‘Dear San Francisco’, by 7 Fingers

Review from: Club Fugazi, San Francisco, USA; 2nd November 2022

Club Fugazi is a special place, and having the 7 Fingers as their resident company is a special occasion. James Green, usher and member of their marketing team, takes me on a tour of the building and tells me its rich history. Built by Italian businessman John F. Fugazi as a gift to the city’s Italian community, the building played an important role in the city’s cultural history: Jazz musician Thelonius Monk recorded his acclaimed solo album, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco, here in 1959; During the 1950s and early 60s it was home for many Beat poets including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg; and after hosting the legendary musical revue and drag show Beach Blanket Babylon for 45 years, Club Fugazi is now home to a new show by Canadian circus company 7 Fingers.

I say ‘Canadian’, because this is where the 7 Fingers (whose full name is Le Sept Doigts de la Main) started and prospered, but this company is rooted in San Francisco: co-founders Gypsy Snider and Shana Carroll grew up in the bay area and began their circus careers in the city; and Snider’s parents are the founders of The Pickle Family Circus, San Francisco circus royalty. Dear San Francisco marks the very first time that this world-renowned company held a permanent home in the US, and to know that they’re doing it in the very city that planted their circus seeds is truly the icing on the cake.

An average audience member might not know all these puzzle pieces when coming to watch the show, but I would have been remiss not to include them – as this knowledge makes one enjoy Dear San Francisco even more, and understand the importance it holds in the city’s current cultural landscape. It is a show about SF, made by SF natives, held at a quintessential SF venue. To locals this knowledge can be an absolute delight, an insider’s Easter Egg to relish; for out-of-towners like myself, it is an opportunity to engage with the city’s cultural history and learn more about the people who enrich it.

I can’t quite call this a narrative show because there is no story to follow, nor is it simply a revue show offering one act following another with nothing tying them together. This show is best described as a love letter to the city, a nod to the people who made it and the movements that flourished in it; watching Dear San Francisco is like riding one of the city’s famous cable cars, but instead of stopping at physical landmarks it takes you to various important moments in this city’s history, paying homage to all that cemented San Francisco’s status as a city worth visiting.

I cannot take you to all the stops on this metaphoric cable car ride, but I’ll share a few that moved me most:

~A cast member read an audience letter from a man who had his first kiss in the botanical garden of the city, with another man, and what it was like to come out as a gay man in San Francisco. This short text was followed by a simple duo trapeze act, where various cast members performed their tricks in various formations that suggested same sex and queer relationships (there was even one quick trio of female-presenting cast members, that made me wonder if it was an intentional reference to polyamory or just something I saw through the lens of my own communities). It was a simple yet beautiful way to reference San Francisco’s rich LGBT+ history and the huge role it played in the community’s struggle for equality). 

~Another moving moment was a diabolo act performed by cast member Enmeng Song, an immigrant from Shandong, China (which I later learned was entirely improvised – Song usually performs a double act with his wife who had to be out that night). While spinning and throwing and catching his diabolos, Song spoke about finding a home in San Francisco with the wife he met through his diabolo practice, and about the city’s history of street performance, and the local Chinese circus teacher Master Lu Yi (a legendary name to any circus artist in the US. People travelled from all over the world to the San Francisco Circus Center to train under him before he retired). In a city like San Francisco, where the Chinese population is such an old and important part of its immigrant history, to hear Song share his perspective on stage was like hearing a thousand voices echoing within – the story of a single immigrant as the story of the city itself.

~The show didn’t just offer touching reminder of the city’s history, it also knew when to be humorous about it: after giving the audience candy and joking that it might be a ‘special’ kind of candy, colourful swirly projections took us on a hallucinogenic trip (LSD was a big part of the city’s counterculture in the 1960’s). The entire cast performed an intricate and playful Chinese pole, cheekily tripping over each other, going up and down the poles, performing sudden drops to the delighted shrieks of the audience.

They had everything: historic footage of the devastating 1906 earthquake and fires; a film noir juggling acro scene (in a style that reminded me of the works of Crystal Pite); beat poetry hoop diving; a tech bro trying to take over the space and hold its audience hostage; truly they managed to squeeze quite a lot of San Francisco into a 90 minutes show, and they did so with grace, skill, humour and heart.

My favourite act (and they were smart to save it to last) was a contortion act by trans nonbinary artist Saffi Watson. I’m told Watson usually does a parasol foot juggling act with Song’s wife Shengnan Pan, but left without their partner Watson had to cobble something together (I assume from pre-existing material plus some improvisation). As we watched them contort and writhe all over the stage, cast members took to Watson’s skin to write messages such as ‘loss’, ‘cry’, ‘fear’ and ‘hate’. I admit I found the writing itself to be a bit too on the nose and somewhat unnecessary, as Watson’s movement quality and expressive face were more than enough to convey a world of feelings. They managed to be both razor sharp in their focus yet soft and cradling, their act equal parts electric and soothing. It was truly a work of art.

If you happen to be in the area, do check out Dear San Francisco. It is one of the most heartfelt circus shows I’ve ever watched, overflowing with love and appreciation for the city that hosts it. 

Leave a Reply