ONSTAGE San Francisco Mime Troupe groupies (Troupies?) had a moment this week when the veteran political theater troupe’s 2017 production Walls landed on Conservative Internet’s radar. “Trump NEA Grants $20K For Lesbian Illegal Immigrant Musical,” read the Brietbart.com headline, the text comprised of jabs at “Obama holdever” National Endowment for the Arts chairman Jane Chu. (Walls comes to Dolores Park July 4 at 2pm, then heads around the Bay.)
The far right may still consider the Mime Troupe a radical organization — this year’s production Walls does feature a romance between an undocumented immigrant and (wait for it) ICE officer — but over a half century since the free open theater was founded, how is it keeping up?
48 Hills spoke with Walls’ director Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, whose first professional Bay Area acting credit was in the Troupe in the ’80s. She toured with the troupe in Europe, and was contributed her experience as a homeless mother (at the time of the production) as inspiration for 1990’s Rats: A Dream Play.
48H What is the troupe’s role in its San Francisco community?
Edris The troupe is the oldest political theater company in the country, and perhaps there are only one or two more in total. That is an important role, to bring politics to the stage without apology or dilution. Its role in the city is the same and as a city with very active local and national politics, it is the theatrical voice of the city.
48H Has that changed since you first became involved in the 1980s?
Idris When I was in the troupe in the ’80s it was a vital part of the summer for residents. The park would be packed on Sunday with people arriving as early as noon to watch the setup and get a good seat on the grass. There was cheese and wine shared by many. With the changing demographics, I don’t think it is as visible or vital to the new folks and the old residents have been largely priced out.
People are still in the park — the hipsters have all but staked a flag in Dolores Park, [the site of] our opening [performance] — but I am curious to see how many still come just for the show.
Another thing that is different is that when we did [1986-’88 production on US foreign policy in Africa] Mozamgola Caper, we attended secret meetings of the ANC, which was labeled in the US as a terrorist organization. We had leading activists involved in the creation of the script and characters. I don’t know that SFMT works so closely with leading activists and organizations on script. They are not part of the rehearsal process for Walls other than attending the previews. Also, the script was subject to change in those days at any moment once new information came in. At any point during the run of the show the dialogue, situations, even the politic could be changed.
48H Why is it important to have the community feedback sessions like the one I was able to attend?
ECA Feedback is important because the Mime Troupe is committed to issues that concern our community and the only way to be really sure is to ask. It is also a great place for us to get further information on the issues, as you can see from the preview you attended.
48H What are the special challenges that presenting a piece on immigration entails? Have there been particular issues that have come up during the preparation of Walls?
Edris The government that is a parody of itself is hard to parody. All of the shows have particular issues that the company either cannot agree on or cannot find a way to satirize without seeming insulting. This was a challenge in the ’80s, and the form is still a challenge to the messaging.
Not everyone is on board with the love story or the character’s ending but we seem to have reached a compromise. Joan Holden, Mime Troupe founder, would have said “Compromise does not make great art” — I heard her say it in 1991. Back in the day we would have had a great row about it. [But] I think as the country becomes more polarized, organizations like SFMT are trying to find ways to not behave in that way.
48H What message do you hope people walk away with from Walls?
Edris Believe it or not, I am not a message artist. My love is satire. My hope is always that people see themselves in the folly and examine the way they process information, [the way they] treat people and the planet.
WALLS Tue/4, 2pm, free. Dolores Park, SF. Runs throughout the Bay through Sept. 10. More info here.
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