How Berkeley Can a Play Be?

How Berkeley Can a Play Be?

THEATER | Dan Wolf makes the community the star of Shotgun’s Daylighting.

It’s a curious coincidence that Shotgun Players will be producing Our Town at the end of this year, because the show Shotgun is performing now could just as easily have the same title. Daylighting: The Berkeley Stories Project weaves together the personal stories of a wide array of Berkeley residents into the fictional journey of a teenage girl who’s just graduated from Berkeley High.

“I was wondering, how do you write a play where the main character is a place?” asks playwright Dan Wolf, also an actor who was in Chinaka Hodge’s Chasing Mehersle at Intersection for the Arts in May. “How do you tell a story about the place where you live when you’re not from there?” A San Francisco native who grew up in San Rafael and moved to Berkeley six years ago, Wolf was inspired to explore his new hometown after conversations with Daylighting director Rebecca Novick, another SF-to-Berkeley émigré.

“Rebecca and I started talking about it probably three or four years ago,” Wolf says. “We both had moved to the East Bay after doing the ‘let’s-live-in-the-city-during-our-20s’ thing, and we’d both gotten married and had kids (separately, obviously) and ran into each other on the street. So we started kicking around a few ideas. What is this Berkeley place? It has this history that most of the country knows—the civil rights and free speech thing at Sproul Plaza, the Panthers, and the hippies—but that’s 50 years ago. Does that Berkeley still exist? And then we went to Shotgun and said, ‘We think you’re the right place to do this. What do you think?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah! We’ve been thinking about what our next local play was about.’ “

This kind of interview-based exploration of the local community is nothing new for Shotgun. Shortly after taking over the Ashby Stage after many nomadic years, the company examined the history of its South Berkeley neighborhood in Marcus Gardley’s 2006 play Love Is a Dream House in Lorin, based on conversations with local residents. Gardley returned to Shotgun in 2009 with the similarly community-based This World in a Woman’s Hands, about World War II–era Rosie the Riveter workers in the Richmond Shipyards.

Inspired by the methods of Los Angeles’s Cornerstone Theater Company, Wolf and Novick conducted a series of “story circles” with various groups of Berkeley residents. “We probably had 200 people involved in the conversations,” Wolf says. “Sometimes it would be 20 people in the room talking; sometimes it would be one-on-one. We met with lots of different groups, from folks who’d lived in South Berkeley forever to the Cal swim team, to people in Jordan Winer’s drama class at Berkeley High, to folks from the Ed Roberts Center, that disabled community center across from Ashby BART. And we asked them three questions: ‘When did you come to Berkeley? Why do you stay in Berkeley? What’s a secret or magical place in Berkeley for you?’ This town is a fascinating place for such a project, because so many people settled there from elsewhere, whether lured by the university, by Berkeley’s sociopolitical reputation, or by something else entirely.

“Ultimately we met people who were coming here to find themselves through the spirit of what they believed Berkeley to be: inclusive, diverse,” Wolf says. “Or people came here for this idea of what San Francisco was, and then were actually drawn to Berkeley as a place to settle and put down roots. They had come here because of the allure of the city—San Francisco definitely has the best PR agent in the area—but found more of what they were looking for in the East Bay. It’s either that or people who have been here their whole lives and can’t seem to go anywhere else, or they go other places and they come back.”

Inevitably, many contradictory ideas of what Berkeley is emerged, some of them directly at odds with each other. Still, says Wolf, “It wasn’t until about halfway through that I started to see any kind of friction between communities. There’s a line in the play that’s like, ‘There isn’t six degrees of separation in Berkeley. There’s two. Every time I meet someone, it’s like, “You were married to him?” ‘ Everybody knows everybody in some weird way; has seen or passed by everybody.”

This is far from the first play that Wolf’s written, but it’s the first since high school that he hasn’t also performed in. Also a rapper and founding member of the hip-hop collective Felonious, Wolf has written and starred in a variety of pieces including Angry Black White Boy, Beatbox: A Raparetta, and Stateless: A Hip Hop Vaudeville.

“I came up as an actor, so I think of myself sometimes as an actor first,” Wolf says. “But I wanted to explore this world through the eyes of a young girl and challenge myself as a writer in that way: Can I write a three-dimensional female character that isn’t just a male’s version of the female? There’s a couple of characters in the play that are really in a sense modeled after me and my wife, so there was a moment when I was like, ‘Will I be playing that character?,’ but quickly said no, it’s better if I sit on the outside and look at structure, look at story.”

Daylighting is not documentary theater like The Laramie Project, where actors perform verbatim excerpts of interviews. It’s ultimately a fictional story with characters assembled from bits and pieces of several different people, sealed with a heaping helping of poetic license. “What started to emerge is the relationship between a grandfather and a granddaughter, a black family who had been in Berkeley for many generations and were leaving, not because they couldn’t afford it anymore, but because they owned a piece of property and this was the right time to sell it,” Wolf says. “For a girl who’s transitioning out of high school into the rest of her life, what does it mean when that nurturing support network that you had as a child is no longer there to push you along?”

In doing research for this piece, Wolf was fascinated by the many layers of history lurking under every block of Berkeley: the old Ohlone trails, different neighborhoods that used to be separate towns, streets laid out in odd configurations to accommodate long-gone streetcar lines. “That’s where the concept of daylighting emerged,” he says. “These creeks used to run east to west through Berkeley. Strawberry Creek, for instance, which is the main metaphor of the play, which the character decides to follow home in the middle of the night. It’s like the way a naturalist says this is the path of Strawberry Creek and now it’s a pipe that runs under these 12 blocks, so let’s actually carve out an area so we can bring the creek back to the surface. I love that. That’s where the nature and the history and the topography became a metaphor for the journey of the main character. Everyone in the play has their own Strawberry Creek. We all have a thing that is natural to us that has been submerged, and at a certain point, that thing has to come back up to the light.”

Musical director Olive Mitra leads a live house band accompanying the story with a soundscape of distinctively Berkeley musical styles. What that means can be a hard thing to pin down, Wolf says, because Berkeley music encompasses so many things: the rock of the 1960s, the jazz greats who came out of Berkeley High, the up-and-coming hip-hop acts hawking their cassette tapes on Telegraph Avenue, the drum circles at Ashby BART, blues, folk, R&B, and on and on. Just in one particular neighborhood, the world music hub Ashkenaz and the punk collective 924 Gilman are both equally Berkeley.

“That’s the task at hand for him,” Wolf says, “to kind of create a sonic creek bed, this tapestry of sounds that is Berkeley. What I was hoping was that we’d find these iconic Berkeley songs like ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’ What is Berkeley’s version of that? Is there a Berkeley version?

“And if not, what is iconically Berkeley music? It’s like in the set design, we want layers of time, layers of history, layers of emotion, layers of complexity, but [designer Michael Locher] doesn’t want this weird Beach Blanket Babylon version of Berkeley. It has to be more metaphoric.” Even once the show is running, the collecting of Berkeley stories continues. Audience members are invited to tell their own Berkeley stories on camera in the lobby or online, and portraits of the community members whose stories went into the play are on display in the theater. “Patrick [Dooley, Shotgun Players’ artistic director] likes to call the play a love letter and also a shoulder check,” Wolf says. “Both ‘this is the best place on earth’ and also ‘this is what’s wrong with the best place on earth.’ “

Ultimately nobody’s going to agree on what Berkeley is or what it means. And that kind of lively debate may be the most Berkeley thing of all.

Sam Hurwitt, a Berkeley native now living in Alameda, is editor-in-chief of Theatre Bay Area magazine and blogs at

Daylighting runs May 30–June 22 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. For info and tickets, 510-841-6500 or Watch a trailer at

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