From Eater San Francisco: How do you dramatize a little-known but pivotal moment in civil rights history without slipping into the staid and didactic territory that most theater in this genre tends to inhabit? That’s the dilemma tackled by the Tenderloin Museum and its new production The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, and their answer is a night of vivid, immersive dinner theater set in an actual, functioning diner (The New Village Cafe at 1426 Polk Street) several blocks from the one where the actual events of the production took place in the summer of 1966. The bonus: Every ticket purchase comes with a breakfast combo: Bacon, eggs, and pancakes, much like you’d order at 1 a.m. in a diner after leaving the bars.
Creators Mark Nassar and Katie Conry (who also serves as director of the museum) conceived of this unique mode of telling the story, as Conry tells Eater SF. “We wanted to give the audience a suggestion of really being there, in hopes it would help create empathy for the characters and help audience members identify with the queer liberation movement.” Nassar is best known for co-creating the long-running, immersive off-Broadway hit Tony & Tina’s Wedding, and he’s been seen locally in the last year playing Sal the club owner in another immersive theater hit where booze and snacks are served, The Speakeasy. As he recently told The Bay Area Reporter, he first learned the story of the riot after visiting the Tenderloin Museum, and told Conry he wanted to collaborate. “I’d ordinarily mull over a new project for a long time,” he told the paper, “but I knew immediately this was something I wanted to write about. It’s historically significant and still so relevant today.” With Conry’s help, Nassar enlisted co-writers Collette LeGrand and Donna Personna, both longtime drag performers and Tenderloin residents. LeGrand and Personna’s own experiences are close to those of the trans women who took part in the late-night riot, and frequented Compton’s in the 1960s. The infamous dustup, which predates the Stonewall Riots in New York by three years, reportedly began with a trans woman throwing a cup of coffee in the face of a cop who arrived at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria at Turk and Taylor one night to arrest her. The drag queens, sex workers, and trans women gathered there that night banded together and rioted against arriving police, who ultimately stood down, marking the first recorded act of LGBT resistance against a culture that had long oppressed them.
The play is an especially evocative way of telling the story, first immersing an audience of 50 in a nighttime diner experience before letting the stories of twelve characters play out around them in the lead-up to a violent and satisfying finale. Every attendee is seated either at tables or at the diner counter, where owner Gus (played by veteran local performer Steve Menasche, and based on the longtime owner of the nearby Olympic Flame Cafe) and several waitresses in period uniforms take orders and serve everyone drinks. The only option besides the breakfast combo is a vegan tofu scramble, which might be considered anachronistic, but let’s live a little. There’s also beer, wine, and a couple of cocktail options. And unlike Tony & Tina’s Wedding, whose SF production closed six years ago, the food on offer is actually edible and tasty, with above-average bacon. The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot touches on issues unique to the trans experience of its era, including the politics of “passing” as female, employment discrimination, mistreatment by law enforcement, and sex work. But while teaching the audience about this experience, and the reasons behind the rage that erupted that August night in 1966, the play is also an evocation of a place — a diner where everyone was welcome, even trans people and drag queens who were criminals in the eyes of the police but who were just living their lives in a rough neighborhood.
“New Village Cafe was the perfect setting for this play,” says Conry. “There’s very little that needed to be changed to make it look like a 1966 diner. The owner, Ed Coughlin, was also very excited to host.” The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot has already been extended through the first weekend in May, and tickets are available here (all of April is now sold out). There remains a chance it could be extended again, and/or staged in another location at a later date.