Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 1992

What’s a pinhook? A strong, thread-thin fish-hook, used to snag crawdads and ‘gators in the Bayou.   In the play by the same name, it’s a metaphor.

“It’s a little thing that gets into your soul; something traumatic that festers, and you carry it through your life,” explains Jerry Riker, the author of “Pinhook”, a new play which opens November 10 at the Marquis/Ruse Theatre.   “We all live with failures, regrets and things that stay with us.”

Riker’s most recent personal pinhook was the death of his wife last May, after a prolonged struggle with cancer. His play, a multi-layered, moody, evocative piece which deals with death and pinhooks, is dedicated to Donna, he says, though it’s not about her.   “You are the sum of your pain,” Riker says. “People who try to lose that lose their essence. You feel it, and it makes things happen in you. The Koreans have an expression, ‘Pain makes you think, thinking makes you wise, and wisdom lets you endure just about anything.'”

At 48, Riker is enduring by moving on, producing his latest play with his newly formed Companie Peabough (from a Mandarin word meaning “small purse”).   He started the Ballard Street Players in El Cajon in 1983. Later, with grant money from a local printing firm, he established The Thimble Theatre in a loft on Fourth Avenue .   From 1985-90, he taught theater and chaired the Fine Arts Department at St. Augustine ‘s, a Catholic boys’ school which he himself had attended.   In-between, he worked in the import business and owned three retail gourmet shops. In 1990, he decided to go back to school.

That’s a story he shares with most of his Peabough production team.   Producer Bruce Erricson, director Christina Courtenay and dramaturge Joe Powers are fellow mid-life master’s students in the SDSU Drama department. “We feel very comfortable with each other,” says Riker. “Combined, we bring a lot of years of theater to this production.” But they didn’t bring a lot of money, most of which Riker collected (“like Orson Welles,” he says) from grants, contributions and his own pocket.   “It’s a modest production,” he adds, “under $10,000. But I felt the piece had to be produced. So far, in terms of people’s responses, I haven’t been wrong.”

The play, whose main characters are women and Southern blacks, may seem like a stretch for a native San Diego white male.   “It’s about someone who takes chances,” Riker explains. “Maybe it has no color. I’m not writing about black people in terms of their blackness, but in terms of the roles they play. Of the five plays I’ve written, four have black characters. For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived among black people.”

Riker was brought up in “an extremely racially mixed neighborhood” in Linda Vista. “We lived right on the color line,” he says. “It was unspoken, that one side was white and one, black.   It was a mix of sophisticated blacks from Los Angeles ; rural, superstitious blacks from the South; and poor whites.” His mother worked for the first six years of his life; he was raised by his great-grandmother. She was the inspiration for “Pinhook’s” main character, Rebecca, the 126 year-old white Southerner who gets hooked into black superstition and voodoo, death, magic, incest, miscegenation and murder. The play takes place in Louisiana , moving back and forth in time from the present to the late nineteenth century.

“I’m a historian by education,” Riker says. He started out as an English major, then switched to history.   His master’s degree in Theater focuses on directing and playwriting.   Riker has directed plays and taught classes at SDSU. He recently became the technical director of the San Diego Repertory Theatre.

“It took me six or seven years to understand theater well enough to write for it.   But since then, I’ve written almost a play a year,” says Riker. Parts of “Pinhook” appeared in 1976, as a children’s story he wrote for his daughter, now 24. In the piece, Riker draws a parallel between the elderly, slow-paced Rebecca and the impetuous young Cortney, the playwriting student who comes to the retirement home to elicit Rebecca’s life story so she can dramatize it for the home’s “memory evening.” She wants something simple and specific from Rebecca; she gets more than she bargained for.  

Rebecca’s story is wild, magical, unimaginable. Her pinhook is her guilt. “It’s festering in her; that’s why she can’t die,” says Riker.   “It’s a metaphor.    You can end something quickly — death, relationships — but you may never make a clean break.   Things get under your skin and you can’t get them out…

“There’s both metaphor and magic in this piece,” says the affable Riker, who doesn’t like to analyze his writing too much. “Magic can mean many things. Some audience members will walk away thinking these events really happened.   Some will see it as events of long ago, interwoven with Rebecca’s fantasies… I just want to draw them into the web that gradually spirals into a tighter and tighter story…. Theater’s gotten away from storytelling; it’s more about spectacle.   I’d like the audience to regain the appreciation that someone’s really telling them a story.”

©1992 Patté Productions Inc.