••••• May 2019 Issue •••
Photo: Benjamin Dennis
New Comedy Album Rifs on Techies, Mixed-Race Couples and the New San Francisco
San Francisco native releases comedy album.
Earlier this month, San Francisco native Kaseem Bentley released his debut stand-up album, Lakeview via Blonde Medicine, a Petaluma-based comedy entertainment company.
On Lakeview, we get to hear the high-energy storytelling of Kaseem, riffing on the crowd of mixed race couples, techies, and a couple who have been married for 30 years. Using his sly observations and honesty, Kaseem pulls no punches as he gets to know the crowd during the comedy album, which dropped May 3.
The 42-year-old San Franciscan caught up with Castro Courier a week before the Lakeview album released to discuss his childhood growing up in San Francisco, his hatred for rich people, his embarrassment while working in social services, and -- of course -- his comedy.
“I would see people in my neighborhood who were Samoans and Alaskans and people from Yugoslavia,” Kaseem told the Courier via telephone. “Black people from different religions. I never saw that in other neighborhoods.”
There’s a gloominess to the people and with that, Kaseem says, you find comedy.
On top of a hill, Kaseem lived in the middle of Lakeview. To the left, he says, you were near the Cosby kids side, and to the other, you were in the projects. When he got outside of Lakeview, past Stonestown, he noticed how the other half of kids in society lived.
That was where his first introduction to racism happened, on the border of his neighborhood. The first time he felt more than “different” was when he transferred to Lakeshore Alternative School near Park Merced.
“Going to the pool outside of Lakeview was more for people who lived near Stern Grove,” Kaseem says. “There was something very different about Lakeview. The people felt different because they lived in the hood, but their parents owned a house. Lakeview is like where the world drops off. In this popular zeitgeist, it was staleness and grayness.”
Kaseem remembers people saying, “There’s nothing to do in Lakeview,” and it wasn’t until he aged closer to double digits that he realized it.
“[In Lakeview,] you don’t have to deal with all the trappings of a neighborhood closer to downtown,” he says. “There’s more time to think and talk and contemplate. My grandparents were funny, my dad is funny. My mom, too. Driving around Lakeview, it’s not colorful. The void of color gave more emphasis on thought and conversation. I’m so happy to be from that neighborhood and will always represent it.”
For the last decade, Kaseem has honed his comic skills at San Francisco’s open mics rowdy bar shows. While working as a high school educational advisor, Kaseem was also hanging around comedy club shows.
At age 30 he got started at the Brainwash Cafe, a laundromat, eatery, and event space (popular for its open mic nights) that shuttered in 2017 after serving San Francisco for 30 years.
“Thursday night was this popular comedy night that ran for three, almost four hours,” Kaseem said. Tony Sparks, who San Francisco Chronicle named the godfather of S.F. open mics in 2017, saw Kaseem joking around with people at Brainwash Cafe, and according to Kaseem, Sparks told him, “If you don’t do [comedy] you gotta stop coming around here.”
It was like a real show, Kaseem recalls, because Sparks was a host and a ring master and a roaster.
“He’s a great figure in my life and career,” Kaseem adds. “Any success I have, a sizable amount is attributed to him and his motivation. He took me around to these places.”
Of the many venues he’s performed in, Kaseem remembers a tiny African shop inside of a theater -- “It looked like a scam, like a storage room for a larger African shop” -- where he performed regularly.
Il Pirata, a Potrero Hill bar and restaurant, is where he got his teeth cut and really “dug into” his performance style. It’s one of the reasons why San Francisco comedy is so great, Kaseem says, calling it “a marker of your career.”
“That’s where I really started to gain fans and test out my style about jokes and crowdwork.”
Everyone comes on Friday nights, Kaseem says of Il Pirata. Government workers, thugs, UPS workers, techies. “You go there and it’s like 150 to 200 people and I’m just crushing. I would get up there a lot. Over time I thought I had reached my limit, so I started doing shows at [the now closed] Pissed off Pete’s. That was amazing because I would take what I learn at showcases and do shows in hard rooms.”
Kaseem admits the crowds were hard. “Those people want comedy,” he says.
“If you’re African American and performing in a Black room, they get it,” says Kaseem. “With Black folks, you have to show out and perform and also be honest. [Performing in] Excelsior, you’d see an aging wigger, wiggerette, and wigger baby just sit there. [There were] Samoans. Everyone there knows how to fix their own car. It’s not like when you go to Hayes Valley, the guy knows how to fix a Vespa poorly.”
He says shows in Excelsior were the kind where a fight would break out with a “cholo-lipped white woman and a Samoan woman who could’ve been a man or a women -- no disrespect to the community. One stabbed the other with a sharpened eyeliner pencil and I still kept performing.”
Kaseem has also performed at places like the Battery in Financial District because, he says, of the utter hatred of the rich.
“I had to control myself because I realized, performing shows like that, I can’t let my biases have a direct impact on my comedy. I want them to understand that these are jokes. Something about performing for these people, they’re glutton for punishment. They want to be abused because they’re ruining the city. It’s like when you’re getting a massage and the masseuse is really digging in. I was [performing] at the Battery and I was just like having sex and also wanting them to all die in a fire.”
Before starting in comedy, he would watch stand up specials of Rosie O’Donnell and shows like Evening at the Improv, a comedy series that aired from the early eighties to mid-nineties. He’s a fan of Richard Pryor thanks to his mother who, during Kaseem’s youth, listened to comedy albums in the car.
His first showcase was at Little Boxes Theater. Kaseem recalls Tony Sparks bringing him around “like he had found a unicorn that could talk.”
When he got started, Kaseem was embarrassed because he worked in social services.
“I’m the community ripping kids out of their homes, putting people in drug treatment, then going to the stage at night.” he says. “I didn’t wanna get confused and say, ‘I know you don’t have food, but you can have my drink tickets and nachos.’ I was embarrassed.”
Now, the only clubs he won’t do are out of “pure laziness”, like Tommy T’s Comedy Club in Pleasanton.
“I just go as far as I wanna go: the City or East Bay,” he says. “In the City, there is a goal to see how your material works in your own community. Tommy T’s is notorious for not paying people the right amount [of money]. I have a Verizon bill. If I was on Metro PCS, I would be at Tommy T’s every weekend.”
More recently, Kaseem has appeared on Comedy Central, Viceland, Nerdist, and Seeso. He’s also served as a staff-writer on Problematic with Moshe Kasher for Comedy Central and worked on the first season of Comedy Central’s The New Negroes.
The album Lakeview is available now on iTunes.
RUSH | This Is How I Know I’m Alive combines technology, art, and dance. Photos: LEVYdance
Using technology and art to shine a new light on nightlife
LEVYdance Executive Artistic Director, Garance Marneur
Once in a while, an idea comes along that is so profoundly groundbreaking, it garners the attention of everyone within the industry. LEVYdance, and their upcoming performance of RUSH | This Is How I Know I’m Alive, has already won numerous grants and awards with which to further their work, including a major grant from the prestigious New England Foundation for the Arts, or NEFA, who chose them out of 300 invitation-only dance project grant applicants. Chatting to Castro Courier, Executive Artistic Director and internationally celebrated stage designer, Garance Marner, described what sets LEVYdance and RUSH | This Is How I Know I’m Alive apart from the rest.
Wendy: RUSH is a very intriguing project; it’s billed as an event that will “challenge your expectations of what it means to go out and experience a night out.” What is it about this project that’s so completely different and special?
Garance: This has been a long term project, in the making for five to six years. It started when I was in London running my design studio, and collaborating with some choreographers; one of them was Tamsin Fitzgerald, the artistic director of 2Faced Dance. I was working mainly in opera and theater, where it seemed easier to get a full audience, and she expressed how challenging it was, especially in contemporary dance, to get people to come and see shows. Especially attracting young people was a huge challenge. Why do young adults, who socialize in dance clubs, not engage with concert dance? That’s when this all started. We had a small group at the time: me as art director and designer, Tasmin as choreographer; we had a composer and a lighting designer. We went to Ibiza, the home of clubs, music and dancing, to do some research, meet club producers, and understand better what made nightlife and clubs successful, both financially and in terms of attracting large crowds. This is when I submitted the first design proposal, and I had to rethink the space and the structure of the night, so that people would fee [that] they could have a full night out of seeing art and dance, and they could participate, and be part of the experience.
Wendy: When one goes to a club, there is the option of dancing, or doing whatever one wishes. Suppose two people attend the show together, and one person wants to participate and dance, but the other person feels more shy about dancing. Will they both feel completely comfortable going to the show?
Garance: Yes. This is what I spent the past four years refining, how to create a platform that allows people to enter and exit at will, roam about, dance and interact with all of the elements for the experience. This [brought me] to the next stage of the project, which was how to use technology as part of the show, to help us gauge peoples’ engagement, what they want to do, and enable their biometric data to decide and trigger what happens next in the show. The space itself, think of it as a club/theater, is a giant bubble for 500 people, where you have bars, where you have lounges, where you have several platforms for people to perform, and the audience is very much integrated into the whole thing. [There are] Chest sensor corsets for people to wear, which calculate your breathing, your heartbeat, and different biometrics that enable us to see, throughout the night, what people would be interested in experiencing, whether they might want to dance, or whether they might want to contemplate. That’s what gives them [the dancers] information about where to go, what to do, and what scenes and elements of the show they can perform.
Wendy: That’s a really fascinating approach; it’s easy to see why LEVYdance has been recognized and has won grants for this project. Beyond this particular piece, RUSH | This Is How I Know I’m Alive, LEVYdance really strives to bring people in. You have classes, and salons, and generally bring a wide variety of people into your space, which is almost more of a community space sometimes.
Garance: That’s right, yes.
Wendy: Let’s start with LEVYsalon, where you invite artists in periodically to explore and present new work.
Garance: Just to give you a little overview, LEVYdance is three major programs. At the heart of this, LEVYdance is an internationally touring dance company, recognized for innovative, interdisciplinary, and interactive works, which is my company of dancers, [with] me creating, directing, and producing shows, and then the studio, which is all the instructors I bring in on evenings and weekends, to teach all the various dance classes for the public and dance students. The reason I first came to this company four years ago was for LEVYdance, to bring my stage design and entrepreneurial experience from London, and bring this type of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work into the Bay Area, which felt underdeveloped at the time. I first came for artistic reasons, but as soon as I was in the company, I realized that there were a lot of renovations, condos being built, and a culture within SOMA [where the LEVYdance studio is] that was in the middle of a change. It felt even more important for me to be an advocate for artists and support the community. A lot of the art spaces were closing down. I was struggling to audition artists, because they were all leaving the Bay Area when I arrived, so I felt a deepened urgency, with our studio, to do what I could, to bring back a sense of community, and to support artists with low income. We had this program, LEVYsalon, which was artists using the space when it was free and self-curating, to do showcases quarterly. We’ve hugely expanded this program and offered them professional training and resources to help launch them in the industry, give them free space, admin support, free marketing tools for their portfolios, technical support, and mentorship from me. We’ve grown from 40-60 artists, sponsored or mentored, and now we’re supporting up to 140 to 160 artists. A lot of artists come to me because they want to try new ideas that feel relevant to today, and they are not getting support from larger organizations, or it would cost them too much money to produce themselves. They can’t afford to have the space and technical resources to try out those ideas, so I’m using LEVYdance as a platform for them to do that.
Wendy: You have a couple of these showcases, or LEVYsalons, coming up in June.
Garance: That’s right, on Saturday and Sunday, June 22nd [9PM] and 23rd [3:30PM], at our studio on 19 Heron Street.
Wendy: You also have, on June 15th, a fundraising event, Fundraising Is A Drag: PROM QUEENS!
Garance: An unusual one and a popular one!
Wendy: This sounds fun; it’s your seventh annual Fundraising Is A Drag, and it will benefit all of the work that you do at LEVYdance.
Garance: That’s right. One of our former presidents, Jason Johnson, created that fantastic drag program and fundraiser. He is a Diversity Talent Discovery Partner at Genentech, used to work for Harvard University for both their Capital Giving and Leadership Giving programs, and prior to that, for SF Ballet. He created this program, inviting several drag queens from his network and friends, to perform with our dancers annually.
Wendy: Is Jason Johnson still involved with these fundraisers?
Garance: Yes, very much. He’s our headliner, curator and helps me prepare the event; we try to find a different theme every year. Last year was fashion, so we had a giant catwalk for the queens to perform with my dancers. This year we have a new theme, which is prom night.
Wendy: As mentioned, LEVYdance also offers classes at your space. Are these classes led by dancers from your company?
Garance: Those are instructors from the outside, that come and rent the space on evenings and weekends, and teach their own class. With that, my job is more [to be the] curator. there is a lot of gender inequality amongst dance instructors, versus students, so I’ve been able to leverage and empower more women to lead classes in their own individual styles. We have tango, salsa, hip-hop, different types of yoga, different types of workouts, so all the various types of classes you can imagine, including Golden Gate Knights lightsaber class, from Star Wars.
Wendy: It’s so interesting that you came to LEVYdance via your work in design, which had also led you to 2Faced Dance in London. How did you make the move from design into dance?
Garance: When I was little, and for a very long time, I was myself a dancer. I was dancing ballet from the age of four years old, [until I was] 12. Then I was a gymnast, from the age of 10 until 16. During my ballet and gymnastic career, I seriously injured myself, both ankles, which made me unable to do any sport at all. I had to reimagine myself. I come from a long line of artists, architects, film makers, on my mother’s side, and mathematicians and entrepreneurs on my father’s side. That’s why I naturally fell into fine art at first, and then stage design, through the people I met and the network I had.
Wendy: Was your first work in dance with 2Faced Dance in London?
Garance: No actually, it was in Switzerland. It took me a very long time to do anything related to dance, because I had a bittersweet feeling about it for many years. It was quite a traumatic experience for me. I loved moving and dance so much. I became a stage designer, and when I graduated in London from Central Saint Martins; I won an international competition, The Linbury Prize for Stage Design, which gave me the opportunity to start my own design studio in London in 2007. It also gave me back to back commissions all over the world. I worked at the Mariinsky Theater, if you’re familiar with the Russian conductor and director Valery Gergiev in opera, and then I worked for Bern Ballet in Switzerland, the National Theater, The Royal Shakespeare Company for nearly two years, then Dublin, so I’ve been traveling a lot, mostly as a stage designer and creative director. Just [because of] the nature of directors and collaborators that I was working with, very often I found my work bleeding into the role of movement director and choreographer in rehearsals. The way I approach design is very integrated and related to the movement of the characters on the stage.
Wendy: What a wonderful full circle story that is. You were destined for dance on some level.
Garance: Yes, I have a passion for dance, and hence my desire to find ways, especially with my peers and students that I see coming through the studio, to make people feel more comfortable to experience dance and judge from there, if that makes sense.
Wendy: And you have found ways of utilizing technology to help you know more precisely what people are feeling within that experience, during RUSH | This Is How I Know I’m Alive. It’s lovely to see something that actually is a very new approach, and what a fitting city to begin it in.
Garance: I think this is a very exciting time and city for the arts, especially for different disciplines, to actually come together, create a coalition, and to advocate for the arts. It felt to me like the best place, moving from London, to continue developing that work.
Wendy: Was there anything in particular that drew you to Gray Area as a venue?
Garance: Yes. This project will take another two years to be fully rendered, especially the architecture of the bubble. What we’re focusing on is building the technology itself and some of the elements of the RUSH project. This is a residency with a preview proof-of-concept showing at the end of it. Where we are seemed like the best place for me because I’ve been in conversation with their executive director, Josette [Melchor], since I moved here. She seemed to me to be the most aligned with both the experience that I had in London working on multidisciplinary shows, and the intersection of art and technology. I feel that a lot of people see that collaboration as a cool factor in San Francisco, but only a few people fully understand it to do it well, and Josette was one of them. There’s a wonderful incubator program with technology artists they’ve been developing over the past few years, and I met a couple of them. I was just astounded by how well they worked as coders and technology artists, but also how curious and intrigued they were to find better ways to collaborate with dancers to make their technology more human. How we can use technology and steer in the direction where it helps people to be more human, as opposed to just being a functionality, is very important to me moving forward.
LEVYdance will hold a preview performance of RUSH | This Is How I Know I’m Alive on Friday, June 7th, at Gray Area (2665 Mission Street, between 22nd and 23rd Streets, in SF).
Great Local Theatre @ 42nd Street Moon...
San Francisco’s 42nd Street Moon (Daren A.C. Carollo and Daniel Thomas, Co-Executive Directors) has announced the full cast and creative team for Moon’s next production, the 8-Time Tony Award-nominated musical 110 IN THE SHADE. Based N. Richard Nash’s acclaimed ١٩٥٤ play THE RAINMAKER (the basis for the 1956 film starring Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn), 110 IN THE SHADE features music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones (THE FANTASTICKS), and a book by Nash adapted from his own play. 42nd Street Moon’s production of 110 IN THE SHADE runs from April 24 – May 12, 2019 and will perform at San Francisco’s Gateway Theatre (215 Jackson St, San Francisco, CA 94111).
Tickets range from $30 - $75 and can be purchased through the Box Office at (415) 255-8207 or online at www.42ndstmoon.org. Subscriptions and more information about 42nd Street Moon are available online at www.42ndstmoon.org.Tickets to 110 IN THE SHADE may be purchased online at www.42ndstmoon.org or by calling the Box Office at (415) 255-8207 (Tues. – Fri., 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.).