The San Francisco Mime Troupe never keeps silent, in any sense.
The political-theater collective, performing Friday in Nevada City, Saturday in Sacramento and Sunday in Davis, began in 1959 by doing wordless, movement-based theater “events” that incorporated music and artwork. Its founder, R.G. Davis, had studied silent mime in France.
But the Mime Troupe – currently traveling with the play “Freedomland,” which depicts police harassment of an African American man (Michael Gene Sullivan) and his soldier grandson (George P. Scott) – incorporated dialogue into shows in the turbulent 1960s, when the group became political and drew such talents as actor Peter Coyote (“E.T.”), playwright and director Luis Valdez (“La Bamba”) and budding rock impresario Bill Graham, then the group’s business manager.
“You can only talk about colonialism so much when you are walking against the wind, and pulling an invisible rope,” said “Freedomland” star Sullivan, evoking the idea of silent mime popularized in America by Marcel Marceau. Sullivan, who also is the troupe’s resident playwright and wrote “Freedomland,” has been with the Mime Troupe since 1988.
The ’60s Mime Troupe favored commedia dell’arte, an outdoor-theater style that originated in 16th-century Italy and involved stock “types” of masked characters, usually representing the haves and have-nots. To the commedia dell’arte’s exaggerated physical style – which involved movements that can be “read” in the lawn chairs in the back row – the Mime Troupe eventually added elements of American melodrama and musical theater, forging a broad style all its own.
Like Mime Troupe shows before it, “Freedomland” coats a dire message in comedy and music.
“It’s a good way to get across a political statement with a little bit of sugar,” Carol Smith, 65, of Oakland, said last weekend after seeing “Freedomland” at San Francisco’s Glen Canyon Park. Smith said she tries to see every show by the Mime Troupe, which travels with a new outdoor production every summer.
A professional, Tony-winning theater company whose history predates that of the Bay Area’s most prestigious indoor theaters – the American Conservatory Theater (1965) and Berkeley Rep (1968) – the Mime Troupe is an institution in theatrical circles, where its name instantly connotes outdoor political theater.
Performing outdoors means new people happen upon the troupe all the time. Like Joyce Diaz, 33, of San Francisco, who came to see the Glen Canyon Park show with her two young daughters.
The family was leaving a tutoring session at the park’s Glen Park Rec Center when Diaz’s 3-year-old Ava spotted the brightly painted Mime Troupe on the outdoor stage and begged her mother to see the show. Diaz never heard of the troupe, but once she found out about “Freedomland’s” subject matter, she wanted to see the show.
“You see police brutality in the news all the time, so I think it’s great (the play) is focusing on that,” Diaz said before the show. The political aspects would go over her young daughters’ heads, she said.
It’s for people like Diaz that the troupe includes this tag line, beneath its name, on the truck that carries its sets to venues: “Not that kind of mime.”
At Glen Canyon Park, the crowd of about 300, composed primarily of baby boomers, laughed at the play’s goofy bits – like an overzealous police recruit singing “Bad Boys,” theme song from the TV show “Cops” – and sat rapt during tougher moments.
This civilized scene stood in contrast to reports of the Mime Troupe’s early days, when the company engaged in legal tussles with San Francisco’s parks department and other authorities over works like “Il Candelaio,” featuring gay and bisexual lead characters and phallic imagery, and “A Minstrel Show, Or Civil Rights in a Cracker Crackel Barrel,” in which a racially mixed group of actors used the racist theatrical form to highlight the civil rights battle.
As the red star within its logo strongly suggests, the Mime Troupe, a descendant of 1920s agitprop theater, leans as far left as theater companies can without tipping over. But twinning politics and plays is as old as the stage.
“The word ‘mime’ comes from ‘mimic,’ which has nothing to do with silent mime,” Sullivan said. “In ancient Greece, they needed a way to mock politicians but not be (obvious). You want the audience to know you are Pericles, but you don’t want to call the character Pericles for fear you will be thrown off a cliff by Pericles. So you ‘mimic’ him.”
Sullivan tries to be up-to-the-minute when writing plays for each summer season, which lasts from June through Labor Day weekend. Last year’s “Ripple Effect” took on the (still-) hot topic of the techie takeover of San Francisco.
Sullivan said he finished “Freedomland” in late May – nine months after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., first ignited protest about the treatment of blacks by police – and a month and a half before Sandra Bland’s death in a Texas jail renewed the protest’s vigor.
He wants “Freedomland” to create a fuller picture of people who become targets of alleged police brutality.
“So often, we get to know them after they’re dead – we see them in news reports in their graduation pictures. We can sympathize with their families, but it’s hard to empathize with them because they are gone. The tragedy can be dismissed more easily.
“I wanted to write a show that, whatever is going to happen to the lead characters, happens after you get to know them.”
The group tends to schedule dates in areas receptive to its message, though Sullivan said there’s diversity within the liberal theater audience, and shows play differently in San Jose than in Oakland.
The troupe essentially preaching to the choir is “OK,” said Sacramento playwright Frank Condon, 71, who first saw the group in the ’60s. “Otherwise, people who are upset about how things are going will get lost. This gives them a place to go where people are supportive.”
The troupe has inspired other politically minded theater professionals. Luis Valdez began the now legendary El Teatro Campesino in 1965 in the grape fields of Kern County after his brief stint with the Mime Troupe.
Condon, former artistic director of the socially minded Sacramento company River Stage (which closed in 2010), recalls being dazzled, when, as a young theater grad student, he saw the Mime Troupe’s “The Dragon Lady’s Revenge,” which involved the C.I.A. and Indochinese drug trade.
“It gave you all this information about the drug trade, and it made you laugh,” Condon said of the play. The glamorous, cigarette-dangling title character flirted with stereotype, but that was part of the show “breaking taboos,” he said.
Condon later co-wrote the 1979 play “Chicago Conspiracy Trial,” about the seven activists – including Abbie Hoffman and future state Sen. Tom Hayden – charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Steven Spielberg bought, and still holds film rights to the play, which had a long run in Los Angeles.
Richard Montoya, the actor, playwright, director and co-founder of the theater troupe Culture Clash, cites the Mime Troupe and El Teatro Campesino as direct influences on his group.
Montoya, son of the late Sacramento poet laureate and Royal Chicano Air Force art collective co-founder Jose Montoya, said he heeded a call the Mime Troupe put out to the RCAF for backstage help at a production of its Latin American-based show “Last Tango in Huehuetenango” in the early 1980s at Sacramento’s 24th Street Theater.
“I had seen them in the park (before), and the level of humor was so sophisticated,” Montoya said. “I was like a groupie. They might as well have been Journey or Van Halen.”
Now in his 50s, Montoya would have been one of the younger audience members at the Glen Canyon Park show. This concerns longtime Mime Troupe fan Bob Prentice, 69, who came to see “Freedomland” at Glen Canyon Park and first saw the troupe in 1975.
The Mime Troupe “is something that emerged from the 1960s movement, and the question is whether they can sustain that legacy with young techies,” Prentice said. “That’s a different world.”
Sullivan said the Mime Troupe always seeks to expand its audience, in part by focusing on its rich history as a Tony Award winner (for regional theater, 1987) whose shows offer value beyond their political content. “Freedomland” tackles such a hot-button issue that the troupe has seen new audience members this year.
If some of those are techies, the troupe will gladly accept their post-show donations. But it will be a windless day in San Francisco before the troupe finds empathy for big tech companies. Though it relies on donations and grants to stay afloat, the troupe never will seek grants from big corporations, Sullivan said, so as not to compromise its ability to skewer fat cats along with the government.
The only time the troupe’s counterculture message has been questioned in the Bay Area was during the period just after Sept. 11, 2001, and the signing of the Patriot Act.
“There was a real sense that any kind of dissent was treason, and a lot of people kind of shut down,” Sullivan said. “And we came right back with shows that were about the government.”
One was 2003’s “Veronique of the Mounties,” which showed U.S. officials “trying to whip up a hatred of Canada, so we can invade them,” Sullivan said.
The post-Sept. 11 shows prompted “death threats,” Sullivan said. “ ‘How can you say this about America at this time?’ We said, ‘’Cause it’s true.’ ”
SAN FRANCISCO MIME TROUPE
The political collective will perform “Freedomland” three times in the Sacramento region. For more information: www.sfmt.org
7 p.m., Miners Foundry parking lot, 325 Spring St., Nevada City
5 p.m., Southside Park, Sixth and T streets, Sacramento
Cost: Free (donations encouraged)
7 p.m., Community Park, 14th and F streets, Davis
Cost: Free (donations encouraged)