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Saturday, July 20, 2024

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Arts + CultureSF Mime Troupe's 'American Dream': Palestine, AI, and those...

SF Mime Troupe’s ‘American Dream’: Palestine, AI, and those two old white guys

Ever topical, the troupe's annual free park show is one of the liveliest and most realized in years.

Two very jarring things happened after I saw SF Mime Troupe’s 2024 show American Dreams (through September 8 at various Bay Area parks). The first was being hit with a surprise $1,400 July fee because the master tenant of my unheated Sunset home feels rent should come in advance of the month in question, not at the end. I learned this through a text wishing me a “Happy 4th of July.”

That seemed oddly appropriate, given the show I’d just watched on a warm day in Dolores Park. There’s nothing in the show specifically pertaining to landlords, though it has been the topic of previous productions. This one revolves around the horrifying possibility of The Annoying Orange returning to the White House and the dystopic repercussions that follow. At least, that’s what we think it’s about at first. We soon see that the 2024 election night depicted in the first scene is as much a dream as we wish the 2016 election night was. (An “American dream,” if you will.) That makes it no less foreboding.

Our story follows a Black woman named Paine Pearse (Mikki Johnson), a former university professor forced to resign because her students occupied the campus in support of a ceasefire. She now must drive a ride-share to (barely) make ends meet. Her MAGA-voting grandfather Gabe (playwright Michael Gene Sullivan), who voted against Trump in 2020, just voted for him due to four years of inaction from Biden and the Dems. Yet, he doesn’t seem to want to answer why a Black man would support Trump, whose base is made of actual white supremacists. He seems to have just absorbed all the MAGA rhetoric of Harold (Andre Amarotico), Gabe’s former co-worker at an accounting firm who took a hard-right turn after being let go, which he blames on corporate DEI posturing.

The subplot to all this involves Paine’s vegan boyfriend Oliver (also Amarotico), an SF techie and go-fer for CEO Meliae Higgins (Lizzie Calogero). The latter two are responsible for the implementation of their company’s new invasive AI, “Taalos”, which is not only always listening, but Higgins intends for it to replace millions of workers around the world—doing the very thing people like Harold want to blame on “those people” (like Gabe).

SF Mime Troupe’s ‘American Dream.’ Photo by Mike Melnyk

It would be redundant to say that a Mime Troupe show is unsubtle, so I’ll mention that this one features a palpable energy that’s been missing from their shows the past four years. Although those shows were mostly good, they were essentially pleas to the audience meant to appeal to the viewer’s sense of compassion. American Dreams isn’t a plea, it’s a rallying cry. As a critic who’s often lamenting Bay Area theatre’s—nay, theatre in general—radio silence on COVID (not mentioned here) and Palestine (save for the MidEast-themed Golden Thread Productions, which is dedicating its entire season to it), it’s refreshing to see the latter a central component to Paine’s entire arc.

She seems initially reluctant when impassioned student Emma (also Calogero) tells Paine of the then-upcoming encampments, but Paine can’t escape the fact that silence is compliance, and what is a university for if not to help students learn to exercise all their 1st amendment rights? As Paine argues with her Chancellor (Sullivan)— who, we’re told, passionately opposed South African apartheid in the ‘80s—the Chancellor somehow says with a straight face that “Now’s not the time to fight apartheid; now’s the time to fight for survival.” It’s no wonder Paine’s struggle is set to a song called “The War on Thought”. Not a bad song.

In fact, this is a mostly-solid entry from Sullivan as a writer and the Mime Troupe as a performance collective. I say “mostly” because there’s a noticeable dip in energy during Higgins’ Jobs-like reveal of the Taalos AI. It somehow seems right that the least-interesting aspect of a San Francisco story be the element about tech.

I saw more passers-by actually stopping to watched the show than I recalled from earlier productions. People just walking through Dolores to enjoy the 4th of July sun took out their phones once they heard the pro-union, pro-freedom, pro-proletariat dialogue coming from the flag-covered “portal” stage on the grass. (The design is by Carlos-Antonio Aceves, though I’m not sure I get the profile images on either end?) As if anticipating this, a late scene features Emma direct-addressing the audience to lead a chant of “Free, Free Palestine! Free-Free-Free Palestine!”

SF Mime Troupe’s ‘American Dream.’ Photo by Mike Melnyk

Lest I overlook one of the main goals of the Troupe, I should mention that the show is also pretty funny. Sullivan and his collaborators have a blast with the cringe-y “dad jokes” (like the ride-share being called “Uber Alles” and referring to the multiple dreams as “Blackception”) to riffing on how easy white “moderates” jump to the right when they’re not the center of attention. It may have all gone over the heads of the kids gathered to see the show, but it seemed to strike a chord with their parents. With an upcoming election between two old, white accused rapists who both want to keep bombing Palestine, let’s hope its message lingers over the dog-whistle newscasts that tell them to ignore blatant genocide, an ongoing pandemic, and the fact that the day was as warm as it was because the West Coast is experiencing its highest heat wave in history.

The other incident to happen after the show was my looking at my phone (trying to walk off the evisceration to my bank account) and reading that the Brits had just elected a new PM, Keir Starmer of the Labour Party. France also surged Left in their legislative election results. It would be great to see the same thing this November for the US presidential election (and SF’s mayoral election, for that matter), but it’s easy for folks to get discouraged when the two loudest candidates embody the worst traits of the nation—also true of the SF mayoral race.

Having said that, you should not only vote, but also let SF Mime Troupe’s American Dreams serve as a waking vision of the nightmare a Trump return would bring. We can’t predict what’ll happen the morning after the election, but American Dreams presents an entertaining reason to keep fighting the good fight.

SF MIME TROUPE’S AMERICAN DREAMS runs through September 8 at various Bay Area parks. Further info here.

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Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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