Becoming Immortal: Review of 'Tree City Legends' at Intersection for the Arts

February 24, 2012

Photo Credit: Joan Osato

Before the opening scene of Tree City
, a staff member informed us, the viewers, that this play was,
"going to be like a really good funeral." I find that I agree with this
statement. Like a “good funeral," this new work, written by Dennis Kim,
directed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and currently playing at San Francisco's Intersection for the
Arts is an emotional tour-de-force. If
you want to feel stuff, go see it.

While this play is Dennis Kim's first work in the genre, he is well known to
many as a spoken word artist and composer. These skills are certainly
reflected in the strengths and structure of this work. To begin, large portions
of the script are written as intersecting poetic monologues, as if each
character is reciting a story written in the recesses of his mind. Secondly,
the focal character, Junie Kane (Dennis Kim), is barely a physical presence
on-stage, spending most of his time as a shadow behind a back-lit screen (designed by Joan Osato). We know him primarily through his vocals,
accompanied by the band Dirty Boots and sung in-between performances by the other Kane brothers. Most notably, Junie's
three brothers each deliver a seminal monologues at roughly the beginning,
middle, and end of the play. There is a sermon delivered by the oldest brother,
Sum Kane (Juan Armador/Wonway Posibul); a prayer from the youngest brother, Min Kane
(Taiyo Na); and a closing eulogy by Denizen Kane (Sean San Jose).

All of this is fitting, you see, as Junie has died, and we are attending his
funeral. Junie’s voice floating from the back of the stage is a sort of sensory
hint at the legend-making that is this play’s namesake. Throughout, the play
seems to imply the questions: What does it mean to remember someone? What does
it mean to tell the stories of our homes? How do we find hope in impossible
circumstances?  Junie’s songs are visceral representations of an inner self that
cannot be overwhelmed by the circumstances of his death, yet are not meant to
exceed the vagaries of his life. In fact, it is the opposite; the lyrics come
from his life and exceed his demise. The brothers do the remaining work of
making Junie’s legend through their monologues in which they meditate on his
passing, articulate their anger and frustration, and speak out about the
injustices they see around them. Yet, each brother, in his own way, ultimately ends
his speech with an offering of hope.

Before and in between these speeches, the brothers seamlessly transition
from the implied context of a church and travel through their memories. The
speeches ultimately serve as tethers to the present-tense plot-line, as the
brothers must leave the present to narratively trace all the stories that factored into the
making and un-making of Junie Kane. The staging reflects these continuous,
circular movements from past to present, as much of the performance takes place
in the aisles, as well as on the several raised platforms throughout the space.
Denizen recounts, while at times nearly running through the middle of the
room, a formative memory from when he was seven and Junie was ten. Min on occassion rises from the center of
the audience, while Sum walks around all of us as he recalls a memory, he says, he cannot forget. And he is proud of
this, glad for it. Because of his inability to forget, the other
children in the neighborhood will have a chance.

In this work, it is as if each
remembrance is an act, each story a method of giving voice to the loved ones
society might too easily reject. This is not unfamiliar territory, but Tree City Legends' treatment of the
content makes this work moving. Every narrative traces the outline of urban desolation, childhood abandonment, and being Other American without enacting an
“I am” redundancy in the telling. It is simply the story, and that works.

City Legends
plays at 8 p.m. every Thursday thru Saturday until March 3.
All shows are located at Intersection for the Arts in San
Francisco. Tree City Legends also invites all audience members to bring the names, photos, and/or stories of their loveds ones for the community alter, located near the door of the performance space. For more information, please click here. Enjoy.