56th annual SF Mime Troupe show tours the Bay Area, coming to Dolores Park July 3-5.
By Marke B.
ONSTAGE “The Mime Troupe has always used art as a way to get people to see the issues in a different way, and to engage them. Sometimes political theater is all about anger, frustration, venting, and endless ‘hey hey, ho ho’ chants. The Mime Troupe has always wanted to entertain and activate the audience. We want to rouse people’s passion for justice, while giving them some hummable tunes, and maybe a good dance number. We want revolutionary change, but there’s no reason a damn good show can’t help get it!”
Michael Gene Sullivan, thrillingly outspoken playwright and actor, is describing to me the potential power of art to change the world. His latest show (with music and lyrics by Ira Marlowe, directed by Andrea Snow), the 56th for the Bay Area’s essential, thriving SF Mime Troupe, is called Freedomland. Its topics — police militarization and overreach, the black community’s vulnerability, the plight of returning veterans — couldn’t be more timely or, depressingly, relevant.
But leave it to the musical Mime Troupe, our dedicated, Tony-winning gaggle of commedia dell’arte enthusiasts with deep hippie roots, to transform those topics into a singing, talking, fast-moving theatrical extravaganza, playing free in parks around the Bay through September 7. The season officially kicks off with the Troupe’s traditional annual Dolores Park debut, July 3-5 at 2pm.
Freedomland, in another Mime Troupe tradition, tells a twisty tale that touches on all manner of headline-grabbing subjects: “A door is blown off its hinges! Into a blasted room of scarred walls and shattered windows, armed with M-16s, America’s bravest duck and dodge for cover, finally training their deadly gunsights on… an old black man watching TV on his couch? This isn’t Baghdad or Kandahar – it’s home, and for ex-Black Panther Malcolm Haywood it’s just another wrong-door police raid in the War on Drugs. So of course Malcolm is horrified when the grandson he’s tried to protect, Nathaniel, returns from serving in Afghanistan only to find another war zone at home – and one where young black men like Nathaniel are in the crosshairs!”
If anyone can make that a laugh-a-minute riot, it’s our dear Mimes. I spoke with Sullivan about inspirations behind show, his own experiences living as a black man in the Bay Area, and the message behind the Mime Troupe magic.
48 HILLS You’re taking on some incredibly timely and necessary subject matter with Freedomland. Are you drawing from personal experiences?
MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN A few years ago I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about my experiences with the police in the liberal bastion of San Francisco: the number of times I’ve been stopped for walking, talking, driving, or bicycling while Black, the time the SFPD threatened to shoot me for sitting in my own car near my own apartment because they decided — though my car was registered, and I had no record — that I was a dangerous car thief. Rather than dealing with those who actually make their lives worse, who actually close their workplaces, who actually ship their jobs overseas, who actually invalidate their votes, raid there pension funds, who are ruining their lives – so many in this country, and this town, have decided it is easier and safer to scapegoat the nearest Black person, heaping blame and recoiling with fear. My wife and I have a twelve-year-old son, and there comes a time when a Black couple has to have The Talk with their child. That talk isn’t about sex, or getting a job, or the importance of education; The Talk is when you have to tell your beautiful, amazing, brilliant child that the country they are growing up in has a culture that sees them not as wonderful but as perpetrators, not as citizens but as a constant threat, which sees the darkness of their skin as a loaded weapon — and that even in San Francisco your child is endangered by not only those insane and frightened people who buy the hype of racism, but also by those frightened cops who think any Black person is a lethal weapon, armed with the immediate threat of Blackness.
48H Did you work from any particular models in writing Freedomland? Were there certain plays or writers you had in mind as influences?
MGS Writing for the Mime Troupe — taking these incredibly serious issues and making them ironic, farcical, or raising tragic issues to the heights of hypocrisy so that the audience is both outraged and entertained — is a very particular style. I’m guessing that there were always plenty of men and women who attacked social ills with humor, but we don’t know about most of them because they were beaten to death with rabid weasels or tossed into freezing rivers. Those whose work remains are always inspiring — Moliere, Aristophanes, Mark Twain. But I was a history major, so I normally work from historical, not theatrical, models. I’m more likely to talk about Plutarch than Stanislavsky. I don’t know if that makes me a bigger nerd or not.
48H Exactly 50 years ago, the Mime Troupe took on racial issues in its famous “A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel” show. This week, a report came out that showed that in SF “black people are 7.1 times more likely to be arrested in the city than white people, 11 times more likely to be booked into jail and 10.3 times more likely to be convicted. Those convicted spend more time on probation or behind bars.”
How important is it that we keep addressing these issue through art, and how do you feel the Mime Troupe brings your message uniquely to the Bay Area?
MGS I’ve been in San Francisco almost my entire life, and I’ve seen the City become more segregated, crueler, and much more divided, while simultaneously being self-congratulatory regarding its “diversity.” San Francisco was famous as a place where a variety of children could play together, but now its increasingly White parents put their children in homogeneous charter schools, move to “White” neighborhoods, and work in places where the only Black face seen is on TV.
Meanwhile, as your numbers show, the Black population of SF is just as under siege as in other towns. Between the Redevelopment movement of the ’60 and ’70s, which simply removed Black home owners from the scene, to the recent gentrification wave, the Black population has been pushed aside, marginalized – and only seen when that neighborhood suddenly becomes desirable. Then it is “improved,” which means the foreclosures and evictions paving the way of for those seen as law-abiding, less melanin-enhanced contributors to society. There are always those — even in liberal, educated San Francisco — who have insisted that Blacks here have equal opportunity, equal education, and that any problems Black have with the police have nothing to do with systemic racism. This is, of course, pure crapaganda. If a police state is one in which law is arbitrarily and brutally administered according to the whim, prejudice, and political need of the State, a stye where the police are not bound to respect law or rights, and where the State can kill you in the street with impunity, then even in this beautiful City By The Bay we Blacks live in police state.
As for art: if art isn’t addressing actual issues, it is a waste of time, and serves simply to distract people from the crimes being perpetrated against them. There is a reason “Reality” TV shows, sports, and Internet porn never have to apply for grants – they are useful distractions, which will always, always have money thrown at them to keep our eyes off those at the top who are keeping us divided, and robbing us blind.
Playing free around the Bay Area through September 7
More info here