Tenderloin Trailer from The Cutting Ball Theater on Vimeo.

Welcome to the Tenderloin.

If spoken by an outsider to the neighborhood, it’s likely this phrase will be steeped in a mixture of repulsion and derision – a reaction to the area’s recurring theme of crime and desperation. Fights, public defecation, fellatio and drug use are by no means uncommon sights in the city’s troubled center cut, a Google search of which will produce tourism articles with titles like “areas to avoid.”

As one character states in Tenderloin, a documentary play about the neighborhood, “you witness mental decay in broad daylight.” However, this speaker delivers the line not with recoil, but with profound, compassionate awe. That’s probably because she is not an outsider; she lives here.

Tenderloin, directed by Annie Elias, brings the actual voices of the Tenderloin into the theater. The incredibly talented cast of seven portrays real neighborhood residents, among them homeless people, children, Vietnamese refugees, neighborhood activists, a lawyer, and Police Captain Gary Jimenez, all of whom provided interviews too colorful, heartrending, and inspiring to be made up.

The play begins with a motley-looking crew of the sort one might expect. The characters try on shoes, mutter incoherently, make threatening if nonsensical accusations, look straight into your eyes and say “I’m gonna memorize your face, keep it in my head, and masturbate to it tonight.”

From there, this unsightly veneer peels back. A nonstop procession of riveting stories, monologues and banter grants the audience access to a vibrant, funny and animated Tenderloin — one that generally remains off-limits to outsiders, hidden underneath a tough and trying crust.

A poetic tapestry, spoken in the rhythmic and distinctive cadences of the actual interviewees, depicts a community in the truest sense – a group of people who watch one another grow old, who will without a second’s hesitation adopt and raise an infant whose mother is going to jail, who could all in some sense be described as “community activists.”

One leaves the theater buoyed, romantic, celebrating the surrounding streets (The Cutting Ball Theater is currently in residence at EXIT on Taylor and Ellis – the heart of the Tenderloin) for having what must be the highest per capita density of raw, unsheltered human experience in the whole city.

“It’s the best part of the cut,” says Jimenez. One is momentarily inclined to agree.

However, Jimenez’ quote actually contains a significant “someday”. While Tenderloin is thoroughly real and at times rough, its overall tone is a little rosier than reality of the current situation can abide. The Tenderloin may have a heart of gold, but the fact remains that its “veneer of crime and decay” is thick, its perils and travails all too abundant.

Tenderloin delves somewhat into the fraught politics of the situation. A number of characters, including Captain Jimenez, attorney Elaine Zamora and community activists Leroy and Kathy Looper, discuss how the Tenderloin came to be the welfare-reliant “containment zone” for social dysfunction that it now is, who is at fault, and how to make things better. There is little agreement even among residents, and no simple solutions emerge.

Ultimately, the Tenderloin itself emerges as this play’s protagonist, its struggle simply to be a neighborhood, in the face of so many forces that would have it instead be a containment zone, a quarantine, a ghetto.

The Tenderloin may not necessarily be winning – at least not yet – but it certainly has no plans to give up. Tenderloin spotlights this determination, producing one of the more riveting stories told in SF theater this year.

Tenderloin runs through May 27 at Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor St. Tickets are available here.

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