In Part 1 of our episode on the Bayview Opera House, we sit down with opera house Programming Manager Ashley Smiley, (who goes by "Smiley"). Smiley shares how her family ended up in San Francisco. Her mom was born and raised in SF, but her mom's mom, a mixed-race woman, came from Texas. Her family was run out of that state by the KKK. That family landed in the Hunter's Point area and ended up in the Fillmore.
Her maternal grandfather came here from Haiti via boat. Upon his arrival, he bought property in San Francisco, as that was possible at the time. Smiley's grandparents met each other at Polytechnical High School. Her grandfather was a longshoreman, but also a musician and songwriter.
Her mom went to Galileo, then SF State, and now works for The City. Smiley was born at a rather conspicuous time in history — just a week after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Her mom says that there was a 5.4 aftershock at the time of Smiley's birth.
Smiley grew up in Ingleside mostly, and remembers going to the Bayview Opera House a lot early in life. Her family moved around The City, and she rattles off a list of the different schools she went to. It was at Lafayette Elementary that she did her first theater show — Pirates of Penzance. She mentions her "Jewish momma" from this time, an early mentor.
After attending her first major theater production, she became something like obsessed with the production aspects of live performance. She'd played instruments and was a cheerleader, but she found her passion in performing arts.
She carried that passion into her middle school days, where she started doing spoken word and poetry. Work she'd done at her church gave her a background in writing, and she used that to springboard to performing words on stage for people.
In high school, when she went to Lowell, she started doing bigger and bigger productions. It was during this time that she was immersed in Black culture and identity, and she learned that it was something she needed to lean into. She says that it was "super empowering."
On the flip side, these experiences contradicted what she had previously believed about the world, namely, that racism had more or less been solved. She had wondered why older Black folks were so upset. And so, at the same time that she was discovering her own confidence and pride of being a Black woman, she was starting to see the complexities of racism in the US and San Francisco. Lowell, she says, had a lot to do with this realization.
We end Part 1 with Smiley confessing to how much time she spent away from her high school, the bulk of it at the Brava Theater in the Mission. She did spoken word and hip-hop with the Colored Ink group. Meeting and witnessing performances by so many of her inspirations left her thinking, I gotta be in this world. And now, she is.
Part 2 catalogs Smiley's journey out of high school and into the world of jobs and being a young adult.
Then we get to her time at BVOH, which began about four years ago. It started with an entry-level job, which she didn't mind doing because it got her foot in the door. Built in 1888 by the Masons, the then designated "South San Francisco Opera House" was a spot for them to meet and host performances. Acoustically, that intention shows to this day. The opera house also has dressing rooms with direct access to the stage (which Smiley told me is not a common feature in buildings of this kind).
With the Great Migration and its influx of Black shipyard workers here in San Francisco, the building became more of a community center. It also changed demographically, from white folks to members of that Black community. But, in Smiley's words, over the years, the building "wasn't loved on," and fell into some dilapidation. In the 1950s, The City wanted to tear the opera house down and build apartment buildings ... until Ruth Williams said "no."
Black Panther free breakfasts happened there. People met each other there. Performances like plays and dance classes happened on the regular. Voters cast ballots there.
In 1966, SFPD officers shot and killed a young Black boy named Matthew "Peanut" Johnson, sparking a riot. The opera house was hit with several hundred bullets in the ensuing melee. Things were so bad for Black folks in SF, James Baldwin filmed Take This Hammer just outside the opera house in 1964. As Smiley puts it, Bayview Opera House "has always been a place for history-making and Black culture."
In 1989, an organization was formed through the SF Arts Commission to manage programs at the building. The opera house was established as San Francisco Historical Landmark No. 8. Over the years, it changed hands several times, and in 2015, a multimillion dollar grant was secured to do much-needed renovations, including a new outdoor amphitheater that came in handy during the pandemic.
2023 has been all about re-inviting people inside. There are world premieres of operas and films. The calendar is full. See for yourself.
We end the podcast hearing from two folks who've been through BVOH's Tools of the Trade program: Joe Kool and Miss White, the First Lady of Frisco.
We recorded this episode at Bayview Opera House/Ruth Williams Memorial Theatre in June 2023.