New: Freedomland: One Country Under Guard
Sunday, July 19, 2015
I have my own army in the NYPD—the seventh largest army in the world."
—New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg
"Officers' safety comes first, and not infringing on people's rights comes second."
—Philadelphia Police Spokesperson Fran Healy
Once again, it's time to grab a picnic blanket and head for the parks: The San Francisco Mime Troupe has kicked off its 56th year of "overthrowing capitalism, one musical comedy at the time."
While the current production, Freedomland, may not be the most "entertaining," laugh-out-loud show the troupers have ever staged, it stands out as one of the most thoughtful and sobering. Freedomland is fraught with emotion and analysis. Call it, for want of a better phrase, a "musical tragedy," fueled with a polemicist's intensity, a Shakespearean reach, and a doo-wop dollop of tuneful songs.
Freedomland begins with an introduction into the life of Malcolm Haywood (Michael Gene Sullivan), an aging radical who harbors dreams of revolution that involve his reluctant grandson, Nathaniel (George P. Scott), an embittered soldier recently returned from a combat tour in Afghanistan.
In a bravura performance as the aging, potbellied Malcolm, Sullivan throws his voice into overdrive as he relives his Black Panther glory days and "my time with Huey." In the course of the play, Sullivan bellows, screams, pleads, sings, moans, and quavers—running a vocal and physical gamut that is operatic and gymnastic.
Hugo E. Carbajal), plays Malcolm's upstairs neighbor, Lluis—the Fool to Heywood's Lear. A cheerful illegal immigrant who has managed to evade deportation for 30 years, Lluis skates across the stage like a noodle-limbed marionette dangling from invisible strings.
The play begins with a SWAT team bursting into Malcolm's empty apartment, and waving their pistols and AK-47s at the audience in paranoid agitation. These repeated break-ins become a recurring motif as the story unfolds. It turns out these mistaken "home invasions" (inevitably based on "bad intel" from a Database-that-can-never-be-challenged) are more than a dramatic sideshow. They are, in fact, symptoms of the play's primary focus.
Freedomland rises to an important new level of radical criticism because it chooses to train it's sights on how the police—and the so-called justice system—are employed to control the poor and enrich the powerful.
Even more important, the play offers a well-informed analysis of the psychology of police culture. If you want to know why the police behave like paranoid thugs, Freedomland will spell it out for you.
The appearance of police recruit Emily Militis (Lisa Hori-Garcia) adds a useful nuance to the Police-versus-Populace tensions. Recently returned from military service, Emily is too green to be firmly embedded in the brotherhood of the "Thin Blue Line." She still believes, naïvely, that a police officer's role is to "protect and serve"—not to bully, berate and dominate. (Listen to Hori-Garcia singing "Until There's Order".)
Cynical Police Chief Parker (Carbajal again, this time, taciturn and ramrod straight) can't wait to use the gift of an armored personnel carrier, a battlefield hand-me-down passed along by the Pentagon. But what he really wants is a helicopter. "How can you fight the war on street drugs," he asks,"if you don't have a helicopter?"
Chief Parker is abetted by Mayor Henderson (Sullivan again, in a colorful turn as a flamboyantly compromised sell-out politician who is both Black and pink).
While Freedomland lands a good number of guffaws, many of them arise from the "pained laughter" end of the humor spectrum. There are fewer of the stirring, choreographed anthems that have prompted wild applause in previous Mime Troupe outings. Instead, the somber nature of this production (which, after all, deals with profound issues like freedom and slavery, social justice and racial repression, life and brutal death) requires a greater reliance on powerful solos about regret, longing and loss.
Freedomland works it's way to a brilliant conclusion when Emily, standing proudly in her brass-buttoned police uniform, addresses and audience from the podium and blithely recites the Police Code of Ethics—an almost libertarian credo that stresses fairness, restraint, respect and tolerance. (You can read the complete "Law Enforcement Code of Ethics" below.)
As Emily recites these high-minded standards, Chief Parker can be seen training his new recruits in the fine art of Cop Thought.
"Imagine it is midnight and you are surrounded by darkness," Parker instructs his anxious and frightened-looking officers. (Parker has an unseemly obsession with the idea of "darkness.") As Parker goes about his training, it becomes increasingly clear that the police are being intentionally trained to suspect and fear everyone in the civilian population.
Compounding the problem is the fact that many of the America's new recruits are psychologically damaged soldiers returning from a war in which they have been trained to view everyone in the local population as a potential terrorist, insurgent or threat. (Sullivan reappears here as an over-enthusiastic cadet who can't stop repeating every line from every Hollywood Cop Movie ever made—a brilliant way to expose how broadly the concept of militaristic violence has been inculcated into America's popular culture.)
Freedomland reaches a conclusion that is unusually shocking and somber for a Mime Troupe production. But this is soon offset by an uplifting closing chorus from the four lead actors who trumpet the challenging lyric, "How can you stand a world like this?"
After such a powerful analysis, this concluding anthem offers welcome catharsis. It's clear that the stakes could not be higher. Our country has become a police state. If you travel abroad, you may have discovered that people in other countries clearly see the police problem in United States. They understand, as most Americans do not, why (as one of the characters and Freedomland notes) it's safer to be a soldier in a combat zone in Afghanistan then it is to be a black American on the streets of Baltimore.
After the final bows at the July 11 show in Live Oak Park, Sullivan took to the stage to offer his thoughts (and to allow time for "the actors to surround the audience" with buckets to solicit those much-needed tips and donations). Sullivan's passionate spiel (at one point lamenting how even he, a "law-abiding revolutionary," feels unsafe whenever he has to walk down a street in America) was a bracing mini-production in itself.
As usual, the interplay between the actors' physical comedy and sound effects from the SFMT band was a continuing treat—as was the spirited and eclectic performance of bandmembers Ray Fernandez, Aaron Kierbel and Daniel Savio. And, for the second year in a row, homeboy Ira Marlowe (musical host of Berkeley's Monkey House performance space) provided the music and lyrics for the show's nine whip-smart power ballads.
PS: In his closing rap, Sullivan noted that the Mime Troupe boasts a new truck (and announced a contest to name the vehicle). But the company still needs to raise $30,000 to stage each Bay Area performance. The SFMT website also lists the need to raise an additional $55,000 to break even this year. So the next time the Mime Troupe rolls into a park near you, stuff some cash inside those picnic blankets.
The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics
Published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Code stands as a spirited reminder to the higher order of this calling:
* As a Law Enforcement Officer my fundamental duty is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the Constitutional rights of all men to liberty, equality and justice.
* I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare or others. Honest in thought and deed in both my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the laws of the land and the regulations of my department.
* Whatever I see or hear of a confidential nature or that is confided to me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret unless revelation is necessary in the performance of my duty.
* I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities or friendships to influence my decisions. With no compromise for crime and with relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the law courteously and appropriately without fear or favor, malice or ill will, never employing unnecessary force or violence and never accepting gratuities.
* I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the police service. I will constantly strive to achieve these objectives and ideals, dedicating myself before God to my chosen profession…law enforcement.