Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Red Shades
Z Space
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent review of Pony

B Noel Thomas
Photo by Jay Yamada
During the pre-show announcements at the opening performance of the world premiere production of The Red Shades at Z Space, a "Trans Superhero Rock Opera," the audience was informed that "this is not some hoity-toity theatre show–this is punk rock!" Perhaps this should be included in the marketing of The Red Shades, because it's a wonderfully cogent and apt summation of this raucous, revolutionary, hard-rocking paean to the queer pioneers of San Francisco's transgender scene. Pony, another show about trans identity and the search for a place to call home which opened last week, was sadly both joyless and disjointed. Not The Red Shades, for even though it features scenes of abuse, oppression and exploitation, there is a thread of rebellious confidence that pervades virtually every moment of the show.

The Red Shades tells the story of Ida (Carmen Castillo), a delicate trans girl growing up in the mid-1960s–an exceptionally unfortunate time to be queer. Unless, like Ida, you find your way to San Francisco in 1966–but only after being abused and bullied, tossed to the curb by your father (Adam KuveNiemann) and placed in a hospital to have the queer drugged out of you by Dr. Smile (also Adam KuveNiemann). But with the help of other patients–especially Sherry (B Noel Thomas), who sings to Ida that she should "do what you do to survive and get out quick," Ida makes her escape during the number "Get On The Bus."

Sherry reappears once Ida finds her way to Flip House, a one-room flop in a Tenderloin residence hotel where Sherry lives with Genevieve (Chris Steele), who also happens to be a witch, and Tommy (Ezra Reaves), a trans man. In the song "Flip House," Ida learns of the value of a family you find for yourself: "We're the only ones who give a fuck about us," the three sing to Ida, before taking her out for a night at the Black Cat, a storied San Francisco gay bar where they dance the night away. Ida, while still adjusting to the freedom of being able to be herself, sings "I just had some fun for the first time in my life!" and the line is both joyful and heartbreaking.

The joy doesn't last too long, for the police, urged on by the sheriff (also Adam KuveNiemann, who gets pretty much all the black hat roles in The Red Shades), raid the bar–only to discover that Genevieve, Tommy, Sherry, and Ida have superpowers that can be unleashed if they "strike with the right amount of rage and freedom." The raid is thwarted, but the Red Shades–the name these fighters for trans freedom take for themselves–have more battles ahead of them. They will each need their superpowers–Genevieve's spells, Tommy's whip, Sherry's strength and Ida's avian shriek–in order to triumph./p>

The Red Shades, despite telling the story of a reviled, persecuted, and abused group of people (who, nearly 50 years later, still fight for their rights and respect) is some of the most thrilling, uplifting, joyous theatre currently being presented on a Bay Area stage. The songs, by Adrienne Price, Matt Fukui Grandy, and Jeanine Adkisson, with a story by Price, take the audience on a loud, wild, often funny, always inspiring journey into a world that is too often ignored by a cisgender majority. The songs tell virtually all the story (this is a rock opera, after all), and despite the punk sensibility that is in the DNA of The Red Shades, there are some lovely melodic moments that touch the heart, in songs like "She Sang in the Choir," "The Door," and the haunting but uplifting finale, "You're Not Alone."

Directed by Rotimi Agbabiaka and Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, the cast is excellent: engaging, committed, baring their souls with every note–even when those note aren't quite on pitch. Chris Steele relishes their roles as several women before settling into Genevieve, and while they have some trouble hitting some of the score's higher notes, their voice exhibits tremendous emotion in the lower register. Ezra Reaves plays Tommy with a confident swagger that is hard-earned. B Noel Thomas, with her sassy attitude that lets everyone know it's always bad bitch o'clock when she's on the scene, and her confident belt, is a powerful presence in every scene she's in. Castillo is both tender and puissant as Ida, shrieking with a violent punk esthetic on some songs, yet showing us a wounded but recovering soul in more quiet moments.

By the time The Red Shades reaches its climax, on the eve of the Compton Cafeteria Riot (a seminal moment in LGBTQ liberation that preceded Stonewall by three years), we have come to love this quartet of superheroes, a sort of queer Avengers who turn their righteous rage against all the injustice their queer brothers and sisters have experienced over the millennia of human existence. At curtain, we cheer not just for this bit of punk rock theatre, but to recognize the sacrifices trans men and women have made over decades. "We're not going anywhere!" they sing, and we know it's as true as anything ever spoken from a stage. You should be going to see this wondrous production that deserves to have every seat full for weeks and weeks to come.

The Red Shades runs through November 5, 2022, at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7:00 p.m. Tickets range from free to $50. For tickets and information, please visit