For the last three years, writer Dan Wolf, director Rebecca Novick, and Shotgun Players Artistic Director Patrick Dooley have been gathering hundreds of stories about the city of Berkeley by talking to activists, students, migrant workers, the Berkeley Breakfast Club, the disabled community, and more, asking questions like “Why did you come here?” and “Why did you stay?” From these interviews and “story circles” came Daylighting: The Berkeley Stories Project, which follows a recently graduated high school student who travels from dusk till dawn from the Berkeley hills to the marina, trying to figure out if she should leave her hometown for the bright lights of New York City, or stick around and try to make a life in the only place she’s ever known.
The protagonist, Bee (the scrappy, determined Brit Frazier), is partially based on a real Berkeley High student, Nialena, who graduated in 2013. Bee is the lens through which we see all of the other stories come together, for it’s her journey (which involves touches of magical realism) following Strawberry Creek home in the middle of the night that structures the narrative. Her grandfather, James (the affable, booming Donald Lacy), has recently sold her childhood home in anticipation of Bee’s plans to attend NYU in the fall. But on graduation night, Bee starts to get cold feet, both literally and figuratively, as she decides to journey down the creek that bisects the city in order to figure out her next move. Along the way she meets several people (and specters) from her past, including her long-absent and derelict mother (played by Karina Gutierrez, who also plays Bee’s friend Celia), who only further disappoints her. Jaunting alongside Bee’s story is a meandering subplot involving another family she’s known her whole life. Fred (Paul Loomis) is a former UC Berkeley professor and semi-recovered alcoholic who used to be best friends with James until he got drunk and said something “unforgivable” (we never learn what exactly went down). Fred’s daughter Tessa (Christina Chu) and her husband Tim (Tim Redmond) have recently moved from New York to raise their child. While their interwoven tale loosely connects, it felt, at times, wandering and unfinished.
Another thing you should know about Daylighting is that it’s interspersed with bouts of rapping, which is perhaps not surprising given that Wolf is a founding member of hip-hop theater collective Felonious. The rap interludes are fun at first, but they felt forced and random after a while. I kept wondering why characters felt compelled to relate their feelings in rhyming verse.
Bee raps: Berkeley is history, proximity, and circumstance/Berkeley is a mystery, a muse to me of movements past/Berkeley is community, its knowledge is collection/Berkeley is unity, utopia’s extension. The ensemble cast is diverse and spirited, and the stories are deeply felt. Certainly anyone who has spent time in or has an affinity for “Berzerkeley” will appreciate the references to Cheese Board, the Bubble Lady, Hate Man, etc. And while it’s certainly fun to ruminate on Berkeley’s history, stereotypes, and iconic locales (with a few jabs at Emeryville thrown in for good measure), Daylighting is a bit too kumbaya for its own good. That’s not an entirely bad thing. It’s a feel-good play, after all, but Berkeley is a complex, uncertain place, with muggings and parking-lot rage at Berkeley Bowl. The latter is humorously touched upon in the play, but by and large, the city is presented as a magical place where migrant workers sleeping under bridges at night are simply grateful to have the opportunity to work there, where well-to-do new families get along with their loud drunk neighbors, and where a teenage girl walking alone at night is only met with help and insight from people she’s known since she was a small child. Even with one sad turn of events near the play’s end, it felt all too easy, too scripted, too much like a fairytale than anything lasting or real.
“There ain’t no one truth cuz there ain’t no one Berkeley,” Bee says early on in the play.
She’s right, of course, and the stories told in Daylighting represent just one small slice of the pie that makes up Berkeley’s immense and changing history. But the play would have benefited from more actual daylighting (which refers to redirecting a stream to an above-ground channel) and fewer shared joints and pats on the back.