancy in Tenderloin’s present-day streets.

Actors David Sinaiko and Rebecca Frank, two members of the Tenderloin cast, have walked those streets often over the past year of the play’s production. On a recent walk, a scene catches Sinaiko’s eye.

“Oh, look, we got a crazy fight now on the corner, here by Club 21,” Sinaiko points out.

“That’s not a fight – that looks like love,” Frank responds.

“There’s a thin line,” Sinaiko says.

“There’s a really thin line in the Tenderloin,” Franks says.

Sinaiko and Frank are walking that thin line for their roles, in which they embody people who live and work in the Tenderloin neighborhood. The actors want to know what those people see every day.

“On the surface there’s a lot of not very positive stuff to see, like the drug addicts we just passed by who were literally passed out on the street,” Sinaiko says. “Oh, it’s painful. It can be painful to look at how hard life is for some people. We think of that existing in some far-off country or continent, but it’s in our backyard. At the same time, we’re talking to people about how much love there is among the residents of this neighborhood, and the people who work here.”

Sinaiko, who lives in Fairfax, has been performing in shows at the Cutting Ball Theater on Taylor Street for a decade. But he says he never really engaged with the neighborhood before starting to work on this play. He and Frank pause in front of a mural on the corner of Turk and Jones that depicts that corner. While they’re pointing out some people from the neighborhood in the mural, a man named TJ, who happens to be standing nearby, shows them his likeness in the mural – he’s even wearing the same sweater.

Sinaiko and Frank stop to point out the Cadillac Hotel on Eddy Street. The hotel was built in the early 1900s and meant for wealthy visitors. Now, it offers affordable housing and support services for low-income people. Husband and wife Leroy and Kathy Looper owned the hotel together, along with several halfway houses in the neighborhood. In the play, Sinaiko portrays the cheerful Kathy, and Frank plays 87-year-old Leroy. Leroy, known as the father of the Tenderloin, died late 2011, and the play is dedicated to him.

“He was this magnetic, charismatic wonderful big personality, and he came from a personal experience of being a drug addict,” Frank said. “His philosophy was people who had been through this could heal other drug addicts.”

Annie Ellias directed and created the play Tenderloin. “Having done this form a few times now, I’m amazed by the wisdom and poetry of – I hate to use the term – ordinary people,” she said.

Ellias says the actors heard lots of surprising stories about people in the Tenderloin. Such as one about a man, living in a 6th Street hotel, who took in a baby whose mother was going to jail so the baby wouldn’t end up in the system. People in the neighborhood gave him “nothing but love,” he says.

The actors talked to more than 40 people, spending anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours hearing their stories. They transcribed all their interviews, down to the “uhs” and “umms,” and carefully studied each person’s body language and gestures. On stage, those people come to life: a high school senior; a police captain; a lawyer; a group of neighborhood kids; and a waitress at a transgender bar.

Ellias says since she’s been working on the play, it’s easier to see love in the neighborhood and in the people there. She gives an example of seeing a woman in a wheelchair, trying to get up Taylor. 

“I guess I would have just walked by her previously, but having started working on this piece and really hearing people’s stories, I just stopped and talked to her. It was a just moment of empathy,” Ellias said. “So I pushed her up, and she was just so lovely, and we had this really lovely exchange and she was very thankful.”