July 7, 2008
The Power of Political Satire
By Karen D'Souza, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.
Jul. 6--The San Francisco Mime Troupe is heading to the polls early.
Just in time for the hottest presidential race in recent memory, the Tony-winning group is fulfilling its patriotic duty by skewering the powers that be in "Red State." These masters of political satire will attack the vagaries of the electoral process in general and voting "discrepancies" in particular, but that does not mean that Messrs. Obama and McCain will be the stars of the show. In fact, they're more like bit players.
"This show is not about this person vs. that person," says veteran Mime Troupe actress Velina Brown. "It's about the people."
At a time when the media seem obsessed with the rock-em sock-em showdowns among Washington power brokers, the Mime Troupe is turning its attentions to the little guy (that's you and me, folks).
Don't let the name throw you off. Marcel Marceau, these actors ain't. Indeed, the Mime Troupe has become nationally acclaimed for speaking up. The subversive ensemble, which performs for free in Bay Area parks through Sept. 28, has taken on the status quo ever since its birth in 1959.
As the New York Times once put it: "Anyone concerned about the state of global politics -- and about the state of political humor -- should listen to the Mime Troupe's message."
Though once consigned to the margins of the theater scene, political material is as trendy these days as going green. From Josh Kornbluth's solo musings on democracy in "Citizen Josh" at
Berkeley's Shotgun Players to the Age of Aquarius musical "Hair" at City Lights in San Jose, stages big and small are re-examining the nature of the "social contract" and how people can and should shape their society. As the war in Iraq wears on, escapism is out; engagement is in.
"Americans (and many others) are hungry for something beyond the political twaddle that passes for national debate in this country, and indeed globally," says Stanford University drama professor Rush Rehm. "The Mime Troupe calls things as they are; our political debate at the national level has an 'all wear gloves' approach, only rarely can anything be talked about.
"The Mime Troupe uses one of the rare public spaces available -- performances outdoors in the park, free, and there, lo! still some truths can be told. Audiences like that, and we need it."
For the Mime Troupe, art and activism have always been flip sides of the same coin. These left-wing rabble-rousers don't even charge for tickets (though they do pass the hat); they believe that if theater is to be for the people, it must be truly accessible.
Fomenting revolution through musical comedy may seem hopelessly idealistic, but the troupe has sung its heart out about hot-button issues from the health care industry to the war in Iraq. The company takes its name from the Greek word mimos, which means to mimic. What it does is a cross between "SNL" and "Meet the Press." Think Jon Stewart, the musical.
"Mime troupe performers are energetic and versatile and musical, and what they play speaks immediately to the audience, as it is drawn (usually) right out of the headlines," says Rehm. "Invention, familiarity, music, energy, wit harnessed to the political: It's winning."
Peek beneath the slapstick and spoof, and you'll notice that "Red State" has very sharp political teeth. The over-the-topical plot spins around a tiny Kansas town that drags its feet on a vote recount until the government comes through with desperately needed repairs to a crumbling infrastructure. The fate of the nation hangs in the balance, and it's the Heartland, not the Beltway, that holds all the cards.
"It's not really about the presidential election," says the troupe's outspoken head writer, Michael Gene Sullivan. "It's about a much more basic question, and that is: Can you have political freedom without economic freedom? What good does it do to vote for one millionaire or another? Why is there never enough money to fix the libraries and the sidewalks but always enough money to subsidize the corporations?"
Sullivan says the sagging economy has brought the issues of the play to the forefront of popular culture. From the gas pump to the grocery store, the consumer is feeling a pinch (hard) in what many analysts describe as a recession. Sullivan begs to differ.
"The country is in a depression," he says. "It may not be the Great Depression, but it is a depression. They don't call it that because they don't want to scare people, but that's what it is. And whoever wins the election needs to be held accountable."
The history of the Great Depression and its echoes today were very much on Sullivan's mind as he wrote "Red State."
"The economy is squeezing everyone to the point where people are ready for change," Brown says. "The thing is, you can't wait for the change; you have to be the change."
Empowerment is the first step on the road to a working democracy, she says, in a society where apathy and inertia take a back seat to patriotism and activism.
"People finally get that politics matters," Brown continues. "People aren't content walking around with their earbuds going LA-LA-LA anymore. People are awake now. They are getting inspired. They are getting involved. That means we can really have a democracy."'Red State'mercurynewsProducer San Francisco Mime Troupe
Where Parks around the Bay Area, including Aug. 5. at Mitchell Park (600 E. Meadow Drive, Palo Alto); Sept. 13-14 at San Lorenzo Park (137 Dakota Ave., Santa Cruz); and Sept. 24 at Chabot College Performing Arts Center (5555 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward)
Through Sept. 28
Admission Free, donations accepted; (415) 285-1717, www.sfmt.org
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