by Eddie Reynolds
While the elderly Malcolm Haywood sits on the couch about to bite into his burrito, the door to his Jackson Circle apartment crashes open as three black-hooded police invade with guns drawn shouting, "Malcolm Washington, where is IT?" The department's "database" (accessed Dick Tracy style from the cops' wrists) has mixed up Malcolm's last name and his street's name; and it turns out today's invasion is yet one more in a long line for Malcolm. Living "on the wrong side of town" as an African American is not easy for him or his upstairs neighbor and best friend Lluis Gutierrez, a 30-year immigrant still without proper papers. So scary is his life that Malcolm has developed an elaborate back-story of his past, of the early deaths of his daughter and her husband, and of "The Plan" for a revolution to "infiltrate the army and then turn it on the man"all to protect his grandson Nathaniel, since "the whole system is pointed at young black men." Nathaniel arrives home from his second Afghanistan stint in that army (there because of Grandpa's "The Plan") just as Chief Parker and his police force are upping pressure on the local black community to fight a new drug called SNORF (an obviously fictionalized drug to take the place of soon-to-be-legalized pot). After all, as the Chief sees it, "Without pot, what will I arrest the black folks for?"
Michael Gene Sullivan plays the crusty Malcolm in a Redd Fox manner that is funny, endearing, and alarming all at the same time. Singing with gusto and conviction "There I Was," Mr. Sullivan recounts his fictional relationships with the Black Panthers, a history he uses to legitimize his elaborate plan to save his grandson. With vigor and strong voice, he pushes his just-arrived grandson to just stick to "The Plan," to go back to the army, andin soul-touching chordsjust to "Keep Alive." As grandson Nathaniel, the handsome George P. Scott only longs for a normal life, a little house, and a good job (the American Dream, it seems); but beautifully singing his dream in "All I Want" is not enough in Chief Parker's jurisdiction (the sinister, snake-like, and strong-voiced Hugo E. Carbajal). The Chief is determined to "keep the light side of the town against the dark side," and Mr. Carbajal creates a monster who is clearly only interested in arresting, even killing, as many criminals as possible (with the snarled warning that anyone not a police must always be seen as a potential criminalespecially it seems anyone of color).
Lisa Hori-Garcia is Emily Militis, a new star graduate of the "Police Into the Future" academy. She brings to Emily a desire to do good and the na´ve belief that "the police are always here for you." We want to like Ms. Hori-Garcia's Emily and to hope her voice will win over what she has been taught: "If you want to save people, you got to be able to scare them." But in the end, she too becomes the epitome of "There can be no law until there's order."
Clever casting and outstanding acting versatility highlight the too-permeable boundary between good and evil. Each evil character has its good counterpart (and vice versa). Hugo E. Carbajal does a Jekyll-Hyde switch from the evil Chief to become the lovable, easygoing immigrant Lluis, giving a very human, next-door-neighbor face to the millions of illegal immigrants who must live the same hide-and-seek life we watch Lluis endure. George P. Scott is not only the heroic Nathaniel; he also doubles as a monster luring kids to drugs, singing in gravely, evil voice "The Snorfman." Mr. Sullivan leaves Malcolm behind to become a gun-happy, blood-hungry cadet from Hell. Ms. Hori-Garcia plays both the aspiring-to-be-the-perfect cop as well as Lluis's Latino, fruit stand owner girlfriend Gladys. Watching these switches occur so masterfully is worth the price of a ticket, which by the way (in Mime Troupe tradition) is free!
Manipulating on a temporary park stage the many scene changes between Malcolm's apartment and the police headquarters is not easy, but Keiko Shimosato Carreiro's set changes become part of the story, as ever-present, threatening cops in black camouflage perform the tasks with both vigor and stealth. Michael Bello's music direction of a talented, small band entertains the gathering audience a half hour before the show in the sun and threads the show itself with music that totally works to tell the story.
As audience, we are meant to do something after seeing this excellent political satire. In our own Freedomland, the cast asks us "How can we live in a land, a time, a world like this?" without doing something to change it.
Once again, the San Francisco Mime Troupe has produced an action-initiating play that deserves to be seen far and wide this very summer.
Freedomland continues at numerous Bay Area locations through September 7, 2015. A full schedule of dates, times, and venues is available at www.sfmt.org. Admission is always free, but audience members are encouraged to make a donation at the end of each production.
- Eddie Reynolds