Speaking Their Mimes
At 40, a San Francisco troupe still has (sometimes radical) things to say on topics from racism to--tonight in Long Beach--health care.
Zan Dubin, Times Staff Writer
July 17, 1998
In 1968, during the depths of the Vietnam War, the San Francisco Mime Troupe was banned from Cal State Fullerton because administrators feared the agitprop group would incite antiwar violence, according to one retired professor.
"These were very troubling times on college campuses," where protesters railed against the war, James D. Young, who ran the school's theater department, said this week.
Activists at Cal State smashed windows and set a building on fire, Young recalled, and while these incidents were not linked to the mime troupe, which has used words for most of its 40 years, its plays "made antiwar statements."
No argument there, says Dan Chumley, a veteran member of the Tony Award-winning ensemble, appearing at Cal State Long Beach tonight.
"We had just come back from a tour of 'L'Amant Militaire,' which encouraged people to resist the draft," Chumley said. "But basically the company was banned because it had a way of sparking crowds. [Founder R.G.] Davis would say, 'This is your world, your college; if you don't like it, you have to change it, and if you can't change it, you have to destroy it.' '
Two years later Davis left the troupe (which was also eventually invited back to Cal State Fullerton), but it nonetheless got kicked off other campuses around the same time and made headlines for obscenity and charges of pot possession.
All that simmered down, but the company has never stopped firing their own social and political salvos with a raucous mix of satire and slapstick enacted by raffishly costumed, singing players accompanied by live music and boom!-bash!-blam! sound effects.
Dancer and mime Davis (now an environmental activist in San Francisco) created the company in 1959 as an extension of the experimental San Francisco Actors Workshop. Its first few works were wordless, but early on Davis adapted a commedia dell'arte style, employing the essence of mime--character portrayal.
In recent years, the troupe has taken on such dicey issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, landlord-tenant struggles and racism. Its newest farce, "Damaged Care," to be performed tonight, lampoons America's health-care system.
"We've made health care into a commodity" instead of a service, said Chumley, 51, who has been the collectively run company's principle director since 1970. "A service is something you give. A commodity is something you sell."