The words "San Francisco Mime Troupe" circle the big red star on the side of the collective's bio-diesel truck. Below that it says, "No, NOT that kind of mime..."
"No, we do not do silent mime," said troupe member Michael Gene Sullivan with a laugh. For 51 years, the SF Mime Troupe has been crafting politically abrasive musical comedies dealing with the issues of the day: elections, race relations, war, and in the case of their latest show, worker's rights.
Sullivan is part of the Mime Troupe collective. He wrote the troupe's current play, Posibilidad, or Death of a Worker, and acts a double role in it. "It's always a trick dealing with these really serious issues," he said. "Our delivery system is always comedy and music. That's how you get people to open up; then you tell them serious stuff, and they don't feel battered."
While the troupe made preparations behind a stage they'd set up in a meadow in Golden Gate Park, Sullivan took a moment to offer a preview: "It's the story of two factory takeovers: [one] in the United States where all the jobs are being outsourced and the workers kind of accidentally end up controlling the factory and wonder, 'What do we do with it?' One of those workers was in another factory takeover a year earlier in Argentina where the workers took over the factory because their boss said, 'Well, the company's bankrupt; I'm going to let it go.' They took over and declared it a collective, a cooperative, and started working with other cooperative workers. The question of the show is, what does it mean when the workers are in control? Why do American workers have a limited view of being in control?"
The parallel stories may sound dry, but they are not. In the first, a small crew of workers at an eco-groovy hemp clothing factory are being laid off one by one by the smarmy, dreadlocked owner, Ernesto (Rotimi Agbabiaka), who spouts New Age quotations every time he fires someone. When the very pregnant Sofia (a brilliant Lisa Hori-Garcia) starts feeling labor pains (no pun intended) she sits down, which is somehow interpreted as a sit-down strike. The workers end up occupying the factory. It turns out Sofia knows a lot about worker/management strife: She left her native Argentina after a factory strike there turned violent. Before the two stories converge and conclude, the musical verges on operatic with plenty of Latin fire.
"We're trying to show the two different worlds, so the Argentine side you have the tango," explained Sullivan. "Not to stereotype, but it's more openly emotional than North Americans are. People are passionate about things and not just intellectually."
Passion is evident throughout, and not just in the play. You can tell the troupe is passionate about what it does. Since they are a collective, they share the work: All the actors help set up the stage then break it down and pack it in the red star truck for the next show.
Sullivan admits it's not always easy. "The thing that makes it worthwhile is the fact that we get to say things that other theaters don't say, that the media doesn't say, to kind of combat all of that and take it to an audience of long-time supporters and new folks. People come out and say, 'I've never seen this, but this is my issue.' It's really the audience and the issues that keep us going."
The San Francisco Mime Troupe brings Posibilidad, or Death of a Worker to the Mateel Community Center in Redway Saturday, July 31. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with dinner available. Pre-show music by the Mime Troupe Band begins at 7:30; the play starts at 8. Admission is $22, $20 for MCC members. For further information call 923-3368 or visit www.mateel.org. For more on the Mime Troupe go to www.sfmt.org. For more of the Michael Sullivan interview go to the event listing at www.northcoastjournal.com/calendar.