Theater Review: UNPACKING IN P’TOWN (New Conservatory Theater Center)

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by Chuck Louden on March 15, 2024

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Set in the East Coast Summer gay mecca Provincetown in 1959, four old vaudeville friends reunite anxiously awaiting the promising 60s decade to come. “Handsome young Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy with his gorgeous wife Jackie will hopefully throw his hat in the ring to run for President” one of the characters announces. It may be set in the 50s, but New Conservatory Theatre Center‘s premiere of Jewelle Gomez‘s Unpacking in P’town — the third chapter in her Words and Music Trilogy — feels like a long 80s politically correct special episode of The Golden Girls.

Matt Weimer, Stephen Kanaski, Desiree Rogers, Awele
Desiree Rogers, Awele, Stephen Kanaski, Matt Weimer, Shawn JWest

Buster (ShawnJ West) and Scottie (Matt Weimer) are an older interracial couple. Minty (Desiree Rogers) is black and a bartender at the recently closed town lesbian bar. Lydia (Awele [(ah-WAY-lay)]) is straight and mixed race: part African American and part Wampanoag Indian, the original tribe the Pilgrims encountered in 1620. Anando (Stephen Kanaski) rounds out the group as a young and handsome newly out man. He’s the local houseboy who does errands for the group and is somewhat of a distraction for the older gay male couple.

Desiree Rogers

The group is staying in adjoining cottages with a front porch, Adirondack chairs and a bar that stays fully stocked through the show (gorgeous set designed by Thomas O’Brien). Everyone is wearing colorful summer pastels and beach wear designed by Nia Jacobs.

Stephen Kanaski, Desiree Rogers

With everyone playing catch up and reminiscing about the old days, it turns out that all is not as it seems. With the backdrop of the Civil Rights Era unfolding, past secrets and resentments are slowly revealed. Even in the openly gay resort town, all the friends are struggling with their own demons of being judged and Lydia, Minty and Buster are subtly being denied the rights and freedoms of their white peers. As the cocktails flow, tongues become looser. Each character has their moment to unload their burdens to the others.

Matt Weimer, Shawn JWest, Awele

Even though the stories have humor and bits of irreverence, at times the show, directed by Kimberly Ridgeway, seems like preaching with a message that can feel a bit heavy-handed. Towards the end of Unpacking in P’town, of course, the love and being with our chosen families is part of the underlying story. The tropes of bonding through cocktails and an obligatory choreographed dance number (by Christina Lazo) have all the former Vaudevillians in perfect form, never missing a step. Unfortunately it feels forced to give the show an upbeat ending. Minus some of the speeches, perhaps, the show could have been an enjoyable experience.

Awele and ShawnJ West

photos by Lois Tema

Unpacking in P’town
New Conservatory Theatre Center
25 Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco
ends on March 31, 2024
for tickets ($25-$65), call 415.861.8972 or visit NCTC

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