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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Skywatchers & Dance Mission Theater present Towards Opulence, the Opera II, Dance Mission Theater, May 31 – June 2, 2024

We are told art can transform lives, but have we seen it? I have. Skywatchers Ensemble, a project of ABD Productions, makes performances by and for the people of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.

Skywatchers Ensemble is my jam. Their performances enliven and enrich my life so powerfully that year after year I find myself rearranging my plans to allow for a second or third viewing. To be in community, in a lobby or on a sidewalk, singing “This Little Light of Mine,” with Music Director Melanie DeMore leading performers and attendees alike, is the best kind of church.

The Skywatchers Ensemble singing at the conclusion of Toward Opulence, the Opera II; Photo: J. Norris

Skywatchers is a place of equity where teaching artists and Tenderloin residents work side-by-side creating impactful social justice minded art. Through the years they have performed in public plazas, community centers, and more formal theater settings in Civic Center, the Tenderloin, SoMA and the Mission. Some works lean into song, others into dance or theater; all carry a message of resilience while speaking to real unacceptable societal conditions. Skywatchers’ unique generative process relies upon durational collaboration and deep friendship.  Some of these folks have been working together for more than thirteen years, attracting others while staying the course.

Skywatchers’s newest work, Towards Opulence, the Opera II at the Dance Mission Theater, May 31 – June 2, 2024, is magnificent.  This opera features a compilation of songs built loosely upon a metaphor of the interdependencies of a forest, rich in fungi and trees who rely upon each other to survive and thrive. It is arranged in eleven scenes that make an arc from origin stories, through “The Hard Truth,” through “Opulence,” to “We Dream a Future.” The Skywatchers Ensemble is the soul of the piece. Like a Greek chorus, they are ever-present as observers, dancers, actors, and harmonizing choristers.

In our first moments together, gathered in the lobby, DeMore leads us all in song. Shakiri speaks in verse of the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s “infamous containment zone,” from which this work emerges. Shavonne Allen shares the Skywatchers’s values of truth-telling, radical unconditional love, radical belonging, and radical compassion. Joel Yates leads Libation, honoring those that came before. Names rise of community members lost to us, especially those of former Skywatchers who died from conditions due to poverty. After each name, Yates pours water into a plant to freshen the road of the ancestors, as together we say Ashé,” a Yoruba word from Nigeria meaning energy of the universe, the force toward completeness and divinity, or more simply, “So be it.”  

Music Director Melanie DeMore leading Skywatchers and the audience in song; Photo: J. Norris

Entering the theater, there is a feeling of abundance as twenty members of Skywatchers Ensemble are joined by guest musicians Chibueze Crouch, Peekaboo/transcrition01 (cello), and Maya Nixon (harp) onstage.  A chorus of “We come from everyone, everywhere,” is interspersed with soloists singing about where they each come from, be it strong silent intelligent men or God- fearing churchgoers, each has an origin story. “I come from the land where civilization began,” sings Chassity Gant, her voice pure and strong, as she conjures “take no shit”, “dirt dancing warrior women,” while Noelle Castro brings forth “sassy seamstresses, cutting a path to a new future.”

Toward Opulence II focuses on the symptoms of systemic poverty through song and movement.  The work is authentic, original and surprisingly upbeat returning often to the power of the collective.  They sing about what they experience day to day living in SRO’s, an infestation chant of “mice, lice and bed bugs bite,” makes real the deplorable conditions of low-income housing. These folks understand that the shame of this is not theirs to carry, but that of the landlords, bureaucrats, and politicians who allow this governmentally sanctioned neglect to persist.  Three women, each atop her own narrow bed, declare themselves on a diet from bullshit. Unwilling to feign gratitude, feel less than, or keep a pact of silence in exchange for a room, they speak their truths.

Another song spotlights the lack of empathy that the poor and people of color experience in industrial healthcare environments where questions about insurance, assumptions about drug use, and speedy discharges take precedence over diagnostic queries and treatment regimens.  A dance by Shanan Lui, Chibueze Crouch, and Shavonne Allen brings us back to our bodies, their flexed palms pulsing to the beat over their chests.

Skywatchers is intergenerational and mixed-ability. I appreciate how each member is given opportunities to lead.  Lord Frederick leads a dozen performers in a swaying dance, with many hand gestures.  The dance flows well and only the most astute will notice that Frederick is totally blind. His leadership allows him to shine, as others use their eyes to catch movement cues, an example of inclusion at its best.

Being disbelieved is a common experience for those with less power, a time-honored tradition that one song tells us goes back to the mythical Cassandra.  Dot Com, stage name of Dorian Brockington, provides a strong voice and a magnetic presence for “Every Time I Open My Mouth.” With knees bouncing, and feet flexing, his hand chomps, mocking the persistent nay-sayers.

The Skywatchers Ensemble dancing in Towards Opulence, the Opera II; Photo: J. Norris

The interdependencies of the natural world provide inspiration to the Skywatchers. Yates despairs about the unnatural quality of a solitary street tree, hemmed in by concrete, a striking parallel to his isolated SRO room above the noisy street with only a chair and a lighter for company. Trees need each other, as we learn in, “Wood Wide Web,” which speaks of how trees talk to one another through their roots. DeMore builds the song in layers, beginning with the audience chanting “wood wide web” and expanding into multi-part round singing by the Skywatchers, as verses of “like an underground railroad,” “magnify magnificence,” and “rise up from the ground,” overlap to create a mighty whole.

The Skywatchers show us that opulence is possible. “We are a powerful people,” with the ability to craft new legacies, celebrate our journeys, and honor “the hidden light that connects all things.” Their message is clear: until each of us is free, none of us is free. We are all the same, you and I, dependent on bodies made of muscles and bones, one stroke away from disability.  We live in a city once known for its radical empathy, now home to crippling income inequality and swaths of people living in dilapidated housing or on the streets.  A city in the thrall of a drug addiction epidemic, while inept leaders criminalize drug use and fail to act to prevent overdoses. We need not accept this as inevitable and unchanging, for we, like the Skywatchers, can become “love warriors.”

Dance maker Anne Bluethenthal planted the seeds of Skywatchers in the Tenderloin more than a dozen years ago now. With consistent investment of time and energy in relationship building, she and her evolving troupe have transformed an arid desert into fruitful soil upon which all may stand and much has grown.

Skywatchers has always been interested in challenging norms, dissolving barriers, and learning from each other. Their distributed leadership model has been developing and the lines between seasoned and novice performers has dissolved into a heartening all for one and one for all ethos.  

With Towards Opulence II, Bluethenthal, DeMore, and guest composers Valerie Troutt and Jennifer Johns have sewn together the ideas and experiences of the ensemble members into a radiant opera for our time.  All who bear witness will be changed.

Review by Jen Norris, published June 4, 2024.



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