Yukking It Up In Richmond

Homegrown Comedy is part of the city's revitalizing performing arts scene.

By day, JD Arandia is a mild-mannered electrician, who recently became a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 302, based in Martinez. But by night, the genial Richmond native is a stand-up comedian — and now, the organizer and host of the city’s Homegrown Comedy nights, happening once a month at Bridge Storage and Artspace.

Like many comics, he got his start by being the family clown. “I had a cousin who told me really inappropriate jokes in Spanish,” he said. “I’d repeat them, and my dad thought it was hilarious.” As a young man, he attended a stand-up night at now-closed Boilerhouse Restaurant in Richmond featuring Contra Costa Community College drama students trying out their routines, and realized he’d like to give it a try. Mentored by pro comic Johan Miranda, he began booking gigs. “The first three times out, I did really good,” he said. “Then I bombed.”

Arandia worked the Bay Area circuit for while. Then several of the older stand-ups advised him to book his own shows and learn how to host. After being part of an event in Bridge’s film studio, he decided to take the leap to create Homegrown Comedy, booking his first show in March with a headliner who had appeared on Conan. That show’s success led to Homegrown Comedy becoming a once-a-month mainstay at Bridge. Since its 2018 reopening, Bridge has transformed into a local hotspot for art exhibits and live shows, including the recent collaboration by electronic music wizards Pamela Z and Donald Swearingen, which also featured instrument creator Mauro Fortissimo.

The venue’s adventurous programming reflects the new waves beginning to energize Richmond’s performing arts scene. Richmond’s Arts and Culture Commission’s minigrant program is providing some of the push.

Local activist and educator Tracey Ptah Mitchell has a minigrant to produce his play, Money Speak, about restorative justice and gang life in Richmond, said Rosalie Fay Barnes, an artist and educator who sits on the commission. One of Richmond’s former poet laureates, Donte Clark, will direct.

Money Speak has been described as “an off-Broadway bar mitzvah for Black boys,” Barnes said. The first performance will be Oct. 18, 2019, at De Anza High School, with other performances scheduled at various Richmond venues.

The commission also is producing a winter storytelling and theater event on Dec. 2 about Richmond’s arts and activism with Betty Reid Soskin, Mitchell, and Clark, as part of the UC Berkeley Art + Design Monday Lecture Series. Barnes said the commission has been working with the university on a grant called “Community Conversations.” In 2018, the commission held community workshops in Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood that culminated in an exhibit at the Richmond Museum of History.

Barnes, who consults for the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond, said the center recently received a California Arts Council grant to produce workshops and theatrical productions about Richmond’s blues legacy. The center will work with inter-generational Richmond blues artists to engage Richmond youth and community members in a series of workshops, concerts, and public productions honoring the city’s historical legacy as a hub for blues music from the 1940s through the 1960s, Barnes said. Blues workshops for youth are launching this summer.

All these events join well-established programming, such as the free Point Richmond Summer Music Series, which continues Aug. 9 with Maurice Tani/77 El Doero and Pellejo Seco, and Sept. 13 with Matt Jaffe and Extra Large. Fall brings the Point Richmond Jazz Series, which kicks off Oct. 25 with the Proteus Trio.

Asked about what it will take to really invigorate Richmond’s performing arts scene, Barnes listed several priorities. Bringing the arts back to schools, a major mission for the center, is one. Encouraging creative collaboration is another.

“One of the reasons the blues was so central to life in Richmond in the ’40s-’60s was that there was a culture of people playing music every weekend, in venues and on porches,” she said. “Blues musicians knew where to go to drop in and jam. And they’d get schooled or they’d school someone else.” Jamming, she pointed out, isn’t limited to music. “We need practice improvising and collaborating with others in all the disciplines.”

The Richmond Film Collective is doing just that, Barnes said, encouraging female filmmakers to share their work monthly. “It’s a great collective for East Bay artists at all levels of their professional career, started by Richmond locals BK Williams and Erica Milsom.”

Perhaps most importantly, Richmond, one of the last affordable places in the Bay Area for artists, needs to protect and enhance that niche, she said. “The city of Richmond needs to prioritize the arts now, in policy affecting development, entertainment, and affordable housing.” The city’s 2030 Cultural Plan does a “great job of describing the potential of arts in the city in ten years,” she said, but the city is still struggling to enact the One Percent for Public Art on Private Development ordinance that passed in 2017. “In 2020, Richmond has the power to enact policy that will directly impact the ability of future generations to live and thrive here,” Barnes said.

Arandia is delighted to be a part of it all. He sees a lot of intersection between the still-small but growing Richmond performing arts community, and members loyally turning out to support each other’s events. Arandia wants Homegrown Comedy to reflect the city’s multicultural mix. “In the beginning, I booked mostly people I knew, and they were mostly male,” he said. Now, the line-ups include Latino, African American, and Asian comics — and some are female. His own comedy style is personal, as opposed to overtly political, but he welcomes voices who want to talk about anything.

He’s also the first to admit that Richmond is still a hard sell as an event location to many in the Bay Area. Years ago, right down the street from Bridge, “I saw some horrific shit happen,” he said. People coming in to the heavily industrial neighborhood for the first time might well think, “this is a little scary,” he said. But once there, they find a welcoming atmosphere, a coffee kiosk, and people mingling inside the venue before the show.

“That’s the most fun thing about the shows,” Arandia said. Audiences tend to stick around post-show and ask the comics “tons of questions.” Richmond is changing, he said. “And right now is the perfect setting for the comedy scene. People want more things close to home. It’s a good chance to the positivity of what’s going on here.”

Homegrown Comedy nights are scheduled for July 27, August 24, and September 21. Bridge Storage and Artspace, 23 Maine Ave., Richmond. Doors open 7:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. $10. BridgeStorage.com/events

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