Review: SF’s ‘The Red Shades’ Is a Radical Triumph of Trans Empowerment and Representation

The newest production at San Francisco’s Z Space is too long in its runtime — but the show, by no means, flounders in its queer impact.

By its very connotation, queerness is, in and of itself, an invitation to transcend traditional norms. Members of the LGTBQIA+ community have hyper-abilities — superpowers if you will — that allow them to perceive the world in different tonalities; it’s their inherent ability to sense when things are awry (in many definitions) that make queer folk so extraordinary.

In San Francisco, Z Space, the multifaceted non-profit performance space located at 450 Florida Street, has outdone itself with its production of The Red Shades, which encapsulates all the idiosyncrasies described above in glowing lights. Better yet? All the show’s musical numbers are punctuated by the four band members that play a grab-bag of musical styles (think everything from grunge rock to 90s-era sonnets), expanding the thematic universe of every act

Centered around the self-discovery pilgrimage of the play’s protagonist, Ida (Carmen Castillo), the 150-minute spectacle — a “ trans rock superhero opera” — is set in a fictitious reality that anchors on real historical happenings. The three-act show builds to the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, though the events leading up to it paint a deep picture of trans representation, victimhood, community, and fortitude.

After leaving her household helmed by a brutal father, whose fits of drinking often end in physical abuse, Ida is placed in the care of an unethical doctor, Dr. Smile (Adam KuveNiemann). 

Photo: Courtesy of Z Space

Smile is unbending in his will to make Ida “straight” and rid her of her authentic self. The two drive to what’s understood to be a medical conference of some sort in Nevada, where during a live operation featuring Ida as the subject, Smile inserts a syringe into her neck. 

Though the modalities are not exactly clear, what is understood from an audience perspective is that Ida gains superpowers from this procedure.

Prior to Ida’s superhero endowment, Ida finds herself in a mental health hospital where an ardent nurse played by Chris Steele — a multi-hyphenate queer trans nonbinary talent, who’s behind the ever-impressive drag personas, Polly Amber Rose and Peter Pansexual — sings “it’s for your own protection” for Ida to stay put and accept the fate in front of her. This, too, is where we meet Sherry (B Noel Thomas) — the unflinching matriarch of The Red Shades superhero group.

Ida eventually finds her footing in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood with the help of her community and chosen family. 

Tommy (Ezra Reaves), Sherry, and Genevieve (also played by Chris Steele) come together to make up a fantastic trio that don superhero costumes — ensembles made of black feathered wings, assless chaps that reveal golden undergarments, and tasseled wands — to fight off members of the San Francisco police, including the police chief (also played by Adam KuveNiemann).

Photo: Courtesy of Z Space

The show, itself, is a radical exercise in trans representation; all actors playing trans roles are either trans, themselves, and/or identify as nonbinary; there’s not a hint of inauthenticity in the show, though some of the spoken lines can read a bit cliche.

At times, The Red Shades can come across as too long in the tooth and filled with theatrical fluff — for the sake of runtime — that offers little, if not any, catalyst to the greater plot. The same jagged criticism coincides with the number of hats the show’s cast wear throughout the play. (If you, too, got a bit lost following who’s playing who, you’re not alone.)

The small well of criticism pales in comparison to the mountain of compliments I have for Z Space’s newest theater production. And I don’t imagine myself not saying “get on the fucking bus” for days to come.

For more information on ‘The Red Shades,’ which still has available tickets for its last show date tomorrow November 5th, visit

Leave a Reply