I am not normally a theater critic. I should just say that right up front. But on this Labor Day, I thought it would be appropriate to write about a play I saw this summer. I was invited (by fellow Huffington Post blogger Michael Gene Sullivan) to a performance of the San Francisco Mime Troupe's recent production, POSIBILIDAD, or Death of the Worker a few weeks ago, and caught their performance in a local park. The play, written by Sullivan, is a brilliant work, combining tragedy and humor to make a very pointed argument for thinking outside the box on the state of Labor and jobs today.
The play is unabashedly Leftist, in the classic meaning of the term. It tells two parallel stories of factories facing shutdowns, and the possibilities open to them; one from modern-day San Francisco and one from a few years ago in Argentina, and it manages to link these two stories in a very personal way through the lead female character.
And yes, it has dialogue. It's not a completely-silent "mime show," as one might think from the thespian group's moniker. It also has music, which is actually one of the high points of the show, as the musicians range over an enormous breadth of musical styles, varying from New Age to a telenovela soundtrack (and everything in between), seamlessly and perfectly on cue.
All around, the technical aspects of the show were equally impressive. The show I saw was performed outdoors, with a portable stage which was smallish but unbelievably versatile and ingenious in its use of the limited amount of space. The actors all played multiple roles, and the costumes were so good it seemed the cast was much larger than six people. The different characters were portrayed so well, in other words, by both the actors and their wardrobe changes, that it was hard to even recognize that the same actors were playing these very different roles.
As I said, the plot is a tale of Labor, where the workers are pitted against a boss who has sold out his family's factory to a corporate master. In an only-in-San-Francisco twist, the boss is a dreadlocked peace-love-and-flowers type who (when it gets right down to it) truly only cares about his own creature comforts -- and not so much about the workers turning out his hemp fiber clothing. This is not your 1930s mine owner, in other words, but a much more updated concept of the "big boss." This provides many opportunities for comic relief, as well.
The show is a rollercoaster ride emotionally, as it does indeed have many very funny moments in it, but also tells the personal tragedy of one woman's previous experience in the struggle of Argentine workers to take over a factory and keep it running when the capitalist owners try to shut it down (based on a true story). The action alternates back and forth between the South American story to the San Francisco factory, where the workers have -- almost by accident -- occupied the factory in order to keep it from being shut down. The pace of the plot does slow down a bit in the middle, as both these stories play out, but it picks up again to build to a rousing finish.
Towards the end, the play manages to even poke fun at the way Leftist movements sometimes can become victims of their own success, when it comes time for the workers to decide how to actually run the place. But the conclusion is definitely worth waiting for, although I won't spoil things by saying any more.
I spoke with Sullivan after the show, and asked him what inspired him to write the play. He mentioned the story of the Bruckman Textile Mill in Buenos Aires (which is told within the play), and also of the Illinois workers who recently occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory -- just to get their severance pay. He expressed frustration with how this protest played out, since the workers were only trying to get the pay they were entitled to after their factory was shuttered -- while the company moved the equipment to a newly-purchased non-unionized factory. "If the bosses can't run the place when they're making money, then they don't deserve to run the place," said Sullivan.
When asked what he was hoping to accomplish by writing the play, Sullivan said, "I think for me, what I want from the audience is to question themselves. So much of the American working class has a limited view of change. We struggle for a seat at the table, but we don't realize we built the table, and no one else would be there without us. We shouldn't be fighting for a seat at the table, we should be fighting for the table." When I asked about the Argentinean story within the play, Sullivan responded, "Each year we try to create a show that is going to be challenging to the audience. Right now, we are trying to rebuild the economy. Central and South America has already gone through this," and he pointed out that we should be learning from their example in how to take on the "corporate bastards."
As I said at the beginning of this piece, I'm not a theatrical reviewer. If I was, I probably would have written this at the beginning of the S.F. Mime Troupe's season, instead of at the end (there are only a few more scheduled performances of the show, in the next few weeks). But there's a reason for highlighting the show today, on Labor Day. And that is that the show has been invited to take part in a large Union centenary effort next spring, as part of a national memorial movement for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (which claimed 146 lives almost one hundred years ago, in a New York City sweatshop).
So, if you are a member of a Union (especially if you're an officer or hold other clout with your Union), urge them to extend an invitation to the San Francisco Mime Troupe to perform POSIBILIDAD, or Death of the Worker. While the Troupe will be participating next spring, the details of where exactly they'll be performing will depend on the invitations which are extended to them. And I heartily recommend the play, even though it's not specifically about Union organizing in nature. Because I'm confident that any Union lucky enough to see this performance will enjoy the message nonetheless. Sullivan summed this message up as: "The job is not to make profit, but to make jobs." Which, as it turns out, is an excellent way to wish everyone a "Happy Labor Day" this year as well.
[Full Disclosure: I was personally invited to attend this performance of POSIBILIDAD, or Death of the Worker by the playwright. It was a free show, where they asked the audience for donations at the end. To avoid any possible conflict of interest, I donated five bucks, which seemed to be about the average donation, from what I could see.]
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