The People's Republic of Berkeley is celebrated in Dan Wolf's new play "Daylighting."
Subtitled "The Berkeley Stories Project," this ambitious Shotgun Players commission is part history, part journalism and part poetry. Inspired by "story circles" and collected community tales, this free-form 90-minute theatrical collage seeks to define the identity of the East Bay city that is as iconic for its progressive foodie movement as it is for its role in the free speech movement. This is a valentine to the city that has long been a safe haven for dreamers, radicals and bohemians of all stripes.
The world-premiere play is quite moving, despite the fact that's it's both messy and unfinished. Certainly it will resonate deeply with anyone who knows their Cheese Board from their Berkeley Bowl, their Bubble Lady from their Hate Man.
The quirky vibe of this teeming urban village and the world-famous public university at its core is alternately venerated and mocked here. Wolf, best known as a founding member of hip-hop theater collective Felonious, evokes the ghosts of Berkeley's past within a postmodern coming-of-age fable grounded in fierce rap riffs, backed by live music. Headstrong teen Bee (Britney Frazier) roams from house parties in the swanky hills to the fog-misted marshes on the night of her high school graduation trying to get a handle on the future.
Tempted by the real estate boom that has pushed everyday people out of the Bay Area, her grandfather James (the always compelling Donald Lacy) has sold his 1907 house out from under her. She's supposed to move to New York for college, but she feels tethered to Berkeley, bound up in its utopian impulse. As one of the characters muses, it ain't perfect, but it's better than anywhere else.
Wolf gives Bee some formidable rap passages that capture the spark of being afire with youth and promise. He also touches on some potent themes, from rich San Francisco techies flooding into town and upsetting the old guard progressives to the city's liberating embrace of its own weirdness and its emergence as a mecca for the disabled. For her part, Frazier radiates the intensity of adolescence, the yearning to pack all your living into a single night.
The duality of the city, with its mix of natural beauty and gritty urban issues, is nicely evoked by Michael Locher's set, an imposing concrete sculpture scribbled with graffiti but bathed in the blue-green of the bay.
But ultimately "Daylighting" tries to unearth too much territory. The play is so inclusive that it loses focus. The ensemble scenes, which try to capture the depth and breadth of the Berkeley experience, don't flow from the narrative. The subplot of James and his falling out with UC Berkeley professor Fred (Paul Loomis) never goes anywhere. The recovering New Yorkers (Christina Chu and Tim Redmond) with the newborn are never quite connected to the rest of the story. There is also a somewhat confusing time signature.
Director Rebecca Novick, head of the Triangle Lab at Cal Shakes, coaxes so much truth from the individual moments in the play that it's easy to overlook the flaws in the text. Indeed, some of the digressions are riveting. It's hard to forget the tale of a Mexican day laborer (a moving turn by Juan Amador) living under a bridge and the stories of the creeks that have been buried underground or the images of the Native American shellmounds that once filled this patch of land.
While rich with lore and history, "Daylighting" too often rambles and meanders just like the creeks that Bee feels so at home in.
By Dan Wolf, presented by Shotgun Players
Through: June 22
Where: Ashby Stage,
1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission