Old and new fans alike will be thrilled to know that Sister Spit: The Next Generation is back, kicking off its 2014 road show with three performances in the Bay Area this month: March 19 at San Francisco’s Elbo Room, March 20 at Mills College, and March 21 at Rock Paper Scissors.

The beloved feminist queer-centric traveling van-load of performers and spoken word artists boasts an impressive, multitalented 2014 lineup. This year’s tour features Sister Spit veteran Rhiannon Argo, a writer and librarian who has toured with Sister Spit “enough times to have once acquired a mild case of scurvy;” Oakland’s own Chinaka Hodge, a powerhouse poet and playwright who worked professionally for years with Youth Speaks and The Living Word Project; and writer and filmmaker Dia Felix, whose novel Nochita was recently published by Sister Spit Press, an imprint of City Lights Publishers.

Also joining the tour are writer Beth Lisick, the longtime co-founder and host of San Francisco’s Porchlight Storytelling Series; playwright and poet Lenelle MoÏse, whose long list of plays explore race, gender and Haitian-American identity; Virgie Tovar, a nationally-recognized fat activist and body image expert who formerly co-facilitated the student-taught Female Sexuality class at UC Berkeley; and outrageous host Ali Liebegott, who contributes her notorious improvisations and excerpts from her new work.

The lineup changes every year and is handpicked by Sister Spit founder Michelle Tea – herself a prolific and beloved local literary voice and the woman behind RADAR Productions – who pulls together each year’s troupe of performers very much by intuition.

“I kind of know it when I see it,” Tea said. “I get really excited about different performers or different voices or books and I want new people to be part of the lineup. It needs to be people that I’m confident will be able to get along with the other people in the van, people who not only are good writers but also are really great performers. There are no tryouts or anything like that, because I wouldn’t be able to handle that as a job.”

“I pick people if they have the Sister Spit style or message,” Tea added. “Definitely people who use their own life as fodder for their work to a strong extent, and are also feminist and… well, somewhat queer-centric, but they don’t have to be queer necessarily. The tour itself is queer the way a gay bar is queer – anyone can come into a gay bar, so it’s like, ‘Anyone can come into the tour, but the tour is queer.’”

Founded in 1994 by Tea and filmmaker Sini Anderson, Sister Spit started out as a radical all-female open mic – a stage for female performers in what was then a highly male-dominated spoken word scene. In 1997, a troupe of Sister Spit performers embarked on the maiden voyage of a national tour. As a boisterous, alcohol-fueled, all-female traveling troupe of queer feminist performers, the collective gained a well-deserved reputation for igniting stages all over the country with its brand of raunchy humor and deeply personal storytelling.

That first incarnation of a Sister Spit tour ended by 2000. (As Tea explained it, “Between me and Sini Anderson, we had a lot of dysfunctional habits that led to the collaboration running its course.”) But Tea revived Sister Spit in 2006, calling it Sister Spit: The Next Generation to distinguish it from her previous collaboration with Anderson.

Some things have changed since the ’90s. For one, Sister Spit is no longer all-female; Tea found that, as her personal and literary communities changed and evolved, it felt less relevant to keep the tour strictly female – especially as there were trans male voices that Tea wanted to invite, including former Sister Spit performers who had transitioned from female to male. “And if we’re bringing trans men in, why not bring in cisgendered men too?” Tea reasoned.

For another, unlike in the ’90s, the Sister Spit tour members now stay in hotels instead of sleeping on people’s floors. They also now travel in a rented van rather than the rambling Sister Spit van of the ’90s that, when not breaking down in the middle of the desert during tour, would acquire an unmanageable number of parking tickets during the off-tour season.

“In the ’90s, I was in my 20s and I partied like crazy and so did my collaborator Sini, and so that meant by default the whole tour was partying like crazy. I kind of can’t believe what we put people through in the ’90s, quite frankly,” Tea said.

“Definitely now it’s more of an individual decision if [performers] want to go out after the show. Some tours, we have lineups where everyone wants to do that, so they take the van and they figure it out – as long as the tour manager is still with the van… But our tour manager is kind of an animal, so often the van is going out after a show, regardless.”

What hasn’t changed much is the spirit of the tour itself – the promotion of radical feminist voices, dynamic self-expression, deeply honest storytelling, and humor both rowdy and raunchy. Tea has found that that constant baseline of performance continues to draw a constant kind of audience that appreciates Sister Spit’s aesthetic despite some of the other evolutions that have happened over the decades.

“Overall, our audiences stay more or less demographically the same – a lot of females, a lot of queers, a lot of feminists,” Tea said. “Our base is the nerdy, queer, cute readers who love to come out and hear people tell stories.”

If you go:
Sister Spit: The Next Generation

Thursday, March 20 at 8 p.m.
Mills College Student Union, 5000 MacArthur Boulevard

Friday, March 21 at 8 p.m.
Rock Paper Scissors Collective, 2278 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland
with special guests Raquel Gutiérrez and Daniel Levesque

Sister Spit: Writing, Rants & Reminiscence from the Road, a Sister Spit anthology published in 2012 by City Lights/Sister Spit and edited by Tea, offers deeper insight into the life of the tour itself with tour diaries and work from 22 Sister Spit performers.

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