Summer, 1966. My cousin and I finished a landscaping job overlooking the San Francisco Bay. I’d made cash for the school year but returning to Cambridge had no place on my event horizon. The San Francisco Mime Troupe was performing the Minstrel Show around Berkeley and Oakland and I was a part of it.
The world shook beneath my feet and I loved it.
I wasn’t acting in the Minstrel Show, but they put me to work playing banjo and singing on the sidelines. I learned to play old Stephen Foster tunes to give the show a racist, doo-dah background. We also did freedom songs and a tune by Nina Simone called “Mississippi Goddam,” with only voices, a banjo, with Vinny on trumpet, and Richard playing snare drum with a high hat.
They put a sketch into the show based on my audition piece, a concentration camp improv. I had gotten the idea from a nightmare scenario James Baldwin had created in The Fire Next Time.
Paul, a black man, played a white cop. Richard and Erroll smeared on minstrel blackface and played two black street guys. Paul didn’t play the cop as a cracker. He played him stiff, humorless, an executive delivering the news to the two black-faced white guys. “You’re not going to be murdered helter-skelter no more,” he’d say. “You people will have the honor of joining your brothers and sisters in the vanguard of Ne-ger-oes in the labor camps.” He finished with “Work will set you free.”
Richard and Erroll began the scene acting jive but pivoted to solemnity once the reality of this black-in-America Final Solution sunk in. They were marched off singing “Work will set you free,” while we chanted “Arbeit macht frei” to banjo and snare drum.
At first, only white people came. Then black people showed up, first in mixed crowds of activists. Add a few pioneering black-and-white couples, gay and straight, and you’ve got a Mime Troupe Minstrel Show audience.
The crowd split in their response. People didn’t know whether to laugh or sit in silent shock. Every night, the actors walked a razor’s edge. Good satire doesn’t reach out to coax you along. It jars you with its sarcasm and cruelty. White people affecting Negro accents and jiving with Negroes onstage caught the audience in a crossfire. They could either stand up and walk out or stick around and try to figure it out.
We did a long finale with music by Steve Reich to accompany a film full of watermelons — people eating watermelons, lying on and in watermelons, chasing water- melons down the street. Blowing up watermelons, stabbing watermelons, taking the guts out of watermelons, rubbing them on naked bodies, dropping them from great heights. The plan was to take the icons of racism to their extremes; the watermelon finale delivered the final note, Reich’s music writhing in and out of Stephen Foster melodies.
We wanted to deal body blows to the system. I felt the power but also the bone-deep abuse that the Man heaps on us all. This little country boy from white New England felt himself internalize what he was creating onstage, like an adolescent who tries to make it real, but compared to what? In the black-and-white fantasy of the Minstrel Show, the world shook beneath my feet, and I loved it.
Vinny and Olivia were booking a tour of the Northwest with the Minstrel Show and a commedia show. After that, they were headed for New York to perform at Town Hall with Dick Gregory! I didn’t dare hope, but Vinny might cast me in the commedia. And with my music chops, I was good for the Minstrel Show. But I hadn’t told Vinny I had another year to finish back at the Cambridge brickyard. When he found out, Vinny dragged me into the office. “Go finish school,” he said.
I found it weird that this radical anarchist was so adamant about a college degree. “Isn’t this the thing to do?” I said. “You know… turn on, tune in, and drop out?”
“Bullshit,” Vinny said. “That’s Tim Leary crap. Drop out and you disappear. That’s for fucking pop stars, and they don’t drop out. They plug in and sell out. Turning on is irrelevant. Get high, don’t get high, I don’t care, just be on time, know why you’re here, and don’t forget the ammunition.”
He walked me to the bottom of the stairs. Nobody else was around. “We commit,” he said. “We engage. We breathe the fresh air of the parks and put on free shows. We take the path. No. We make the path of most resistance. We fight the system.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s why I want to work with you guys. Didn’t you give me a part in the Minstrel Show? You know I can play the music! You know I can act. What good is a diploma from the belly of the beast? It’ll just give me gas.”
“It’s a weapon,” he said. “You run a candy store, you’re a part of capitalism. You run a theater company, you run a candy store. We swim in a capitalist sea. Like it or not, we breathe the air of your beast’s belly. You learn how to think, you can tell the difference between what is and what can be.”
“Even you guys?” I asked. “You’re not capitalists, for chrissakes. You’re political artists.”
“We own the means of production. We don’t own the housing, we don’t own the food, we don’t make clothing, and we drive vehicles and burn gas.”
I’d never thought of it that way.
“And most important,” Vinny said, “We don’t own the means of distribution. We’ve got to hustle our own theater from whatever raggedy-assed network the Left has cobbled together.” He paused and grinned. “Got a solution to that?”
“No,” I said. “But I’m gonna burn a lot of gas humping it back to Cambridge.”
He opened the studio door. “Drop out and you’ll be good for nothing but smoking dope and playing guitars. We got plenty of that. We need certified, bona fide smarties with a license to think. You’re already a smarty. Bordering on a smart-ass. Get your diploma, and you’ll have your papers in order.”
Vinny pulled me out the door, past the bums, past the roar of the Chronicle’s presses rolling out the evening edition. He shoved me into my station wagon and put an arm on my shoulder. “You’re good at this. But for now…” He stepped away from the car. “…beat it. Maybe we’ll see you next year.”
# # #
*Excerpted from my novel Rocked in Time, but close enough to the truth.
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.
Charlie, I just put down Rocked in Time to check today’s Retro stories and there you are!
Am halfway thru the book, bravo!
Thanks, Dana. Your words are encouraging!
Marching the “brothers” to “Work will set you free” gave me chills, but I read on and understood the effect the Minstrel Show was striving for. I understand its allure for you.
But Vinny gave you good advice. Finish the degree. Don’t follow Timothy Leary’s advise. And don’t just be a smart-ass. It is clear that you’ve taken it all to heart and used your smarts wisely and to good effect. And we are richer for your talent. Thank you.
Thanks for your sweet and supportive words, Betsy!
Great advice to finish your degree and then put what you learned to good use. It has set you on a good path in life.
Thanks, Laurie! I don’t recall exactly how deeply I was tempted, but I did return the following year after graduation and jump back in to the theater company. Not without another audition, though. I tell all — and invent much more — in Rocked in Time.
Great story, Charlie, which I remember from Rocked in Time. Love how you say it’s excerpted from the novel “but close enough to the truth”! And I agree with Betsy and Laurie that you made a good choice in finishing college before setting off on more adventures with the Mime Troupe and others.
Thanks, Suzy. Beside the more pragmatic reasons for returning to the Mime Troupe from school, I spent the year, wisely or not, excited by the conviction that I could return to SF and be welcomed back into the theatrical fold. In fact, when I returned after graduation, the whole company had undergone drastic changes, and I had to audition all over again. Made it the second time too, apparently!
As usual, Charles, just a great story about a time long, long ago and very, very weird. And what a brilliant premise for a show — and daring, too, especially at a time when, while minstrel shows might not have been still in vogue (other than in the Deep South or a few brainless jock frat houses), they were also not exactly the subject of satire either. But, as you perfectly put it, “Good satire doesn’t reach out to coax you along. It jars you with its sarcasm and cruelty.”
Also, as has been previously noted (and you clearly agree), Vinny was a very wise man.
Minstrel shows were certainly NOT in vogue as objects of satire in 1966. In fact, when I was in high school, the local chapter of the VFW in my 99% white Massachusetts town put on an annual minstrel show as a fundraiser. I was horrified, my family was horrified, but not all that many of the local townsfolk thought much about it at all. As you say, “…a time long, long ago,” certainly ‘way before the start of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. As might be expected, the most active participants in the VFW minstrel show were also the most vocal anti-communists in town. So imagine my delight at tearing apart racism AND the war with a f**ked-up version of a minstrel show, subtitled, BTW as “Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel.”
Charles, I loved this reflection. We should all be so lucky to have the friend you had in Vinny. Throughout my life, I’ve found that I have a better chance of making a difference if I have the credentials that impress mainstream America. I remember thinking about tossing in the towel before my dissertation was finished because of so many arguments with my faculty committee. But my adviser took me aside one day and said, just make the corrections they want and get the degree. Then you can do it your way. Although that proved to be not totally true, it’s been true enough for me.
The character of Vinny has a real-life equivalent in the theater director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. I count him as one of two mentors in my lifetime, the second one being novelist, essayist John Rechy with whom I studied for 7 or 8 years. I, too, learned the lesson you described above, in a slightly different fashion. After I graduated Harvard, I was active in the radical arts community in a radical time in California and spent several years as a gypsy communard, traveling from collective to collective. I found that my Harvard credentials sometimes prejudiced people against me.
But mostly, I’ve been grateful and realistic about my credentials and have gone so far as to place my B.A. and M.F.A. diplomas on my office wall, as any good bourgeois fellow should. I’m proud of my academic accomplishments, and have used them to good effect in the world.
As regards doing what the man says, as an actor I learned to acknowledge directors’ notes. They’re often valuable and when you’re not, you just nod your head, say ‘got it’ and do what you planned yourself. As far as dissertations are concerned, I had to discipline my advisory committee, many of whom spent a minimum of time reviewing my dissertation and barely read the film script that lay at the core of my degree candidacy in television, film, and media studies.
I was wondering if the tune of “O Dem Watermelons” was recycled years later for a cereal TV commercial (“Oh, those Golden Grahams”). I found this:
Not sure (the tempo is a bit odd) but I think it was. “Oh Dem Golden Slippers” also sounds similar to me. Maybe it’s a trad melody, like Greensleeves?
I think the watermelon song came out of an improvisation session with a bunch of musicians sitting around with guitars and banjos and a sense of what was needed to accompany the dramatic action that had already been filmed.
Sounds like you got good advice, but wonder if it really changed your direction, given that you ended up back with the Mime Troupe. But, with a degree, which you have not regretted, and some excellent stories. A very different story, but I was also in the Bay Area wondering whether or not to return to school, and did end up doing that, and it made all the difference. BTW enjoyed your reference to real compared to what.
Ah, Khati, you and I are — between Bay Area anti-graduation musings to [got to make it real [[snare]] compared to what — brother & sister! I didn’t change direction, true, although I did enjoy knowing (or thinking I knew) that I was headed back to a world of politics and theater. That did help make my final undergrad year quite sweet, thank you very much!
I think I’ve told you that in my “alternate life,” I would have loved to join the Mime Troupe; admired them ever since “General Wastemoreland” showed up at Harvard in ’67 or ’68, and eventually saw them in Boston (Dorchester), Atlanta, SF, and probably a couple other places. So thanks for taking me on a trip down that alternate lane.
The minstrel show was truly edgy. Like watching Dave Chapelle this past weekend on SNL.
Ah that’s great we have parallel trajectories thru that time the Troupe, and its various guerrilla productions. The Minstrel Show was edgy, alright. Acting out all that horrendous language and those transactions sometimes rendered you breathless, shaking, and angry. From the inside. It would have a whole new impact today.