World premiere of Ashley Smiley’s ‘Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad’

Ashley-Smiley-in-front-of-St.-John-Coltrane-African-Orthodox-Church-tapestry-for-her-a€˜Dirty-White-Teslas-Make-Me-Sada€™-Magic-Theater-by-Kia-Walton, World premiere of Ashley Smiley’s ‘Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad’, World News & Views
Theological PhD candidate Ashley Smiley sits in front of a tapestry from the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church backstage at the Magic Theater, which will premiere her play “Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad.” – Photo: Kia Shaun Walton

by Kia Shaun Walton

Dirty white Teslas do make Ashley Smiley sad. But her debut play, which premieres Saturday, March. 2, 2024, at the Magic Theater in San Francisco, intends to do much more. Running from Feb. 28 through March 17, a blend of San Francisco specific humor and rehumanizing social commentary on what Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges calls San Francisco’s “fever dream.” “Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad” (“DWTMMS”) offers a deeply human experience of gentrification and an intimate portrayal of a mother-daughter duo dealing with displacement. 

Smiley, a playwright and San Francisco native with long standing personal ties to the Bayview Hunters Point, Mission, Fillmore and Sunnydale neighborhoods, shares, “The biggest thing that I want people to think about is the human component of gentrification.” A well-worn topic of conversation for many native San Franciscans and native Bay Area residents at large, Smiley’s play is intentionally “not [only] the political.” When the curtains close, Smiley “want[s] you to be touched in a way that makes you realize that you have a role to play in this.”

Ashley-Smiley-on-set-of-her-a€˜Dirty-White-Teslas-Make-Me-Sada€™-by-Kia-Walton, World premiere of Ashley Smiley’s ‘Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad’, World News & Views

Though tackling heavy material, Smiley’s 90-minute play is peppered with moments of levity, which Smiley celebrates as “getting to be really obnoxious about San Francisco … in all the fun ways.” She continues enthusiastically, “There’s whole sections that are just about memories and places and things” that speak to both Smiley’s own experiences and an authentic San Francisco culture. 

A culture, which Myrick-Hodges, who came of age in San Francisco, comments is at risk of becoming a “very homogenous, antiseptic space.” She continues, “One of the most beautiful places on Earth is making it impossible for the majority of people who made it that way to live here.” Myrick-Hodges finishes, “Certain things that are super important that can only come from the working class are being pushed out of the city,” citing the contentious relocation of the celebrated St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in 2016. 

Actor Tanika Baptiste, who plays matriarch “Delcina” or “Moms” in “DWTMMS” shares, “[For ‘Moms’] it’s a little scary. It’s also shameful because it’s like you can’t afford to stay in your home … And she might actually be making a decent amount of money, but they’re being priced out.” Baptiste empathizes with “Moms,” remarking, “It’s just the frustration of having to move, the pressure,” and feeling “there’s nobody to catch me.”

Smiley thoughtfully spotlights a strained mother-daughter dynamic between “Moms” and “Sloosh” aiming to convey the human experience inside of gentrification to a diverse audience. Smiley’s work seeks to draw the audience in – past what she calls the “smoke and mirrors” of San Francisco’s branding – into the consequences of gentrification on a single family. 

A timely and relevant piece that has garnered significant media attention and community anticipation, “DWTMMS,” is the brainchild of a dedicated local artist who loves her city and her craft in equal measure. Smiley began “mucking around in theater things” at the Brava! Center for Women in the Arts with Colored Ink Hip-Hop Theater Collective at the age of 14. There, Smiley wrote and directed plays with a “hip-hip aesthetic” and joined Brava’s Running Crew program. After graduating from the Performing Arts and Social Justice Program at the University of San Francisco and earning her Master’s in Drama at San Francisco State, Smiley had successfully established herself in production management.

Though Smiley has contributed to many productions working with the African American Shakespeare Company and Campo Santo, amongst others, as well as various works including “Ethos de Masquerade,” “Corner One” and “The Living Earth Show,” she still describes this moment in her 20-year theater career, as “dreamy.” Myrick-Hodges, a national director, master teacher and adjunct professor with Actors Studio, PACE University, Cornell University, SF State, CalArts and Brown University, knew Smiley years ago as “that young kid who did it all.” 

She remarks, “Smiley deserves, like every artist who’s working hard, a place that is reputable to see their work done in full vision,” continuing, “The Magic Theater in San Francisco is one of those places that people of color – particularly women of color – deserve the first place to do their first work professionally.” Myrick-Hodges notes the “full circle aspect of it,” explaining, “[my] first directorial debut was [at the Magic Theater],” and now she gets to support Smiley in her first playwriting debut in the exact same place.

A tender irony, in light of “DWTMMS” centering a sociopolitical phenomenon of community displacement and destabilization, Smiley reflects, “There was never a time where I ever thought that…my city wouldn’t be accessible to me … This is what the human experience of San Francisco is right now.” Currently a third year PhD candidate at Graduate Theological Union, Smiley shares that “DWTMMS” holds an important theological element throughout the play, and she is hopeful for a non-exclusive “theological conversion” in the audience. 

As Smiley states it, “Everything I thought I knew about my city and everything I thought my city knew about me I’m realizing is up in the air.” Navigating an existential struggle for land, place and continued belonging, Smiley’s “Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad” is also “a conversation about … from whom we’re asking for help.” Smiley invites the audience to uproot in their own way, “questioning everything that you thought you knew and then coming to your own understanding” of the lived experiences of native San Franciscans, for San Francisco’s sake.

Tickets for “Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad” are available at

Kia Shaun Walton (she/he) is a freelance journalist and educator working in the Bay Area. Kia is committed to justice, integrity and community. Please direct any inquiries to