World Premier: The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot

by on February 8, 2018

The 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot is now recognized as a landmark in the LGBT movement. It’s occurrence in San Francisco’s Tenderloin was no mere coincidence; the Tenderloin neighborhood launched the city’s LGBT movement before its geographic center moved on to the Polk and Castro.

Now the Tenderloin Museum is proud to announce the premier of The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, an original, interactive theater piece directly inspired by the historic riots that launched transgender activism in San Francisco. The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot is an integral piece of the Tenderloin’s identity, and this play offers a singular opportunity for audiences to celebrate the individuals whose tenacious spirit spawned a movement against the long history of discrimination and violence. Attendees will convene for a late night breakfast at the New Village Cafe (a surrogate for the long-gone Compton’s on Turk and Taylor), where a 12 person cast will recreate the neighborhood’s seminal act of resistance and immerse the audience in the tribulations of a marginalized community striving for survival and recognition.

In the summer of 1966, a drag queen patron of the Tenderloin’s Compton’s Cafeteria threw her cup of hot coffee in the face of an police officer as he made an unwarranted attempted to arrest her. The riot that followed would come to be known as the United States’ first recorded act of militant queer resistance to social oppression and police harassment. Three years before the famous gay riot at New York’s Stonewall Inn, the neighborhood’s drag queens and allies banded together to fight back against their ongoing discrimination, beating the cops with their high heels and throwing furniture through the cafeteria windows.

A reflection of the solidarity displayed at Compton’s, The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot is a highly collaborative production. The play was conceived and developed by Bay Area playwright Mark Nassar and Tenderloin Museum director Katie Conry.

Nassar wrote the script with legendary neighborhood drag queens Donna Personna and Collette LeGrande, whose first-hand accounts of Compton’s inform the dialogue and direction. Throughout 2017, the play was workshopped extensively at the Tenderloin Museum to incorporate community feedback, and the final result is a groundbreaking hybrid of theater and living history.

While the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot has immense significance for the TLGB community at large, it was a defining moment for the Tenderloin. As such, Compton’s figures prominently in the Tenderloin Museum’s permanent exhibition. The history on display inspired Nassar and Conry to translate this pivotal moment to the stage, and the multi-year project that ensued proved a unique connection between the museum and its community.

Special thanks is due to Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman, whose diligently researched, Emmy Award winning documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria saved Compton’s from historical obscurity. Their special programming at the Tenderloin Museum was instrumental in building local awareness. Additionally, this production was made possible by generous grants from the California Humanities for All, the Zellerbach Family Foundation, the Horizons Foundation, and the Neighborhoods Arts Collaborative/ Grants for the Arts.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot opens on February 22nd, and performances will run Thursday through Saturday for four weeks. Audience members are encouraged to dress in 60s era clothing. Admission includes a meal (breakfast or dinner), but seating each night is limited, so reserve a ticket today!

Randy Shaw is on the Board of the Tenderloin Museum. He describes the rise of the LGBT movement in his book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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