“Dr. G’s Bingo Extravaganza” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
“Dr. G’s Bingo Extravaganza”
Created by For You and co-produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and For You
Reviewed by Julian Carter and Evan Lutz
In the third week of July 2022, most of the events associated with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival shut down in response to a major COVID outbreak among cast and crew. All 5 sold-out performances of “Dr. G’s Bingo Extravaganza” had to be canceled. In order to document the show that should have happened, the producers authorized For You to stage a single performance to be attended only by performers, crew, press (that’s us), an OSF videographer, and Dr. Geneva Craig, aka Dr. G.
Scene: a ghost-town version of Ashland, OR. We stood uncertainly outside a closed theater during a heat wave during a COVID outbreak during what was supposed to be the Oregon Shakespeare’s Festival’s grand return to live art. Nothing seemed to be happening. Someone came out of a side door, but ignored us. Someone brought a car up to the main steps. A Black woman opened the trunk, carried some things to the entrance: and three young people materialized like Jacks-in-boxes, clustering around her, running up and down the steps, a wave of chaotic opening-night energy that resolved into a spontaneous fashion show in which she held up three sequined outfits–blue, gold, mermaid green–to solicit collective opinion about which should be retained for her performance. She worked a sassy pose. The doors opened and closed around a brief masking interlude. The whirlwind stopped–and there we stood in sudden stillness.
We assume this pacing and choreography were accidental, but who can say for sure? For You is Erika Chong Shuch, Ryan Tacata, and Rowena Richie. They make performance gifts for strangers who become collaborators in the work. The process begins with getting to know their participants. Pre-pandemic they took people on dates, went through their sock drawers, followed them to work, cooked their mothers’ recipes. Things changed, so they spent 18 months on zoom getting to know Dr. G, community organizer, nurse (she holds a DPN, a doctorate in nursing), and self-described bingo queen. “Dr G’s Bingo Extravaganza” was an experience For You crafted just for her, in recognition of the gift of her trust in them and in celebration of her commitment to living in joy.
That night was a virtuosic example of participatory theater, tiny audience notwithstanding. While we were answering the obligatory questions about fevers and coughs Erika Chong Shuch rushed to meet us, whisked one of us off to meet someone named Paul who turned out to be the dramaturge; Rowena Richie pulled the other aside to a small dressing room where she fitted him with a costume & tossed some quick instructions his way. Everyone said things about how different this was supposed to be, everyone was dressed well and moving very quickly, we were ushered to our carefully-spaced seats. That night was 1/3 birthday party, 1/3 wake, and 1/3 full-body Dionysian performance, all striated with opening-night energy, modulated by the electric discomfort of empty chairs facing one another across a central runway down the center of the house. Dr. G’s family had flown across the country for the show but were not allowed to attend. More than a dozen special guests had been written into the show; only four were included in this single performance. 400-ish people had their tickets refunded. Before and after the show we’ve thought about our privileged status as press, strangers welcomed into an event that excluded people Dr. G loved and who loved her. But on July 20, 2022 we were fully embedded in the wild and tender family of the Bingo Extravaganza.
It was, in fact, a bingo game, called by brilliant MC/DJ/sound artist Werd Pace. Cards and numbers punctuated weird and wonderful song-and-dance numbers by the For You artists. Several times a mailbox appeared; when opened, it orated selections from Dr. G’s newsletters. Several times members of Dr. G’s beloved community sat on the runway directly in front of her to speak, face to face, in detail, of her significance in their worlds. Marvin Woodard (Equity Coordinator for Racial Justice at Southern Oregon University) choked up as he told of his struggle for words to describe what she meant to him, and how he finally captured it when he told his daughter that Dr G is home. City councilwoman Gina DuQuenne reminded Dr G of the time she’d said “Gina, go out into the world and let them see you,” and how that gave her the courage to become the first African American openly queer woman in Ashland’s city government. Dr G leaned forward, looking steadily into each person’s eyes, taking in the love. When Gina was done Dr G said “I hope y’all brought some tissues” and took Gina into her embrace.
A moment of spontaneous choreography in a crisply designed show: as each community member got down from the tribute chair, Dr G. held them by the elbows, her forearms touching the length of theirs, so that they looked directly into each other’s eyes. We were crying a little into our masks. We had the bittersweet thought we always have at funerals: why don’t we testify our love for one another more often? Why do we wait until people die? At that touching moment, Ryan Tacata appeared in a bishop’s cope, intoning “Is there really such a thing as a lifetime warranty?” Suddenly we were deep in a Saturday-Night-Fever wake for Dr G’s cherished 1974 Chevy Nova.
Impeccable timing. Each tender moment was framed by play. There was a dancing ham celebrating Dr G’s love of Christmas. Legs waving in the air revealed bingo numbers on the soles of white nurse’s stockings. Bingo rules and bingo lingo blared. Did you know the number 11 is pronounced “chicken legs”? There was a hallucinatory episode involving Aquaman. At some point the Mayor of Ashland declared it henceforth to be Dr G. Day, no lie. Through the aforementioned talking mailbox Dr G told death it was going to have to chase her down. It all streaked together like the colored lights that spin off a disco ball, or the lasers darting through a casino: For You took us through all the ups and downs of a really deep bingo game.
Vegas-style bingo is not a universal metaphor for a fully-realized life. That’s the point–“Dr G’s Bingo Extravaganza” was made as a personal gift for Dr. Geneva Craig, in recognition of what Erika has described as Dr G’s “conscious, deliberate, rigorous decision” to seek and share joy. The gift was meant to be both public and splashy in celebration of Dr G’s sequined and shining presence in the world. And yet–the title misses the steady gravity that is present in both the woman and the show. What we witnessed in Ashland was the serious project of actual Joyousness, not only its frivolous sister Fun. For You’s antic invitation to play worked in counterpoint to the sections where the performers stepped back to showcase Dr G in her own words and in the direct testimony of people embedded in her daily life. This is, to us, For You’s most meaningful accomplishment: they managed to reflect the rich life and rounded personhood of its honoree and her enormous impact on people around her, neither marginalizing her pleasures nor leaning on the kinds of biographical details that would certify her public importance. (That job was cleverly delegated to the Mayor of Ashland, who ran down an impressive list of accomplishments in her proclamation of Dr G Day.) We thought about how novelist Ocean Vuong, borrowing a turn from phrase from Teju Cole, says we need to be “writing toward specificity” rather than relying on typology to represent the lives of people of color. For You gave us a specific Dr G, not reducible to any type–not Civil Rights Activist, not Big-Hearted Black Woman, not even Community Elder. They didn’t turn her into any kind of character. Instead they created a social experience of this person, sharing their witness of her particularity with us, and with her.
At first we were grieved by the COVID-closures impact on the gift. What a loss, we thought, for Dr G, and for her family and friends who were unable to experience the show live; what a loss for the hundreds of people who’d planned to attend! Yet over time we’ve come to understand that in a way the narrowed house and the shortened run intensified the gift. In its pared-down, just-enough form, with the cast serving up full-house energy and love to an audience of under 20 people, Dr G’s Bingo Extravaganza became an intensely intimate present. And the show continues to spread. Ticket holders had the opportunity to donate their refunds to the Black community organizations that had been designated box-office beneficiaries; many of them did so. There’s a Dr G dinner at the Headlands Center for the Arts just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. There’s a film in the works–thanks to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, For You was able to spend the days and nights of the planned run setting up photo shoots and interviews and storytelling meetings, building out the live show’s video documentation into something that can stand alone.
And however widely the show spreads, in the end, we were two people out of 20 in a lovely vintage dance hall filled with empty white chairs, big gestures, seamless sound bridges, and a swirl of tinsel around this one Black elder in her beautiful clothes, with her excellent moves. (At the end of the show she got up on the runway to express her pleasure with a more than competent dance number of her own.) Sifting through that experience over time we keep finding ourselves holding out our hands, cupped, like we had caught a firefly. It’s the gesture that says we too received a gift. Dr G gave to For You, who gave to us as well as to D G, who gave to us; so much richness, so much craft and care and skill and experience. Some presents spread widely. Maybe the film will do that. In the meantime, here–take it: ask yourself who needs the gift of your attention, your focused commitment to their specificity: give it to them: pass it on.