"Point Shipyard Project" Imagines a New Hunters Point

by Jean Schiffman

Push Dance Company presents its first downtown spring season, with MoAd as coproducer.

When award-winning San Francisco choreographer Raissa Simpson learned about the contaminated environment around the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard—the neighborhood
that’s home to her young students at the 3rd Street Youth Center and Clinic—an idea for a dance piece began to form.

What, she wondered, would the Shipyard look like in 2024, the projected date for the completion of the current cleanup, revitalization and redevelopment project at the former Navy base?

To transform that theme into a new dance/installation for her Push Dance Company, Simpson collaborated with a small group of music and dance students at the Center, who, she says, have often expressed concern about their futures. Opening this month at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAd), “Point Shipyard Project” features Simpson’s professional dance troupe, with a recorded soundtrack of spoken-word/a cappella rap, sound effects and music created by the student group under the guidance of the Center’s music program director, Darrell Davis.

The five 3rd Street participants were given a mandate: to write short monologues—a minute to a minute and a half—in which they were to explore their own deepest feelings about their homes, their immediate environment, their lives. They recorded their text, which was then interspersed with student-composed music and sound effects according to Simpson’s directions. (An earlier version, performed at Dance Mission Theatre in 2013, also featured five monologues; this version uses the same music but has new participants and new monologues.)

To inspire and educate the students, Simpson arranged workshops, led by an EPA spokesperson, on the technical aspects of the cleanup with explanations of the health risks to residents of the surrounding area. There were also Shipyard bus tours, and the students researched online for material to combine with their own personal experiences.

“We talked about what this area could look like,” says Simpson, a classically trained dancer who is African-American and Filipina-American.
She grew up in San Jose, received a BFA from SUNY-Purchase in New York and has danced locally with Robert Moses’ Kin and Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre, among others. Her students, she says, feel that Bayview-Hunters Point could become a gentrified area that they’d be priced out of. “A lot of my students go to college and want to come back and contribute to their community,” she says, “but they’re under the impression there might not be a way for them to come back and work here.”

Davis, a life-long musician who plays “five or six instruments—guitar, bass, violin, drums”—says the goal of the 3rd Street Center is to “have kids dream and support those dreams.” With grants from various sources, he has helped build a full-fledged music program at the Center, which meets every Monday and offers the computer equipment and video cameras necessary for a prototype production company. The students take the work seriously; it’s not just about the art but also about the business of producing. For “Point Shipyard Project,” Davis told them, “This is the gig: The client wants spoken word things going on here. Write from the heart.” The students wrote about police brutality, about how Bayview-Hunters Point is a forgotten neighborhood. One young woman imagined being on the BART train the night Oscar Grant was killed and how she would have felt. Another wrote about friends who’d died. Davis and the student coproducers added calm Native American music here, fireworks there, a jet sound there, perhaps an echo over there, or two voices together. Davis describes the structure as “spoken word, break, music, dancers dancing.”

For Push Dance, “Point Shipyard Project” represents the company’s first downtown spring season, with MoAd as coproducer. In the past, Simpson has created both site-specific and traditional-theater work, but always felt that the two were separate; with this piece she is at last bringing those two approaches together in one performance. “This work is about diaspora,” she says, “and MoAd is a partner with a lot of resources for the public in terms of the African diaspora.”

On their way upstairs to the second-story, 40-seat gallery, the audience will walk among the dancers who are performing on the staircase, where they can be seen through the outer glass wall by passersby on the street. The image, says Simpson, “symbolizes…a passage through life. For some of us,” she reflects, “life is a struggle, for others quite easy.”

Of the students’ stories, she says, “They feel very authentic to me… . I feel that there’s something here that San Francisco doesn’t get to see; we hear only about the unfortunate stories. Youth makes mistakes. What I teach them is in dance you have to make mistakes. That’s the only way you’ll learn and grow. There’s always a second chance in dance—and in life. I’ve seen them grow through dance. They’ve come out with something resourceful and astounding.”

Mar. 29 & 30


685 Mission St.