Jessica Hagedorn Brings 'The Gangster of Love' from the Page to the Stage

Back Row (L to R): Chuck Lacson, Lance Gardner, Lawrence Radecker; Middle Row (L to R): Lisa Hori-Garcia, Sarah Nina Hayon. Golda Sargento, Dezi Solèy, Patrick Alparone; Front Row (L to R): Sean San José, Jed Parsario. (Photo by Michaela Bynre)

Back Row (L to R): Chuck Lacson, Lance Gardner, Lawrence Radecker; Middle Row (L to R): Lisa Hori-Garcia, Sarah Nina Hayon. Golda Sargento, Dezi Solèy, Patrick Alparone; Front Row (L to R): Sean San José, Jed Parsario. (Photo by Michaela Bynre)

When Jessica Hagedorn’s new play, The Gangster of Love, premiers at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre this month, it may prove to be as explosive as her novel of the same name when it was published in 1990.

The play focuses on the author’s own story of immigration from Manila and coming of age as a poet and musician in the United States. Protagonist Raquel "Rocky" Rivera and her eccentric family settle in San Francisco’s tumultuous Haight Ashbury district during the 1970s, a dynamic period of conflict, social change, and artistic flowering. Rocky ventures out of her close-knit family to discover poetry, form a rock band, and experience the gritty underbelly of youth culture in post-Summer of Love San Francisco.

But the world premiere stage adaptation – twenty years in the making – will be performed in a very different time, in a very different San Francisco.

In an exclusive interview with Positively Filipino, Hagedorn, recipient of the American Book Award, reflects on these differences and the challenges they posed for adapting the drama from the page to the stage.

“When my family first came to the States,” Hagedorn recalls, “there wasn’t a huge Filipino presence in San Francisco. Older Filipinos lived in the South of Market, but Daly City was a new idea, it represented a new community coming up.

Jessica Hagedorn

Jessica Hagedorn

“There were no Filipino stores – we had to make do. We went to Chinatown for grocery shopping. There were not all the resources that we have now. I remember moving to New York and thinking there aren’t any Filipinos here – and I became friends with all kinds of other people.”

That multi-ethnic mix of characters is well represented in the novel – Rocky falls for Elvis Chang, a Chinese-American musician, her closest confidante is her closeted gay uncle, and her band mates are African American and Latino. Hagedorn’s own 1975 San Francisco band, the West Coast Gangster Choir, included one of the Bay Area’s favorite blues vocalists Linda Tillery.

The engaging cultural melange is also reflected in the musical playlist that Hagedorn has created to accompany the drama. She explains that she chose some of the songs for very specific reasons. For example, “Lovely Hula Hands,” is important for a character who is homesick for Hawaii, and Nat King Coles’ “Perfidia” is a favorite of Rocky Rivera’s mother, Milagros.

Still other pieces are vivid aural reminders of the era – Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Janis Joplin, and Marvin Gaye – with styles ranging from rhythm and blues to rock to reggae.

But, she notes, some things haven’t changed. “When I came back for two workshops before we started rehearsals,” says Hagedorn who now lives in New York, “I carved out time to visit some of the neighborhoods I knew from the ‘60s and ‘70s.“

“San Francisco has such character, even today there are pockets that haven’t changed -- City Lights, Vesuvio’s, the North Beach alleys. When I visited the I-Hotel, I was so glad to see that people are making an effort to keep the culture alive.

“For me, physically going around the city again was important – all the ghosts are there.”

Though the play is about the challenges of a family’s immigrant experience, and the rough-and-tumble of the gritty underground music and art scene, Hagedorn emphasizes that it is also about exploring the mystery of the creative process.

“Rocky is beginning to discover herself as a writer. I wanted to look at what it means to write a poem. As you reflect on what you are doing in this new land, you move from a scrap of a journal entry to something more accomplished. How does that evolve into a poem, a piece of music, something performed before an audience?

How does someone become an artist?”

Hagedorn has a long relationship with the Magic Theatre and its Artistic Director Loretta Greco, who directed The Gangster of Love and also directed Hagedorn’s stage adaptation of her prize-winning novel Dogeaters in 2016. In fact, Dogeaters was in production there when Hagedorn learned that she and the Magic Theatre had been awarded a $50,000 “Voice of California Today” grant from the Gerbode and Hewlett Foundations to create the stage adaptation of The Gangster of Love.

For me, physically going around the city again was important – all the ghosts are there.

“I’m thrilled to be collaborating once again with the Magic Theatre's fearless artistic director Loretta Greco, in bringing The Gangster of Love to San Francisco,” says Hagedorn. “I love working with this innovative creative team, and the stellar cast of kick-ass actors and musicians that we've assembled.”

Greco describes herself as a longtime admirer of Hagedorn, and selected this world premiere as the closing play of this year’s season at the Magic. “We are honored to welcome the great Jessica Hagedorn back to Magic,” Greco says. “For over two decades, The Gangster of Love has been a classic, full of inspiration and deeply meaningful for so many young people. All of us at Magic are thrilled to support the creation of a play from the original prose which is, in equal parts, an artist's coming of age story, an immigrant's tale, and the story of San Francisco and the glorious ‘70s... Magic will return to its old warehouse roots while the audience grooves to the sounds of the The Gangster of Love band!  We can't wait!”

The cast features Sarah Nina Hayon as “Milagros Rivera,” Golda Sargento as “Rocky Rivera,” Jed Parsario as “Voltaire Rivera,” Sean San Jose as “Uncle Marlon, Carabao Kid,” Chuck Lacson as “Basilio Cruz, Shig Murao,” Lance Gardner as “Bugsy Bustamante, Zeke Akamine, Jimi Hendrix,” Patrick Alparone as “Elvis Chang,” Lawrence Radecker as “Rick Foss” and Dezi Soley as “Keiko Van Heller.”

The creative team also includes Shirley Fishman (Dramaturg), Hana Kim (Scenic and Projections Design), Sara Huddleston (Sound Design), Ulises Alcala (Costume Design), Ray Oppenheimer (Lighting Design), and Michaela Byrne (Production Stage Manager).


The Bay Area Premiere of The Gangster of Love by Jessica Hagedorn, directed by Loretta Greco, will begin performances on April 11 and play through May 6 at the Magic Theatre, Building D – 3rd floor -- Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. The entrance to Fort Mason is at the intersection of Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street. The performance schedule is Tuesday at 7p.m., Wednesday – Saturday 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Order tickets on line at or call the box office at 415-441-8822. Positively Filipino readers can get a 20% discount on tickets by using the code Gangster20 when purchasing.

Code GANGSTER20 is valid for 20% off tickets to all performances of THE GANGSTER OF LOVE thru May 6, 2018 Excludes the special $20 tickets for previews and the special $30 tickets for regular performances. Seats are best available. Not valid on previous purchases and cannot be combined with any other offer. All tickets are subject to availability. Subject to change. Service charges apply to all orders

Elaine Ellinson

Elaine Ellinson

Elaine Elinson traveled with the FTA Show in the Philippines and is the coauthor, with Walden Bello, of Development Debacle.

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