Sandra Bernhard, Cultural Arsonist


“I’m Still Here … Damn It!” A stage show starring Sandra Bernhard. Theatre on the Square, San Francisco.

Actress, comic, and vocalist Sandra Bernhard brought her one-woman show direct from Broadway to San Francisco’s Theatre on the Square in February as part of a national tour.

Bernhard has been called a “cultural arsonist,” among other things. Her act is backed up by an energetic band consisting of a keyboardist, percussionist, guitarist, and bassist. A Middle Eastern woman provided additional vocals and percussion on a drum called a gembe.

Throughout her rapid-fire, searing commentary, Ms. Bernhard has to stop every once in a while to remind herself to breathe. She has a powerful singing voice and intersperses original songs and standards with her comic bits and hilariously detailed anecdotes.

But if you don’t know the celebrity players in her life, you can get lost. She tackles, you know, really important issues covered in popular slick magazines-notably Harper’s Bazaar and Allure-such as interviews with supermodels and their diets, pop-singers, and the pretensions of celebrities and the globe-trotting hip, trivialities passing as news.

If you’re not current with what’s goin’ down in this parallel universe, a lot of her material will sail right on over your head. She goes back and forth between straight stuff and satire so quickly that sometimes it’s hard to know which is which.

No one is spared Ms. Bernhard’s slings and arrows, not Liza Minnelli, nor the stars of Lilith Fairs-Jewel, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion; not even hard-as-a-spaceship-nose-cone herself, Courtney Love.

She contrasts the Lilith frail wimps with her idols, Black women vocalists. These gutsy, loud shouters and wailers went through Hell, she notes, so they know what the hell they are writing and singing about.

Yet Bernhard does reveal a soft side when she talks about her infant daughter.

Some of her subjects are passé: the murder of Gianni Versace and its effect on the fashion world, the death of Di, and the funerals of both. Yet so much has happened in the past year that goes way beyond satire, she should have no problem updating her material as she goes along.

Examples: the Clinton-Lewinsky debacle and the subsequent Republican crash and burn; the Senators’ and House managers’ histrionic polemics; the recent outrage over Calvin Klein’s kiddie underwear ads; Falwell’s outing of Teletubby Tinky Winky; Christian Action Network’s proposal to label “HC” any TV show with “homosexual content.”

I could go on, but just pick up a copy of any one of today’s mainstream newspapers for further examples of idiocy unbound.

Utterly non-PC, Ms. Bernhard unabashedly stereotypes her Belize house-painter, does takes on Native Americans and Asians, and assumes the persona of a Black woman. These bits reminded me, unfortunately, of 1950s comic Buddy Hackett and his Chinese waiter routine and other TV spoofs of that era that most people today would consider racist.

Lenny Bruce did similar characterizations in the 1950s, but with such sophistication that his edgey social messages came through, offending few except for cops who arrested him for using words that today’s entertainers like Sandra Bernhard toss off with aplomb and no one so much as lifts an eyebrow.

When does parodying people of oppressed nationalities stray over the line into racist mockery? At the performance we attended, Ms. Bernhard seemed to get away with it-yet the audience looked to be 99 and 99/100 percent upper-middle-class white!

In an all-too-brief segment tacked on at the end of her show, Ms. Bernhard leaves the stage and reappears in strobe lights and crisscrossing spotlights, wearing a ridiculously funny ’70s rock-star costume of see-through bellbottoms-the hem of each leg edged with a wide band of white feathers-hot-pink bikini pants, pink midriff blouse, and a monstrous Afro-almost as if Kathleen Cleaver had decided to perform her political views as a pop-star.

The band launches into Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” and Ms. Bernhard launches into the serious stuff.

Dancing around a la Jagger, jabbing her arm into the air and shouting, “Fight the power,” she does bits about the U.S. government’s focus on Clinton’s “blow-job,” the impeachment trial, the time spent on it, not to mention the billions of dollars, while national and international social/political problems and conflicts raged on, plus a lot more.

She tweaked local problems, too: San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown vs. the homeless, for one.

These issues might have played more effectively if she had juxtaposed them earlier into her monologue along with the superficial topics. However, she may have had concerns about alienating her audience had she brought up touchy subjects too soon.

Plus, she may have felt more comfortable presenting social and political conflicts as a character, rather than as herself, Sandra Bernhard.

She’s on a national tour now; so for a good time, check her out when she comes to your town.

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