That Saturday, I found the park where the San Francisco Mime Troupe had set up under a gray sky, torn ragged blue as the morning sun burned off the fog. The sun warmed the grass. People wandered into the park to lounge on blankets, to sit cross-legged, tipping up green gallon jugs of Zinfandel and Chablis. Nobody brought Gallo. The grape strike was on, and the farm workers would win.
I wanted to join that company.
The Mime Troupe stage consisted of wooden platforms and a painted canvas curtain with bright ribbons floating in the breeze off the wood-framed uprights. Across the top, stretched between the uprights, a hand-painted sign in cartoon gothic announced the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Above the company sign, a medieval griffin held a banner in its beak promising “engagement, commitment, and fresh air.” The stage, the painted curtain and its flags formed a focal point on the green grass in front of the wedding-cake arches, cornices, and towers of a large gothic cathedral, named after Peter and Paul.
Off to one side, a circle of performers beat tambourines and a primitive drum. One of them played a recorder. They sang a song in Italian and danced, dressed in ragged street versions of Shakespearean garb. This scenario played out years before the tidal wave of ye olde renaissance faires engulfed our parks; I’d never seen anything like it.
My eye fell first on a tall, gangly actor with straight, long hair, dressed in red-dyed long johns. A second, stocky actor dressed in tights and billowing pantaloons and a ridiculous silk blouse held a mask while he sang. A dark-skinned woman, older but beautiful, ageless to my young eyes, dressed in a peasant skirt and scoop-neck blouse, danced and beat a tambourine. Her eyes were gigantic, and she sang the way she danced — strong and fluid.
This ragged Troupe pranced onto the stage, singing, the crowd clapping out the tempo. The stage floor became a giant drum, actors’ feet pounding out the beat. They disappeared behind the curtain and the show began. First came a military general dressed in black with a stubby sword. He moved in gallops, like a child pretending to ride a horse. He introduced the play in a phony Spanish accent.
The beautiful servant girl joined him onstage where they performed a hip, updated vaudeville routine full of gags about local politicians, drugs, and the Vietnam War. I got it. They had brought the 16th century into the present, and they were playing in the marketplace to the peasants. They were crude and funny and very tight, each character taking on specific postures and movements. They spoke in purposely broad Spanish and Italian accents, caricatures of all classes.
Another actor played a fop and a phony philosopher, a doctor, and an imaginary invalid all in one, like in a Molière play. A second woman played the ingénue, and a harlequin clown played a lovestruck servant. Two uniformed characters played grunts in the occupying army, the Italian military. I sat on the grass, leaned back on my elbow, and laughed.
Everybody wanted to get rich. Of course, they were forced into the narrow confines of their lowly serf and merchant classes so they could only steal from each other. The olive-skinned servant girl was the most powerful in the cast, the only character searching for the truth.
The beautiful servant girl won out in the end, getting the last word. She carried the moral — You never get rich by ripping each other off, loving and taking care of your brothers and sisters bestowed the only real wealth, love for even the pitiful buffoon who played the cook. Love them all. “And if you want something done…” She bowed deep, her scoop neck revealing her fine figure. “Do it yourself.” She stood up, flashing a knowing “gotcha” wink and a white, white smile, while the rest of the Troupe danced back onstage for a raucous curtain call.
The audience rose, cheering, whistling, applauding. The whole company leapt offstage and moved among the crowd, shouting, “We don’t take no foundation grants, Bank of America hates us. We give to you, you give to us, brothers and sisters. Give us your money, moolah, smackers, simoleons, shekels, bones, clams, guilt gelt.”
I had been a political animal since childhood, rocketed by my parents left-wing take on history, the world, and the long arm of McCarthyism. But my theater experience had been limited to fairy-tale operettas, a few high-school shots at Gilbert & Sullivan and Oscar Wilde, without any mention of his gender proclivities. College carried me over to the naturalists like Shaw or Ibsen and Chekhov, revolutionary in their day but far removed from the growing tensions of mid-’60s America.
But on that hot Saturday in San Francisco, I watched this ragtag theater company with real acting chops mix bawdy comedy with astute political analysis on a stage that stole from the marketplace theater of 16th-century commedia, purloined the Marxist expressionism of Weimar Germany’s Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and spat it out into the gathering storm of the Vietnam War, racism, and the romance of the Beats.
My mind was blown. For real. The Mime Troupe had, in one afternoon, synthesized my theater animal and my political beast. I shifted into dream gear. What a weapon to wield in civil conflict, to foment cultural crises, to preach laughter and the truth to the clashing communities of wartime America. I was ecstatic! If they would take me, I could make the theater my political work and my political work the theater. I wanted to join that company.
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Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.