On any given weekend, tourists amass on San Francisco’s Haight Street. They wander in and out of shops like Love on Haight and Amoeba Music and pause for photos of the iconic Haight and Ashbury street signpost and, of course, the “store with the legs” (the Piedmont Boutique).
The Haight-Ashbury, the site of 1960s counterculture, is known as the historic hub of hippies, peace and love, and bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Less known is its strong connection to queer his-, her- and their- stories, including that of singer-songwriter Sylvester.
Says Seth Eisen, founder and artistic director of Eye Zen Presents, “There’s always the people who don’t really make it into the history books, and that’s really where we fast forward to Sylvester. I mean, it was a struggle for Harvey [Milk] to get in. Imagine someone like Sylvester who was nonbinary and transgender, at least at one point in their youth.”
Eye Zen Presents’ “Sylvester, The Mighty Real” is a concerted effort to celebrate the life and contributions of the groundbreaking, unabashedly genderfluid artist best known for his 1978 hit, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Described as a performance-driven walking tour, the show takes attendees to Haight-Ashbury locations where Sylvester resided and performed.
The “Sylvester” tour begins on Aug. 11, with shows continually running — or walking — through Oct. 1. Featuring performances by Nic A. Sommerfeld and Cemora Valentino Devine, the show is the new installment of Eye Zen Presents’ “OUT of Site” series.
Eisen comments, “We bring the histories to the places where they happened. … It’s not a reenactment, it’s more like we’re conjuring that person’s history in some way, in some form. And that also depends on the artists that we’re working with and the talents that they bring, and so forth.
Previous OUT of Sites have been in the Haight-Ashbury (2021); South of Market (2020; live, but virtual due to the pandemic) and North Beach (2018), along with an unofficial event in the Tenderloin in 2017. According to Eisen, that’s where and when the significance of disinterring the stories of queer ancestors became clear.
Shares Eisen, “It was the first time we started to piece together the idea of the people’s stories who had been forgotten and the places where they lived, worked and hung out in the city.”
San Francisco’s “Historic Context Statement” (2016), a more than 400-page report detailing neighborhoods and public spaces connected to the LGBTQ+ community, has been a valuable resource. Explorations of the GLBT Historical Society’s archives and neighborhoods such as Haight-Ashbury, as well as interviews with local LGBTQ individuals, further contribute to the telling of a story like Sylvester’s.
“Anyone can make something about someone and try to get spot-on, but for us, that wasn’t the point. It was really to devise a new experience that’s immersive for people,” says Eisen.
Eisen, along with “Sylvester, The Mighty Real” writer Marvin K. White and director Michael French considered the significance of and public response to Sylvester’s gender norms defiance in the 1970s and ’80s — at a time when terms and identities like “nonbinary” and “genderqueer” weren’t common.
“Sylvester’s gender presentation [is] one of the reasons that Sylvester didn’t really have the big arenas and the public attention and the record deals that would have made him much more successful than he was,” Eisen notes.
The team also considered Sylvester’s contributions to gay liberation and his openness about his AIDS diagnosis. Notably, he was the grand marshal of the SF Pride Parade in 1988, leading the contingency in his wheelchair months prior to his death.
Says Eisen, “He was like, ‘Here I am. This is what it looks like.’”
Audiences of “Sylvester, The Mighty Real” will become better acquainted with these aspects as they walk through the Haight-Ashbury, passing Buena Vista Park, Victorian homes and stopping in the historic Doolan-Larson Building, the home of Eye Zen Presents, and site of “Sylvester, The Mighty Real,” a multimedia installation.
About Sylvester’s hindered rise as a major artist in the United States and many people not knowing about him, Eisen assesses, “I think it’s because of inequality and structural racism and just all of the things that we’re seeing right now with all of the bans on drag and gender nonconformity across the country.”
He adds, “So this is a perfect time for people to learn about Sylvester.”
“Sylvester, The Mighty Real” shows are at noon Fridays and noon and 4 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays from Aug.11-Oct. 1. The performance-driven walking tour begins at 1035 Haight St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$125 at eyezen.org.
The “Sylvester, The Mighty Real” multimedia installation is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays and 3 to 6 p.m. Fridays in the Doolan-Larson Building,1500 Haight St., San Francisco.