Review: Racial profiling gets Mime Troupe touch in ‘Freedomland’
By: Sam Hurwitt
July 8, 2015
A friend's houseguest visiting from out of town stumbled upon the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s latest free show in the park and asked, “Do you know about these commie mimes?” But locals should be familiar by now with the 56-year-old political theater troupe — and yes, for the thousandth time, the Mime Troupe does not do silent pantomime.
Every Fourth of July the collective unveils a new musical satire that tours Bay Area parks all summer, trying to rally public awareness and action around a different pressing issue each year.
This year’s topic is, unfortunately, timely indeed. “Freedomland” is about police targeting people of color, the militarization of the police force, the war on drugs and the disenfranchisement of black voters — all wrapped up into one vicious circle. Written as usual by SFMT resident playwright Michael Gene Sullivan, the play starts as a farcical comedy and turns grim, far darker than most Mime Troupe shows. After all, it’s a deadly serious subject.
Sullivan stars as Malcolm Haywood, a comically exasperated elderly African-American man whose door is kicked in by police every week because of a glitch in their database. The only thing keeping him from being shot by panicky cops is a new recruit named Emily Militis (Lisa HoriGarcia, bursting with innocent idealism), who still thinks she’s there to serve and protect citizens and doesn’t yet see everyone as a potential threat.
Always hanging around Haywood’s apartment is his neighbor Lluis (an amusingly mischievous Hugo E. Carbajal), an undocumented immigrant with a foolproof gambit of deflecting police by putting on a Yiddish accent and inviting them to play pinochle.
George P. Scott plays Haywood’s upstanding young grandson Nathaniel, freshly returned from serving in the army in Afghanistan, and Malcolm immediately starts prodding him to re-enlist. Malcolm, who keeps talking big about his ’60s radical days, says it’s all part of their plan to prepare for the revolution, but his real concern isn’t hard to guess: A young black man is safer on a battlefield overseas than he is just minding his own business at home in the USA.
The small cast of four plays many other parts in the course of the 80-minute show. Carbajal portrays a powerhungry police chief who spreads fear of a new street drug called “SNORF” to provide a pretext for police raids and keep funds rolling in for military-style equipment. Sullivan plays the craven, scheming mayor and a scarily overenthusiastic police cadet who obsessively quotes action movies.
As convoluted as the setup seems, Sullivan’s script is one of his sharper and more focused ones for the company, with deft running gags and a powerful wallop of a reality check lurking under the satirical silliness. The songs by Ira Marlowe are few and largely lackluster, but there’s an appropriately stirring closing number to drive the message home.
Briskly directed by former Troupe member Andrea Snow, the show is high-energy and often hilarious while also serving as a sobering depiction of how entire segments of the population can be automatically seen as a threat because of the color of their skin in this supposedly “postracial” society.
Sam Hurwitt’s theater blog, The Idiolect, is at www.theidiolect.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/shurwitt.