The East Bay delivers art and culture
After suffering enervating, zombie-inducing online and hybrid performances during the pandemic, live shows are once again the norm. Thank the gods and goddesses of art and entertainment! To celebrate, the Fall Arts Preview centers on in-person opportunities. A few venues continue to offer livestream or digital video access, but with theaters, clubs, museums and other indoor public spaces available and safe, nothing beats attending a live show or event. Every venue encourages people who wear masks to continue taking measures to protect their health. Read on and get a jump on some of the fall’s best shows and exhibitions.
Music: Large venues
Croon, rap, pick, bow, strum, beat, blow your horns and, in all ways musical, spend time during the next four months in some of the Bay Area’s bountiful venues of sound. UC Berkeley’s aesthetically thrilling outdoor Greek Theatre launches into the fall with shows such as the Grammy- and Academy Award-nominated rock band Counting Crows Sept. 10; the blues-infused roots music of the Steve Miller Band Sept. 22; and many more. Cal Performances always showcases multiple heavy hitters; chief among them this year are the San Francisco Symphony, with music director Esa-Pekka Salonen in a program Nov. 10 showcasing the world premiere of a new work by Jens Ibsen, the most recent winner of the Emerging Black Composers Project; and a one-night-only performance Nov. 17 of American Railroad, a Silkroad Ensemble project led by 2023 Pulitzer Prize-winning multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens.
Other large venues, such as the Fox Theater and the Paramount Theatre, weigh in with towering and powerful funk, country, pop, R&B, and rock artists and bands. Show some East Bay love and catch the actual Tower of Power, led by Berkeley-born sax man Lenny Pickett, at the Fox on Dec. 15. On Nov. 14-15, Raphael Saadiq revisits Tony! Toni! Toné!, Just Me & You Tour 2023 at the Paramount in what’s being billed as “the long-awaited return of the Oakland, CA R&B legends.” Also at the Paramount: Oakland Symphony’s signature Playlist, returning Oct. 21 with a program selected by activist Angela Y. Davis. The evening is hosted by W. Kamau Bell, Oakland Symphony’s 2018 Playlist honoree.
Music: Medium venues and intimate clubs
Yoshi’s, in Oakland, spirals into intriguing territory with the Harriet Tubman trio’s fusion of soul, rock, jazz, blues and avant-garde music and, in October, a 10-show run with R&B singer Musiq Soulchild. Freight & Salvage returns with its annual, free, all-day, block party music festival on Oct. 14 with artists appearing on three different stages. The following month the Freight centerpieces just jazz, with multiple shows Nov. 3-5 featuring the Pat Metheny Dream Box Tour; and Dave Eshelman’s Jazz Garden Big Band – Music of Michael Brecker event on Nov. 28. Step lively and get to The Sound Room on Sept. 2 for Kenny Washington and his quartet, and keep a close eye on the calendar for great shows later in the season.
For people who don’t mind standing and are likely to dance, Cornerstone in Berkeley is a good spot. Shows vary wildly in terms of established, up-and-coming and emerging musicians, but there’s always something worthwhile to discover. Food and drink are available, and chairs along the perimeter allow seating for guests with injuries or physical conditions.
It’s easy to overlook the acoustically excellent performance space at Piedmont Center for the Arts, where Berkeley Symphony’s Chamber Series has for years presented well-curated programs. The company’s large-scale performances at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall notwithstanding, these intimate concerts allow unusual access to the musicians and repertoire. The upcoming show, American Intersections, features Vijay Iyer’s “Dig the Say,” Margaret Bonds’ “Credo” for solo piano and Antonin Dvorak’s String Quintet no. 3 in E flat major, among other works. The second Chamber Series performance, on Nov. 19, zeroes in with California Connections, showcasing Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Kanto Kechua #2,” Ben Shirley’s “High Sierra Sonata,” Anaís Azul’s “Cascades and Canyons,” Gabriella Smith’s “Carrot Revolution” and John Adams’ “Book of Alleged Dances.” The PCA also hosts solo musicians, comedy shows and small bands; visit the website each month for updates.
Theater: Highlights from four reliably terrific regional theater companies
Good old Will (Shakespeare) might be down—the summer theater company’s usual four-play season is on hiatus while the company reimagines itself—but in the interim, Orinda’s Bruns Amphitheater stays busy. A new multidisciplinary arts series, #AtTheBruns, has the organization playing host to music, comedy, dance and the likes of Free Shakespeare in the Park’s presentation of Cymbeline. The 90-minute romantic adventure—suitable for all ages—combines comedy, tragedy and fairy tale. Expect the usual royal decrees, secret romances and marriages, misadventures and dramatic escapes. But unlike many Shakespearean plays, this one ends with reconciliation instead of dead bodies strewn hither and yon. Topping it all off is the ticket price—free, no ticket required—and attendees can bring or purchase snacks, and eat and drink during the show. Runs Sept. 16-24.
Berkeley Repertory Company: Bulrusher
The Pulitzer Prize-finalist play by Eisa Davis, a Berkeley native and niece of political activist Angela Davis, begins with an infant in a basket. Cast to float on the Navarro River in Mendocino County, the abandoned multiracial baby survives and by the year 1955 is an 18-year-old young woman with clairvoyant gifts. Traveling from Birmingham to the predominantly white enclave of Boonville, a town whose inhabitants have multiple eccentricities of their own, Bulrusher is shrouded in her own mystery. Bay Area theatergoers might recall Shotgun Players’ 2007 production co-directed by Margo Hall and Ellen Sebastian Chang, and how the play grows by leaps and bounds in the second act. Stick with the Act I climb and reap the rewards. Bulrusher, directed by Nicole A. Watson, runs Oct. 27-Dec. 3.
Cal Performances Dec. 1-3 presents the Bay Area premiere of Urban Bush Women’s Hair & Other Stories. Part of Cal Performances’ Illuminations: Individual and Community programming, the Brooklyn-based performance ensemble brings a full-length dance-theater piece exploring race, identity and ideas centered on beauty as seen through the lens of Black women’s hair. The interactive performance piece asks audiences to be physically and orally responsive while reflecting on themes transcribed into vibrant dance under the direction of co-artistic directors Chanon Judson and Mame Diarra Speis. The New York Times, in writing about the company, says, “The Urban Bush Women are committed, triple-threat performers who dance, sing, and act with a sometimes searing sense of truthfulness.” Hair & Other Stories grew from personal narratives shared by participants at “Hair Party” sessions the company held with women across the country and through an ongoing collaboration with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s “Undoing Racism” workshops. Don’t miss it, that’s the bottom line.
Aurora Theatre Company: 1984
Aurora is particularly great when it comes to presenting productions that cause smashed-against-the-rocks disturbances—but in a good way. Which means this adaptation from George Orwell’s iconic novel by Bay Area-based Michael Gene Sullivan and directed by the eminent Barbara Damashek threatens—nay, promises—to be shattering. Big Brother surveillance in our world today is more like a tiny speck no larger than a human cell that implodes through AI with nuclear force into mega-scale destruction, paranoia, violence, oppression and other despicable hallmarks of trauma. Claw the way to love and freedom with Winston Smith, who’s accused of Thoughtcrime, and depart determined that 2024 will not be an encore of 1984. Live performances run Nov.10-Dec. 10.
Literature: Festivals and annual series
Litquake is royalty when it comes to literature festivals in the Bay Area. It’s notable that while most of the programs are held in San Francisco, a boatload of East Bay writers and literary thought leaders arrive as headline speakers or featured artists at many of the presentations. The 24th iteration of Litquake knocks the doors down Oct. 5-21 with Susanna Hoffs, co-founder of the Bangles, and her new novel, This Bird Has Flown, and Jeopardy! winner and local East Bay-celeb Amy Schneider—with a Porchlight event and a story told live with no notes, both at the Verdi Club. The always-popular Selected Shorts series syndicated on National Public Radio commands the stage at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre and will be hosted by author Andrew Sean Greer along with a cast of readers that includes Tate Donovan (Friends, The OC, Argo), Baron Vaughn (Grace and Frankie) and one more artist TBA.
Other not-to-be-missed features include Litquake Out Loud, a curated program highlighting the Bay Area’s BIPOC & LGBTQ+ writers; Lit Crawl San Francisco, a one-night literary “pub” crawl with roughly 40-80 events created in collaboration with local arts organizations, universities and writing groups; and the two-day Kidquake, with in-person and virtual talks and meet-and-greets with children’s authors paired with activities run by local interactive educators. While some Litquake programs are ticketed, these three programs are 100% free.
Expectedly, literary mag ZYZZYVA will host a panel on AI Literature; an unusual take on a drag-queen storytelling hour; appearances by international, national and local writers, especially those with new books or poetry collections; and what is known by some to be the annual capture/takeover of Grace Cathedral.
Berkeley Arts & Letters may have fewer bells and whistles—and fewer beers and boisterous bar gatherings—than its larger Litquake cousin, but the writers coming in 2023 are stellar. In the East Bay, award-winning and international bestselling author Naomi Klein shows up with her new book, Doppelgänger: A Trip Into the Mirror World. The conversation with science fiction- and nonfiction-writer and podcaster Annalee Newittz launches Sept. 20 at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland. Writer Adam Mansbach follows Sept. 26 at the same location with The Golem of Brooklyn and a conversation with comedian, writer and producer W. Kamau Bell. Third in the lineup is Heather Cox Richardson—look for a full feature with an exclusive interview in the East Bay Express Sept. 27 issue—followed by programs featuring poet Diego Perez, novelist Teju Cole and writer Naomi Alderman.
Visual, film and performing art: Two Bay Area heavyweights
The Oakland Museum of California continues several fine exhibits into the fall, including “Into the Brightness: Artists from Creativity Explored, Creative Growth & NIAD (Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development)”; along with several ongoing shows that receive continuous updates and additions. Most exciting and new this fall is “Por El Pueblo: The Legacy and Influence of Malaquías Montoya,” opening Oct. 6. The Chicano artist, activist and community elder depicts and spotlights—via vibrant posters, graphic prints and murals spotlights—political and social justice issues that have impacted the Chicano identity for nearly 50 years. Montoya’s activist roots and community sensibilities date back to his childhood as the son of a migrant farmworker and his close relationships with elder family members, teachers and artists. The exhibition provides access to his collaborative artistic process and investigates what it means to become an elder through photographs, historical and familial ephemera, and other elements.
Farther afield, a few essential concerts
In San Francisco, for big-splash entertainment be sure to check in on Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater and Hadestown at Orpheum Theatre. Amble over to Levi’s Stadium for Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour stop Aug. 30 and for the North American leg of multiple Grammy Award-winning Ed Sheeran’s + – = ÷ x Tour—with special guests Russ and Maisie Peters—on Sept. 16. Chase Center hosts Sam Smith in late August and kicks off September with LL Cool J, followed by Lionel Richie and Earth, Wind & Fire; Peter Gabriel; P!nk; Sza; Queen + Adam Lambert; and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, among others.