In a small classroom-turned-theater space at San Francisco’s City College, Nataly Ortiz and Stephanie Tomasulo are in the throes of rehearsing Paul S. Flores’ new play, On the Hill.
Ortiz plays Tomasulo’s great grandmother, who is grieving for the loss of her daughter. She’s a few words into the scene, script tightly in hand, when Flores interrupts her.
“‘We are Guerreros,’” Flores says, repeating the actor’s line back at her to emphasize the rolling r’s. “You have to say it right.”
Adherence to a script is more than just professional practice. In On The Hill, staged by local youth performing arts organization Loco Bloco, Flores takes his cues from a tragedy close to home.
The play is part documentary theater, part interpretative piece. It explores the impact of gentrification and police violence, framed by the killing of Alex Nieto, the young man who was shot to death by four cops in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood on Mar. 21, 2014. The title of the play refers to Bernal Hill, the park where Nieto was sitting when he was attacked.
Flores and his actors spent months interviewing sources close to Nieto as part of the script development process. The process also included conversations after workshop performances earlier this year to get audience feedback.
In addition to Nieto’s story, the piece also includes real-life narratives from the play’s own young actors. Flores and his cast ran a series of writing workshops exploring the themes brought up in Nieto’s case — loss, gentrification, and the role translation plays in the lives of immigrants and their children — as a jumping-off point from which to craft their own stories for the stage.
In the workshop, Tomasulo shared a story about her ailing grandmother’s final moments. The young bilingual woman spoke about how difficult it was to translate messages between her Spanish-speaking family and her grandmother’s English-speaking nurse.
“It was deeply personal, and Paul wanted it in because it was such a powerful moment,” Tomasulo says. “From there it really just became a way of coping for me.”
Since the workshop and preview performances, Flores decided to refocus the piece in the wake of the hunger strike mounted by a group of artists and activists known as the Frisco Five this summer, who were protesting increased police shootings in the city. The resignation of San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) chief Greg Suhr days later also impacted Flores’ approach to the work.
“The previews were just us cultivating interviews and feeling out the piece,” Flores says. “This second part is our anger about the lack of justice the Nietos got. Now the movement forces people to memorialize Alex and his case.”
The latest version of the show, which opens at Brava Theater in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood on Thursday, Oct. 27, has been expanded to include both an interrogation of injustice in cases like Nieto’s, as well as a broader coming-of-age piece for youth growing up in gentrifying spaces.
“The play is particularly relevant, especially with the current climate between police and communities of color in the city,” says cast member Nikki Nutterfield.
On The Hill also juxtaposes real events with imagined situations, such as Nieto coming back to life to speak to supporters fighting for his cause. These moments of “magical realism” serve as a means of offering alternative outcomes, Flores says, especially considering that all of the SFPD officers involved in the Nieto shooting were exonerated of all wrongdoing when the case went before a jury.
“You have to let these events unfold and not be satisfied by what people think is the end,” Flores says. “You have to be more suspicious about what people do to wrap it up, especially when it comes to justice.”
Flores says that weaving together Nieto’s story with those of the cast members is his way of helping them understand not only the importance of the story they’re telling, but also the power each individual has in creating social change.
“I’m marking a piece of history with this piece of theater, and I feel honored to do that,” Flores says. “I’m also honored to build consciousness and affirm the voices of these young people in San Francisco.”
‘On The Hill’ plays Thursday, Oct. 27–Sunday, Oct. 30, at Brava Theater in San Francisco. For more information and tickets, visit Brava.org.