Liberty Bradford Mitchell spent a good deal of her youth concealing the fact that she was one of those Mitchells. Her father was Artie Mitchell of the Mitchell Brothers, San Francisco’s infamous pornography pioneers, the founders of the O’Farrell Theatre strip club and makers of Behind the Green Door, the 1972 skin flick hailed as the start of the “Golden Age of Porn.” Still more infamously, her uncle Jim Mitchell shot her father dead in 1991, and Liberty’s testimony in the subsequent trial was one of the factors that got him convicted of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder. Clearly she has a lot to talk about, and that’s what she’s doing in her one-woman show The Pornographer’s Daughter, which is having its world premiere run now at Z Below, the venue formerly known as Traveling Jewish Theatre.

“One-woman show” is a little misleading. There are actually three guys up there on stage with her: a backing band, aptly named the Fluffers, who only play every once in a while to usher in a new chapter of the story. They play a hodgepodge of instantly recognizable instrumental riffs and intros to hits by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Billy Idol, Duran Duran, Nirvana, Blondie and others. The play is far from a musical, but Bradford Mitchell does sing one grimly appropriate song, a haunting rendition of Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” in the style of the Nancy Sinatra cover used in the Tarantino flick Kill Bill. The guys don’t play parts — Bradford Mitchell takes on appropriate voices for all the characters in her story — but bassist Keith Stater doubles as a sleazy announcer who pops up occasionally to give a sense of the milieu in which Bradford Mitchell grew up.


Liberty Bradford Mitchell and backing band the Fluffers in The Pornographer’s Daughter

The show is essentially and entirely an answer to the question, “What was it like to grow up as the daughter of one of the Mitchell Brothers?” Bradford Mitchell gives us the story of how her parents met in the 1960s (Meredith Bradford from a posh New England family and Artie “from a long line of charismatic Okie grifters”), and how the brothers got into porn half as a money-making scheme and half because “they truly believed they were pioneering the next wave of avant-garde cinema.”

She deftly goes back and forth between what she later learned was going on in her parents’ lives and the effects these activities had on her: staring in disturbed incomprehension at the close-ups of colliding genitals at the O’Farrell when she was four years old, and worrying at six that she’d be arrested for visiting her dad at the adults-only establishment. She talks about her parents’ divorce and the bad-influence advice her father gave her growing up. She explains that “business trips” were the euphemism for Artie and Jim going to jail, which Artie did 187 times. For Jim, it was 188. Knowing what this difference means when she says it is chilling. Uncle Jim is understandably depicted as a ticking time bomb. Even before the days of cocaine-fueled paranoia, Bradford Mitchell keeps coming back to an “unwritten rule: Don’t f— with Uncle Jim.”

It’s an 80-minute show without intermission and there are no scene or costume changes, but there’s a whole lot of video in director Michael T. Weiss’ staging. The opening montage of Skye Borgman’s video design is a rather dizzying array of pornography through the ages that in itself would make this show for adults only. Photos and video clips are used throughout to take you back to the time that Bradford Mitchell’s talking about. One particularly charming clip is Green Door star Marilyn Chambers’ good-humored press conference after it was discovered that she was also the new face of Ivory Snow laundry detergent from a previous modeling gig (Procter & Gamble had not yet connected the dots).

Jeff Rowlings’ simple set is fittingly seedy-looking: a video screen surrounded by little blinking yellow light bulbs, a small bandstand for the backing band, and a free-standing green door as a little inside joke.


Liberty Bradford Mitchell and the Fluffers in The Pornographer’s Daughter.

Bradford Mitchell is an animated and enthusiastic storyteller who’s fun to watch, and the arc of her story is well constructed. Her flair for the poetic occasionally takes a turn for the florid; she opens by saying she’s not a monarch, a ruler or a queen, and yet her father was a king — a king of porn, of course. But a story like this one lends itself to poetic license and mythmaking, however gritty, disturbing and all too real the day-to-day details may have been.

Bradford Mitchell has a theatrical background completely separate from her family’s porn theater. She has a BFA in theater directing and playwriting, and she’s been a sometime theater producer and artist-educator. But as entertaining as The Pornographer’s Daughter is, it works more because of the public’s preexisting curiosity about her family and their lurid story than because of the artful way she spins the tale. This particular show seems like a sure success because of the sensational subject matter that happens to be Bradford Mitchell’s early life, and I can easily see it traveling and running for some time. But it’s hard to get much sense from this show whether it’s a one-off novelty or whether she has other stories, autobiographical or otherwise, to tell.

The Pornographer’s Daughter runs through February 16, 2014 at Z Below in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit PDtheplay.com.

All photos by David Allen.

Coming of Age When You’re Born Into Porn 24 January,2014Sam Hurwitt

Author

Sam Hurwitt

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor