A performer of the movie narrating the film to the audience parked in cars
A scene from "Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station," put on by Oakland Theater Project in a parking lot of the historic 16th Street train station in West Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

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After nearly a year of postponed shows, the Oakland Theater Project (formerly Ubuntu Theater Project) has found a way to offer in-person performances, despite the pandemic: drive-ins.

When COVID-19 took hold and shelter-in-place orders went into effect last spring, in-person theater productions came to an abrupt halt. As a result, the Oakland Theater Project managed only one live show the entire year (a three-woman production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” before the pandemic). A second production, “Teatro Jornalero,” featuring stories of Central American and Mexican laborers, was refashioned as a documentary in partnership with Oakland’s Peralta Hacienda Historical Park. The rest of the company’s 2020 season? Postponed, indefinitely.

With restrictions on large indoor gatherings carrying over into 2021, the Oakland Theater Project had to reconvene and figure out whether performances this year would be possible. 

“Our associate artistic director, Lisa Ramirez, was the first one to start throwing around the idea of a drive-in experience,” said Colin Mandlin, the company’s managing director. From there, the crew got to work on troubleshooting a myriad of logistics: how to set up and operate projectors in public outdoor spaces, how to get sound through an FM transmitter so audience members could listen from their cars, determining how many vehicles could be accommodated per show, and how many of the group’s members could safely work together at one time. 

“A unique advantage is that we have a pretty recent history of being scrappy and being able to produce in a wide variety of settings, with different technical limitations and challenges,” said Mandlin, who has a background in sound design.

Once the performance logistics were sorted out, the team began developing the productions that would become their 2021 season, which they titled “Drive-In: Resurrection, Revolution, and Renewal.”

A drive-In screening and performance of “Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station” put on by Oakland Theater Project, in a parking lot at the historic train station in West Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

The first show of the season is a 30th-anniversary production of “Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station.” The show, which opened on February 12, is built around a collection of photographs and interviews with retired workers—porters, maids, and cooks—from West Oakland’s historic 16th Street Station, part of the Southern Pacific Railway. The station was shut down permanently in 1994 due in part to severe damage it sustained during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Created by Stephanie Anne Johnson and Michael Copeland Sydnor (who passed away in 2012), the show made its premier in 1991.

For those too young to remember the 16th Street Station in its glory days, or unaware of how African American migration from the south shaped Oakland’s demographics, the show serves as a time-capsule of an Oakland that was. The show’s prologue and epilogue appropriately feature an actor playing a railroad worker, William Oliver III. As his image is projected, we can hear him intone, “Oakland is some kind of town, ain’t it?”

Producing a show at the old train station wasn’t an easy task. The station doesn’t have working electricity, and the production team has had to rely on a generator. Gusty winds and rain made it impossible to get any of the equipment to work for a preview performance that was supposed to take place on Feb. 11, prior to opening night. But the public debut went on without a glitch. 

Drive-In screening of “Rising from the Rails: The Story of the Pullman Porter” put on by Oakland Theater Project, in a parking lot of the historic 16th Street train station in West Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Tickets are sold out for the remaining performances of “Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station,” but tickets can still be purchased for the other five plays that make up the rest of The Oakland Theater Project’s 2021 season. Those drive-in performances will be taking place in the parking lot of the Flax Art & Design building at 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in West Oakland. 

Mandlin and the team understand that indoor performances are unlikely to resume soon. But they also know there is a craving in the community for safe and enticing activities to allow people to disconnect from being at home and glued to a computer all day. 

“We knew we could produce the drive-in theater safely, and that gave us a really important foundation to build upon,” said Mandlin. “We can have a sense of stability and not feel like our whole season can be thrown for a loop because of it.”

Upcoming plays will not rely on projections. Instead, shows will have actors just like past shows produced by the Oakland Theater Project. To keep the company’s players safe, shows will be limited to fewer actors than usual. Attendees can watch the performances from their car (up to 20 cars per show) and will be able to listen through their radio. 

“It has to be something that you can experience through the windshield over the radio that will feel vibrant, and not just a watered-down version or another Zoom,” Mandlin said. “We can’t pretend that these aren’t drive-in shows. We have to uniquely tailor each show where it will feel like it comes alive in a unique way.”

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.