Mime Field

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The internet anger machine has finally discovered the San Francisco Mime Troupe (SFMT), a political theatre group that has been active since 1959. Over the July 1 weekend, the Troupe premiered their new play, Walls, about an unlikely romance between an undocumented woman from Mexico and a female ICE agent who is after her.

Truthfully, this doesn’t sound like the *most* radical story the Troupe has probably ever put on. Known for its blend of agitprop and comedy, the SFMT is the country’s premiere activist theatre; they have never pretended to be otherwise, and have lasted through 12 presidential administrations (so far), numerous budgetary crises, and plenty of critique. Yet, in 2017, hot on the heels of the Shakespeare in the Park Julius Caesar mess, it seems the Breitbart-y crowd is spoiling for another staged outrage. (NB: if you’d like to read an actor’s first hand account of starring in Julius Caesar and dealing with all of the protest, read Corey Stoll’s account.)

According to the Washington Free Beacon, the “feds” dropped $20,000 on a musical about illegal lesbians. You can read a quick description, with link to that original story, if you’re interested, at the San Francisco Chronicle. The criticism is tied to the National Endowment for the Arts, that favorite conservative bugaboo, which has awarded many grants to the SFMT (and many other groups and individuals around the nation for many years). The Beacon story also claims that the red star logo used by the SFMT clearly links it to Communist China and the undermines the troupe’s rejection of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. (The troupe directly address their logo and other issues in their FAQ.)

These are surface critiques with little understanding of the substance or influence the SFMT has had on US theatre, political activism, and public arts for over 50 years. It does not hide its collective, progressive politics, but clearly has carved out a space to critique social ills and major political trends within the capitalist US economy. They unmanly on donations and grant funding, and present an alternative model of both stagecraft and business governance. The troupe has also been a model for other political active organizations. In my current research project about the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA), I learned that the cultural committee of the TWWA visited with SFMT members to learn more about how to integrate the arts into their activism work. In a summary of their visit, the TWWA members wrote that the SFMT is mainly concerned with showing audiences that anyone can change things, if they can just get angry enough at the way things are in society. However, the troupe also acknowledged that you can’t expect people to internalize change or immediately jump into action after one play performance. It has to be seen in relation to other things in their own lives, and part of a larger context.

With all of this in mind, I wonder what the angry internet alt-right folks would think about a play which simply wants to reach out to people where they are now, regardless of beliefs? If a play wishes to present characters as real, flawed individuals in order to point out social ills, why should that be so threatening? After all the troupe doesn’t even seem to think that just one performance can really change people’s minds. Or can it?

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