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

The historic photo of a San Diego burlesque dancer that inspired the new play "Talking Woman."
San Diego History Center
The historic photo of a San Diego burlesque dancer that inspired the new play "Talking Woman."
The Darker Side Of Sunny San Diego's History
GUESTS Mark Hiss, playwright of “Talking Woman.” Kevin Six, director of “Talking Woman.”

CAVANAUGH: There is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Happiness happens! Recently, that was the official catch phrase for tourism in San Diego. That kind of light, laid back innocuous vision of San Diego is often promoted. 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. My guests, Mark Hiss is a writer, specializing in arts, culture, and travel. Talking woman is his first play. Welcome. HISS: Thanks for having me. CAVANAUGH: Kevin Six is a San Diego actor, directing the reading of talking woman. SIX: Thank you so much for having us. CAVANAUGH: Your play explores the dark or noir side of San Diego. What don't people know about San Diego? HISS: Wow, there was so much! I was really shocked about what I found. Political corruption, backroom dealing, cronyism, racism, lawless cops. Throw in an international border, and it made a fertile territory for a nice noir. CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you if you could give us a quick synopsis of your play and how these factors might enter into what you've written. HISS: Well, are the play is set in 1949. And it's a noir romance between a newspaper photographer and a burlesque dancer. He's from the Italian fishing colony, which is now known as little Italy. He's a damaged soul, an excombat photographer who's probably seen too much. And he's a vivacious young woman from Tijuana, and she's just trying to make her way in the United States. And what kind of -- I hung this all upon, I was doing research in the history center archives in Balboa Park. And I found this amazing photo of a burlesque dancer, and at first I thought it was two people, but it's just this woman and her costume. And she's got a devil manikin on her head, and she looks like two people. And it was this incredible photo. And I started doing research into it. And the story behind it was even more fascinating in that she was the first person targeted by a law that was passed in 1949 by the City Council that banned lewd, obscene, and immoral entertainment. And she was a dancer at the Hollywood theatre, and she was the first target. CAVANAUGH: And where was the Hollywood theatre? HISS: The Hollywood theatre is now where the lyceum -- well, it's where Horton plaza is. It's the Horton plaza parking garage now. CAVANAUGH: The way I understand it is this woman's burlesque costume was, as you say, sort of a manikin of a devil, and of course she was the lady, and she billed herself the lady and the devil; is that right? HISS: It was an act called the lady and the devil, and she did a tango with herself. And she would pluck her clothes off as the devil, and there was a man named Edwin J. Cooley, this is all factual, and he was the city director of social welfare, and he was an unelected, bureaucratic official who had pushed through this ordinance. And he had complete power over every theatre, bowling alley, arcade, club, anything in the city where entertainment was involve, he could pull their license, and put them out of business if he wanted. If he found their, you know, act morally reprehensible in his words. Of CAVANAUGH: What is the meaning of the play's title, talking woman? HISS: Talking woman is a burlesque term for a straight woman. She delivers straight lines to the comics. Sexy waitress as, we have some nice tongue on the menu today, sir. And the comic will say, I'd never eat anything that came out of an animal's mouth. I'll have the eggs! [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Very good! Let me go to you, Kevin. What struck you the first time you read this play? SIX: The play just is entertaining on so many levels. So wonderfully rendered by Mark. And so many beautiful images, and a very nice love story. CAVANAUGH: Was it something that you -- the way I understand it it, mark give this to you and said what do you think of it, and you said you got to do it, right? SIX: Yeah, I think it's at the perfect time where it needs to be heard. And Mark needs to sit and watch an audience watch the play and see what works and doesn't work, and I think a lot of it's going to work. CAVANAUGH: Mark, tell us more about what San Diego was like back in 1949. What did you find out? HISS: Well, it was interesting. That was just when this photo was taken, in 1949, that I found it. And I wasn't really thinking 1949 is a great year to explore. As I started looking into it, it really was an amazing turning point in San Diego for a lot of reasons. It's the postWorld†War†II era where San Diego is leaving behind the wild west port city that it was, something analogous to the barbary coast in San Francisco or canary row in monthry, and it's becoming a white collar military industrial complex. CAVANAUGH: It's becoming the San Diego we know. HISS: Exactly. And there's all these other elements. San Diego gets its first broadcast television station, and it's the year that the trolley system is torn up. You can no longer take a trolley to the beach. And it's the year that the last wild place in the city limits, False can have bay, is dredged and manicured, and becomes Mission Bay. CAVANAUGH: It's especially surprising for new San Diegans to realize how much downtown San Diego has changed, not just even in the space from 1949 to now, but in the last 20, 30 years. It really used to be sort of a rowdy area. HISS: It was the wild west. It truly was. And people forget that. And especially because before the rail road got here, there was only two ways to get here. Over land on a stagecoach or by boat. San Diego really was isolated by the desert and the mountains and the sea. It was a little outpost. CAVANAUGH: And that sense of isolation lasted a long time. >> It did. And that's why I think downtown San Diego has all those amazing buildings still, because it was just forgotten for 100 years. CAVANAUGH: Now, your play is going to be given a staged reading this weekend. Kevin, if you could, tell us what is a staged reading? SIX: That's a very good question. A staged reading is kind of one of the oldest forms of art in that it's like story telling. There's not going to be lights and sound and costumes, and actually not a lot of movement and blocking either. We're just going to get to sit and hear a story told, a good story told well by excellent artists. CAVANAUGH: And since there is not a lot of movement or lights or costume, what do you as a director do in a staged reading? SIX: It's the easiest job of all. [ LAUGHTER ] SIX: Once you find the cast, it pretty much takes care of itself. I will be sitting and reading stage directs and hopefully providing the audience with some starting points to create this beautiful image in their minds [which is|is which] in 1949, you'd be listening to a radio anyway. CAVANAUGH: Now, Mark, what do you expect to come out of the staged read something from what I understand, it is a step in the process of this play's development; is that right? HISS: Absolutely, absolutely. I consider this the last sort of element they need. These voices have been in my head for a few years, and it's time to get them out in the air and see if they fly. It's really just to see what works and what doesn't. This is a really important stage for me. CAVANAUGH: Now, burlesque is a central element of this play. Your main character is a burlesque dancer. How are you going to be handling that at this reading? SIX: You'll have to come and find out! [ LAUGHTER ] SIX: We've got some ideas that we'll be discussing shortly after the show. And again, there's not a lot of staging, but we'll do a few fun things to make it burlesquey. CAVANAUGH: And will you be asking for audience feedback? HISS: Absolutely, absolutely. That's exactly why I wanted to do this. I want to know what works and what doesn't. CAVANAUGH: Kevin, do you expect to do more than one of these? SIX: I would suggest that Mark probably do at least one more staged reading, and then it's time to move on to what we call a workshop performance, where you get more elements, and more -- you get busier, and of course you spend more money. CAVANAUGH: Right. SIX: So the other part of a stageded reading is to get people who like to produce theatre interested in theatre as well. You can gain buzz for a show very early on. I don't know if anyone in your audience has seen the TV show Smash, but that's sort of the story of a play coming to life. And people in the theatre see that and cringe, but there's a lot of truth in that show. CAVANAUGH: It's fascinating to me how a play goes from an idea to a complete work of art. How long have you been working on this play? HISS: Oh, God. I would say about eight years. And that's -- I'm a free-lance writer, so I often had projects that I had to attend to. So I would -- a couple of times I 10 months without even touching this play. So I think I first found that photo in 2003 or 2004, something like that. And then once I found out the story behind it, I just knew that that would be a great story on work on just because there's so much mystery behind it. And I could fill in a lot of blanks. CAVANAUGH: It's interesting the way you found that photo, the lady and the devil, the burlesque dancer that sort of kicked this whole idea in your head. And that is you were working for performances magazine and looking for historical archives for a theatre bill, right? HISS: Correct. It's the mag keen that you get when you go to the globe or the symphony or the opera. And yeah, I would dig through the archives and I would just find an interesting picture, and I learned a lot about San Diego history doing that. CAVANAUGH: So during your research, as you say, you discovered some of this darker history that perhaps some boosters of the city would like us all to forget. What surprised you the most? HISS: I think the thing that surprised me the most wasn't a single historical fact, but it was the discovery of a woman named Luisa Moreno who was a laborer and human rights activist who I had never heard of. And her story was so amazing that I almost scrapped everything that I had been doing and made the play about her solely. But her story is so tragic that I decided I wouldn't do that just because I wanted at least a glimmer of hope in this piece. She really has a very sad story, and it's -- I would encourage anyone to look her up. It's really an incredible story. And I sort of liken her to a cross between Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King. CAVANAUGH: Do we meet her in this play at all? >> Uh-huh. HISS: We do. I use her -- she only appears once, and in fact, I actually use some of her word. She is probably the only person in the play they present with the actual name and actual her words. Everyone else is fictionalized CAVANAUGH: Kevin, when you give a staged reading, how will you know it is a success? Will it be the audience reaction or will it be what you learn from it? SIX: I think it's a little of both, but really I think you know right from the beginning if a play is going to be good when you can hear an audience inhale. And when they go like this, you know? And I'm expecting them to do that three or four times during this play. CAVANAUGH: I have to end it here. Talking woman has its staged reading Saturday at 7:00†PM at twigs green room, next to twigs bakery and coffee house in university heights.

"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.