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New Play Explores The Darker Side Of Sunny San Diego’s History

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"Happiness Happens." Recently that was the official catchphrase for tourism in San Diego. And that kind of light, laid-back, some might say innocuous vision of San Diego is often promoted by city officials.

But sunny San Diego has a few clouds in its background. And it's this darker history of the city that's explored in a new play that gets its first public reading this Saturday in University Heights.

"Talking Woman," a noir romance inspired by actual events, tells the story of a haunted newspaper photographer and a burlesque dancer from Tijuana who navigate passion and politics in post-World War II San Diego. The play is set in 1949, which according to playwright Mark Hiss was an interesting year in the city's history.

"Mission Bay was completed, the first TV station was founded, and the city got rid of its trolley system and added more buses and cars," says Hiss. "San Diego was changing from a rough-and-tumble seaport city to more technological, from blue-collar to white-collar."

Hiss was inspired by an archival photo that he discovered at the San Diego History Center, while working as editor of Performances Magazine, a monthly publication distributed at local theater productions.

"We used to do a picture feature on the back page (of the magazine). I found this picture of a burlesque dancer and it blew me away," says Hiss. The photo (above left) looks like two people but it's really one woman dressed as half lady and half devil. "She would perform a burlesque routine called 'The Devil and the Lady' where she would do a tango with herself. The devil side would pluck her clothes off to the music," says Hiss.

The lady in the picture is the basis for the play's lead character, Esme (short for Esmeralda). Although not much is known about her (for example her name or where she's from; Hiss made up her name and made her from Tijuana), Hiss did learn that she was the first person targeted under a new (at the time) law banning obscene and lewd behavior in San Diego. This event, along with the subsequent raid of the Hollywood Burlesque Theater where this dancer performed, are included in "Talking Woman."

While the play looks at historic forces that have shaped San Diego — from the border to labor issues — it's also an homage to 1940s-style burlesque. Though you won't see any burlesque at this Saturday's staged reading at Twiggs in University Heights. The music and dancing will come later, once Hiss and director Kevin Six see how the play unfolds during the live reading. Audience feedback will be more than welcome during the "chat back" at the end of the reading and both Hiss and Six are eager to see the public's reactions.

KPBS Midday Edition speaks with Hiss and Six about "Talking Woman" and the history that inspired it. The reading takes place Saturday at 7 p.m. at Twiggs Green Room, next to Twiggs Bakery & Coffeehouse, in University Heights.


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