The setting for How to Catch Creation is an imagined city by the Bay, described by playwright Christina Anderson in her script as “a place that resembles San Francisco and the surrounding areas.” So though the geography lives somewhere in-between fact and fiction, there is great inspiration, for a play about multiple meanings of “creation,” to be found in the creative history of the Bay Area—a locale whose population exploded both during World War II (with its surge of war-time manufacturing jobs) and after (as the “Greatest Generation” settled into the temperate climate and did some “creation” of their own: the Baby Boom).
For some, to think of radical mid-century literature in San Francisco is to think of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara and City Lights Publishers—all part of the San Francisco Renaissance. But the renewal of American literature at that time intersected the Civil Rights Movement: throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, Bay Area citizens organized and protested racial discrimination and inequalities in housing and hiring through rallies, pickets and sit-ins. In 1968, the nation’s first Black Studies department was created at San Francisco State College, attracting a new generation of creative scholarship. In the years following City Lights’ opening, Marcus Books—one of America’s first bookstores dedicated to the writing of black authors—opened and thrived. Renowned poet and novelist Al Young moved to San Francisco in 1961 and wrote book after book about the black experience in the Bay. The major black, lesbian, feminist poet Pat Parker began to write and perform her poetry in Oakland and San Francisco in the mid- and late-1960s; in the decade that followed, writers and activists such as Angela Davis and Alice Walker moved to the area and created some of their finest work.
At the same time, the popularity of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead soared; those bands, and others like them, became the soundtrack of the 1967 “Summer of Love” in San Francisco. But they were preceded by the black San Francisco jazz scene in the 1940s and ‘50s. During and after the Second World War, the black population boomed in the Fillmore District—to such an extent that it was nicknamed “The Harlem of the West” for its black, mixed-class population, jazz clubs and flourishing culture. Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane were mainstays in the Fillmore’s clubs. Coltrane was so beloved that he was named the patron saint of a long-standing area African Orthodox church, newly renamed the St. John William Coltrane Church, whose Sunday services’ duration stretched into the four- and five hour marks and featured liturgy interspersed with jazz jam sessions.
Unfortunately, the redevelopment and gentrification of San Francisco’s most prominent black neighborhoods in the years after the Summer of Love yielded inflated property costs; many of its residents were displaced into public housing as well as nearby Oakland and other East Bay cities and suburbs. The diverse, creative city by the Bay of the 1960s has homogenized in recent decades, a result of skyrocketing real estate costs in Silicon Valley, where creative practices have shifted from art, music and literature to software development and design.
Jonathan L. Green is the Literary Manager at Goodman Theatre and Dramaturg for How to Catch Creation.