Immersive theater show transports audiences back to eve of S.F. redevelopment

STEP INTO THE PAST­— “Pete The Cat” Fitzsimmons and Sarah Kasuga in “The Fillmore Eclipse.” photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei News

Located around the corner from the historic Victorian that once housed Jimbo’s Bop City, Walking Cinema’s “The Fillmore Eclipse” transports visitors to 1950s San Francisco on the eve of redevelopment.

The immersive theater production, operating out of the Honey Art Studio, opened its run April 26 and extended its two-week run to May 26 to transport visitors to the final night of the Eclipse Jazz Club, as Fillmore and Japantown residents groove to Bebop jazz while looking toward an uncertain future with San Francisco’s redevelopment on the horizon. The play has audience members step into the performance as patrons of the Eclipse while the cast performs around the bar.

“We wanted to understand more about what redevelopment was doing in its very early phases. So this show is set in ‘58,” Michael Epstein, founder of Walking Cinema and artistic director for the show, told the Nichi Bei News.

Whereas many people recall San Francisco’s Redevelopment era through Justin Herman’s work as head of the Redevelopment Agency starting in 1959, Epstein said he wanted to look at the very beginnings of redevelopment. The story takes place in 1958 and radical urban planners had envisioned a utopic redesign of the city in the 1940s and 1950s.

While the stark reality of mass removal and destruction of community had yet to happen, “The Fillmore Eclipse” looks at the tensions in the community as it prepares to pack up and leave. Carlos, the self-styled “Mayor of the Fillmore,” envisions his jazz club will be back bigger and better than ever after redevelopment, while Bernice calls on residents to sign up for a certificate of preference from the city, a document that will enable former Fillmore residents to get to the front of the line to return to the neighborhood once it is rebuilt. Meanwhile Abe and Paula are wondering how best to deal with the eviction that threatens to take away everything they have.

The project itself is based on Epstein’s previous work at Walking Cinema, which worked to produce augmented reality tours and location-based media projects, including the Fillmore in 2020. Epstein recruited Cleavon Smith, the project’s writer, who then suggested Michael French to direct. The project also hired Elizabeth Pepin Silva, author of “Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era,” as the play’s dramaturg and hired Kelyn Crapp as musical director to create a distinct musical set that fits the Bebop era.

Each of the characters represent a facet of the community. Carlos represents Fillmore entrepreneurs Jimbo Edwards and Charles Sullivan, while Abe represents the Fillmore area’s Jewish community. Bernice, as much as she is an African American activist, is also based on the San Francisco Department of Housing, and Paula represents the Japanese American community that faced a second mass uprooting just a decade after the wartime incarceration.

At times the personalities clash, such as when Bernice shrugs off Paula when she asks for a certificate of preference. Epstein explained that he included the tension between the African American and Japanese American community based on a reflection Maya Angelou made about her time living in the neighborhood.

The immersive theater show places audience members on the set with the actors and transports them back to the 1950s. French, who has worked on such productions before, said the style of theater stagnated in recent years due to the pandemic, but said “The Fillmore Eclipse” might be the next step immersive theater needs to grow as a contemporary genre of theater.

“The way that immersive theater had been going, and still is really, is that it’s usually around fantasy,” French said. “‘Sleep No More’ has an aspect of fantasy. The speakeasy has an aspect of fantasy. However, this idea, Michael (Epstein)’s idea, was to have an immersive theater project that’s similar to a documentary.” French told the Nichi Bei News.

French, as director, said the biggest challenges for him were navigating the topic as a Black British man and finding a universal theme for the show.

“I wanted to tell the truth. I didn’t want to tell a tragedy. I didn’t want to give it a sort of Pollyanna ending, as if to say everybody was happy by the end of it. Of course they weren’t, and so again, my role in a lot of ways is to remain the outsider to the story to America, and try and find as universal story as I could, and so the universality I landed on was the idea of a human being is constantly finding and losing utopia, constantly,” French, the Oakland, Calif.-based director, said.

In creating that universal theme, French said he feels he was able to attract a mixed audience. Casting the show with Black, Jewish and Japanese American actors, also gave the actors a chance to reflect themselves. Sarah Kasuga, who plays Paula in the show, said it was meaningful to play a Japanese American in a production.

“It feels like a lot of community theaters, or at least the ones I’ve auditioned for, has been not necessarily Asian American roles. So this is really unique and pretty special to be able to play, not only an Asian American character, but a Japanese American character,” She told the Nichi Bei News.

Kasuga, a Yonsei psychologist based in Berkeley, Calif. who was the First Princess of the 2009 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen court, said the role has given an opportunity for her to reflect on her own family history in San Francisco.

“Yeah, it’s really interesting because … Paula’s character is different than how my family is … how I was raised,” said Kasuga. “The background of that character, the character’s brother is a ‘No-no’ boy. And so I think it’s really inspired and relates to the idea of the injustices of the internment camp, and how Japanese Americans were treated and then, frustrated by that, versus me: what seemed more familiar to me, in terms of how my family kind of responded or how I’ve heard more Japanese Americans respond post-war was like, keep your head down, work hard. Become as American as possible. We will succeed by not standing out.”

The play has given her the opportunity to learn more about her family’s history in San Francisco’s Japantown and also spend more time with her uncle who still lives in the ethnic enclave.

“It’s been fun to talk to get to spend more time with him and talk to him more and learn about his family,” she said.

Epstein said his show’s impact will go beyond its run. He said the venue he rented will keep the set pieces for the show and use them for future education.

“(Ericka Scott, owner of Honey Art Studio,) had this idea for a long time that San Francisco needs a Civil Rights Museum. We have nothing along those lines. In a way that set is the first installation in her having a Civil Rights Museum,” Epstein said.

For more information and to purchase tickets for “The Fillmore Eclipse” visit The production continues to May 26 and has a GoFundMe to help cover costs:


Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the May 9, 2024 issue of the Nichi Bei News, the article entitled “Immersive theater show transports audiences back to eve of S.F. redevelopment” mistakenly stated that Justin Herman started working for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in 1969. He started in 1959. The Nichi Bei News regrets any inconvenience it may have caused. To contact the Nichi Bei News about an error, please e-mail, write to P.O. Box 15693, San Francisco, CA 94115 or call (415) 673-1009

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