On March 4, 2016 CNN did a report on U.S. Congressman Steve Russell, of Oklahoma, who had just produced his second annual "Waste Watch," a list of all the things he believes Americans would or should, be shocked to find their tax dollars go to. Terrible! Billions of dollars in subsidies for local law enforcement to buy weapons of war! Billions for our government to spy on law-abiding citizens! Billions to subsidize oil companies! Billions upon billions upon billions to bail out bankers! Oh, wait, I'm sorry - the Congressman didn't list any of those things, He's fine with those. What did he pick out on national television?
A quote from Representative Russell's website -" In the past six years, the National Endowment for the Arts has provided over $100,000 to to help finance five stage productions of the San Francisco Mime Troupe." (That's about $16,500 per year. To put this in perspective: in the same six years the U.S. government spent about $500,000,000 per year - or 3 billion dollars - on military marching bands.) "The shows", Representative Russell continued, "include a piece about oppressed workers "occupying" a factory, one about a struggling political theater company debating whether to be "capitalist and alive, or Red and dead," a show dubbed a "wonderfully engaging piece of leftist evangelism" about a rapacious banker and Occupy protestors, in 2014 a critique of the political shortcomings of San Francisco, the "capital of the Revolution," and a 2015 production about how the War on Drugs is really a war on the "Black and Brown community."
"The Mime Troupe," he continued, "whose mimes, for complicated reasons, sing and talk, describes its work as "political satire," and says its characters are "members of social classes: conscious or unconscious participants in the unending wars over land and power and wealth which drive human history." The group sports a red star in its logo, which it says represents its "socialist ideals," calls itself a Collective, and gleefully peppers its language with terms like Comrades and Reds. True to its "ideals," the troupe has long been subsidized by federal, state, and local taxpayers to help finance free performances for San Francisco locals."
Strangely, for a politician, Rep Russell got most of what the Mime Troupe does correct. Yes, the Troupe does talk about class, and power, and wealth. Yes, rather than an artistic director the Troupe is Collectively governed. Yes, their plays are performed free in parks around the Bay Area, and beyond. And yes, they do have a great, big Red Star as a logo. He did, however, forget to mention that the Troupe is 56 years old, has a Tony, several OBIEs, and multiple other awards, and that the Troupe tours across the country and around the world with its particular brand of activist theater. (In fact the Troupe is current planning a Fall 2016 tour of its most recent show "Freedomland," a tragic farce about the police, their relationship with Black men and undocumented immigrants, and how fear and violence is used to keep citizens in check.)
The Representative also didn't mention that the Troupe cut it's teeth during the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties, doing dangerous work that used comedy and farce to underline the gross inequalities of Racism and Sexism. He didn't talk about the shows during the Vietnam War which dealt with the CIA subsidizing its operational funding with involvement in the heroin trade, or the United States governments undermining fledging democracies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to benefit the bottom line of various corporations - but all in the name of "Freedom." He overlooked how the Troupe lampooned the politics of hatred that served - and still serves - as a distraction, dividing the working class, keeping workers fighting amongst themselves rather than fighting together for the benefit of all. He must have missed the shows about how the War On Terror (a lie to begin with) transformed into a War On The Constitution, about how the privatization of our government is not only detrimental to Democracy but also criminally inefficient, or about how Corporate Government has poisoned our water, soil, and air, endangered our children's future, and made all our lives a little poorer and more desperate while enriching those few at the top - rewarding them for successfully living off our labor. He really should come to more shows.
But the Mime Troupe really should thank him for saying they are not silent. Despite its fame this is probably the first time a national audience has been reminded of that since the Troupe won the Tony!
But the question remains: Is this sort of thing tax dollars should be supporting? Free shows dealing with real issues, shows that give citizens information they don't hear from the corporate media? A working-class analysis they are never going to hear from the Boss?
The Mime Troupe thinks this is exactly what tax dollars are for. Not just guns and bombs and bailouts, but the free exploration of ideas essential to our democracy, presented to both entertain and engage, to access the drama and comedy of people's actual lives while activating them to fight for social and economic justice.
All presented free in the parks by world-class actors, designers, writers, and directors. That's what the San Francisco Mime Troupe does.
And perhaps its most revolutionary act? It produces these original plays without corporate sponsorship. The Troupe has always felt that corporate sponsorship can lead to a sort of "don't bite the hand that feeds you" self-censorship at best, or an actual "say one bad thing about corporate America and we'll pull funding" censorship at worst. Think about it: This country went through a terrible economic turmoil a few years ago. Where are all the plays to help citizens get an alternate, non-corporate explanation of what happened? Few and far between, because any theatre that would develop such a play would be risking a loss of funding from their corporate sponsors.
Not the Mime Troupe. They responded immediately with two shows - one about credit debt, and another about collective workplaces. Of course when it comes to funding the Troupe would prefer it if every theatre in America received adequate tax dollar support, giving them all the freedom to tell the stories that need to be told to today's audience. But until that day the San Francisco Mime Troupe will continue - with the help of well-spent tax dollars, and the generous support of its audience across the country and around the world - to present its singular, singing and dancing, working-class analysis in parks and on stages, and for whoever wants to be entertained, inspired, engaged, and activated.
Actually... the REAL question should be... why do they ONLY get $16,500 each year?