Activist Comic Web Series Explodes Out of Oakland

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It’s hard to imagine a hard-hitting political comedy set in Oakland which starts as as a nature documentary. But when a white urban farmer pops out of the foliage and is identified as a “Golden State gopher” by three people of color, who are watching through binoculars and discussing invasive species, it starts to make sense.

By the time Nina, Marcus, and Benny are posing for selfies with hipsters, whom they call “hyenas,” at one of the many caffeine watering holes that have popped up all over the once sketchier (but cheaper and homier) Oakland, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

The satire comes full circle with a more exotic sighting: a female, African-American native of North Oakland, called a “polar bear” due to their threatened species status and the fact that the neighborhood is known locally as the North Pole.

It turns out that Marcus, an unemployed graphic designer played by Donte Clark, has had the hots for this woman since second grade. And when she shoots him down cold — in full black mama-ese, we realize we’re in a make-fun-of-everyone free-for-all.

A seven-episode web series due to premiere in a few months, “The North Pole” is one of the more ambitious projects this season out of Oakland or anywhere–given the difficulty of balancing comedy and politics. It succeeds through a rich mash-up of storylines, some very talented principals, and a plethora of cameos by well-known local artists and activists.

Photo By Danny Telles

Photo By Danny Telles

Clark, who is making his comedic debut, starred as the charismatic young poet in “Romeo is Bleeding” (2015), an award-winning documentary about a poetry class and gang violence in the East Bay community of Richmond. He also appeared in “Kicks” (2016), the stylish, well-reviewed and theatrically-released feature also set in Richmond.

Playing Nina is Oaklander Reyna Amaya, a professional comic who has delivered her very funny, fast-talking standup to S.F.’s Punchline and a BET Weekend in L.A. (check out her YouTube videos!). Indeed, Amaya is making her way downstate as an actress, appearing on All Def Digital TV’s “Professor White” among other shows.

Photo By Danny Telles

Photo By Danny Telles

Rounding out the regulars as Benny is Santiago Rosas, an immigrant from Mexico by way of Arizona, who graduated from San Francisco’s well-known Meisner Technique Studio, and Eli Marienthal, a Berkeley boy who came up as a child actor in “American Pie”, “Iron Giant,” and other major films. Interestingly, considering the themes of “The North Pole,” Marienthal also co-directs Back to Earth, a wilderness program for young men.

Marienthal’s Finn character enters the story after a rent raise by a rapacious landlord forces Nina to take in a roommate; her grilling a host of typical twenty-something applicants is a very funny scene.

“If you are going to move into a new neighborhood, you have to have some basic knowledge of the place you are going to call home,” she berates one potential tenant. Her first question to another: “When the Black Panthers were born in this neighborhood fifty years ago, what was their first campaign over on 55th and Market?”

The sometimes clueless, always white Finn gets the nod after he actually answers one of Nina’s questions right. Plus, he’s a friend of Benny, highlighting Oakland’s free-association social networks, and he works at a supposedly-green company, triggering a corporate corruption storyline.

Photo By Danny Telles

Photo By Danny Telles

The cameos are fantastic, ranging from famed former Black Panther Ericka Huggins, who spoofs herself nicely while making some serious points, to comedian W. Kamau Bell, who just signed his second season leading CNN’s aggressive road trip comedy “United Shades of America”.

Another cameo is hip-hop artist Mistah F.A.B., who helped form Oakland’s hyphy movement and is considered North Oakland’s unofficial mayor. Bell and F.A.B. appear at the very funny “roast” that the crew attends in the suburbs, where Oaklanders have been forced to flee after being displaced from their native habitat.

The show’s fifth principal is renowned local rapper and activist Boots Riley, who appears but can’t be seen, since he’s inside a fantastic polar bear outfit (on loan from Greenpeace to the series’ writer and producer Josh Healey). Fortunately, that doesn’t stop Riley from riffing hard and heavy in his patented, trash-talking, multi-adjectived, free-for-all style.

Perhaps even odder is Nina’s recurring dream of a talking polar bear, which nudges “The North Pole” from comedy and commentary to romantic parable–yet another theme the series must balance.

“I am always interested in the metaphor rooted in reality, but you can have fun with it,” Healey told me, when we met for coffee in North Oakland, along with the show’s co-star Amaya.

“Activism and art doesn’t always work together when it is didactic: Here is the answer to everything! Let me solve all your problems,” Healey continued. “What we are trying to do with this show is ask more questions then answers. What we are trying to do is look at the complexities and contradictions and the comedy of it all.”

Another aspect to the show’s unique mix of elements is its executive producer: Movement Generation, a justice and ecology non-profit based in downtown Oakland. “Of the eight person team, I am the one person art department,” Healey explained. “Basically, my job is to do the fun shit to get people into the serious shit.”

Healey had been producing short informationals with director Yvan Iturriaga (PBS, “A Photographer’s Journey”);  about a year-and-a-half ago, they decided to dive into the sometimes-seedy pool of web series—in a big way.

Photo by Doniphan Blair

Photo by Doniphan Blair

Indeed, “The North Pole” is a fully-professional production, with a budget of almost $100,000 from grants, existing funding and now a Kickstarter campaign, although it also depended on old-school activist hustle and community support.

“I basically called my whole cell phone,” Healey said. “I’m glad people still return my calls because I was calling in favors for a year and half: ‘Can I get a location?’ ‘Can I get help with makeup?’”

The fact that “The North Pole” takes place in Oakland–which recently lost its film center and film office to budget cuts–is also fantastic. “A lot of my work is based in LA,” Amaya told me. “Being from the Bay Area, to find a project that actually was going to be filmed up here was amazing.”

“At the end of the day, whether you are in Oakland or New Orleans, or in D.C., our cities are under attack and the environment is under attack and it is overwhelming,” Healey concluded. “We are trying to parse through these issues on an everyday level”–in other words, comedy.

Although it could benefit from more naturalist pacing and more jokes during the stridency sections–perhaps a comic cutaway or two–if “The North Pole” keeps its principals cracking wise while tackling tough situations, as well as bringing in big local talent and just letting them riff, it could become a strong voice, not only for the diverse fauna of Oakland but for keeping ideals alive and fun in a confusing and contentious era. 

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