In Richmond they call it the Iron Triangle, a hard-core, high-crime neighborhood bound by railroad tracks and—to outsiders, at least—long abandoned of hope.
In the midst of the triangle, housed at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in the city’s historic Winter Building, they call themselves the Iron Triangle Theater. They are a resident company of youth performers, and they have nothing but hope for the city in which they live.
Last week, five veteran members of the theater company performed monologue sketches on Richmond history—sketches that the performers had written themselves based upon interviews with older relatives, residents, and local business owners.
Many of the older audience members in the packed upstairs theater—most of whom had lived through the times the performers were recounting—smiled and nodded and murmured, “Oh, yes, you remember that?” as the night’s memories rolled out.
One young man portrayed an elderly barber shop owner who came onstage with a shuffling, Fred Sanford-type walk, and recalled the time during the second world war when clocks were made of cardboard.
Another talked of the petting zoo at Richmond’s Nicholas Park—“Nickles Park,” in the popular local name for it—naming off the animals she used to go there to see as a child, lamenting that they were gone, hoping they would return.
Another actor remembered a time before the rash of Richmond murders, when fights were settled with fists. People had guns, yes, “but no-one respected you if you took the easy way out.”
The night’s most poignant moment came following the sketches when the actors were asked to name the people they were portraying. One of the actors, Ferron Griffon, said he “didn’t get the pleasure of meeting Joanne,” the woman in his sketch. “I wanted to, but it was so hectic this week, getting ready for the program.” Instead, he had developed his monologue from an interview conducted by another cast member.
At the side of the room, a woman in the audience called out, “Well, that’s Joanne right there, if you want to meet her.” The shopkeeper had been sitting in the audience. The monologue subject and the young actor hugged.
The live sketches were preceded by presentation of a rough cut of “Talking About Macdonald,” a video edited by East Bay Center For the Performing Arts students based upon videotaped interviews with local residents.
The interviews most often recalled a long ago time, the World War II boom years when thousands of newly arrived workers filled up the Kaiser shipyards, and the city’s Macdonald Avenue main street was alive with movie theaters and moving cars and shoppers finding spaces to spend their time and money.
Residents talked of the carnival—complete with ferris wheel—coming to Atchison Village in the city, one of the housing projects built during the war to accommodate the shipyard workers.
“There was no such thing as malls at the time,” one woman said. “You could get everything downtown.”
Another man said that Macdonald “just exploded overnight. Day and night, there were people there. People would walk up one side of the street and down the other, just to look in the shops.” A woman described the different method of dress at the time, with women normally wearing hats and gloves to go shopping.
The interviews did not gloss over the city’s racial problems, a sometimes-explosive mixture of African-Americans, Southern whites, and Mexican Americans.
“I got a job as a stock clerk at Macy’s,” one African-American man said in one segment. “We could work in the back room, but African-Americans weren’t allowed on the floor of the store at the time.”
Even then in the ‘40s, he said, Richmond was plagued with gangs and racial problems. “Everybody was afraid of Gordo,” he said, talking of one of the city’s infamous residents who might have been African-American or Mexican-American. “He had a low-riding car, and he’d ride around town with his buddies. And whenever he came around, everybody would say ‘Gordo’s coming, Gordo’s coming,’ and get out the way.”
One white resident in the video described the slow crossover of cultures that resulted. “There was a record store called Arts Music that had what they called ‘race music,’” he said. “That was black music. You couldn’t get it at any other store. You could get racy records, too, like that fellow named Foxx—I can’t remember his first name.”
His African-American interviewer, some 40 years younger, said, helpfully, “Redd Foxx?”
“That’s right,” the white resident said, smiling.
Other interviewees recalled the turbulent days of the ‘60s, when the Black Panther Party organized residents against charges of police brutality, and several downtown landmark shops were burned in the city’s race riots.
The monologue sketches and video presentation were part of, Memories of Macdonald, a six-month project sponsored by several Richmond-based agencies and organizations which are in the midst of a six month-long project to reclaim the city’s past. The groups have been collecting oral and visual history of the city’s once-bustling main drive, using a corps of local youth volunteers to help do the gathering. According to organizers, the project “invites area residents, and especially community youth, to explore and share their memories, concerns and hopes for Macdonald Avenue.”
Co-sponsored by the Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency, the Rosie The Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, the East Bay Center For The Performing Arts, the Richmond Main Street Initiative, the Richmond Arts And Culture Commission, and the Richmond Museum Of History, the project will culminate with a series of historical markers to be placed along Macdonald. The markers will contain historical photographs and quotes from residents who lived through Macdonald’s glory times, and will be similar to the widely-acclaimed markers along the city’s waterfront.
The project is being coordinated by Berkeley historian Donna Graves.
This Saturday, Nov. 11, the project’s public events will end with a Dance Swap at the historic Winters Building on the corner of 11th Street and Macdonald, where old and young Richmond residents are invited to gather for a closing celebration where they can teach each other dances from different eras and latitudes reflecting Richmond’s diverse peoples: the jitterbug of the ‘30s and the jerk of the ‘60s, today’s hip hop, norteño from Mexico, and mien from Laos.
Some of the participants plan to attend in period dress, including 40’s era zoot suits.
The Dance Swap event will be led by nationally-recognized choreographer Joanna Haigood of San Francisco, who has been working on several projects in Richmond, including an upcoming site-specific performance at the USS Red Oak Victory on Richmond’s waterfront.
The Winters Building was the site of the popular World War II-era dance venue.