Mercury News

Back story: Michael Gene Sullivan on San Francisco Mime Troupe's irrepressible brand of political theater
By: Karen D'Souza
June 22, 2012

Michael Gene Sullivan and his wife, Velina Brown, never wonder how to mark the Fourth of July. As stalwarts of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, they always celebrate the holiday by bringing political theater to the people.

The Tony Award-winning troupe has been staging left-wing parables, free of charge, in Bay Area parks since 1959. The company has a long-standing reputation for thumbing its nose at the powers that be -- which it will, no doubt, live up to in "For the Greater Good, or The Last Election," a lampoon of the life of the 1 percent, directed by Sullivan and featuring Brown as a member of the cast. It opens at 1:30 p.m. Independence Day in San Francisco's Dolores Park. (See the complete performance schedule at

Sullivan recently took a few minutes to discuss art, politics and why he sees dissent as the height of patriotism.

Q Do you still hope to foment revolution through musical theater?

A When it comes to bringing about revolutionary political change, theater -- even musical comedy -- is only a piece of the puzzle. Theater is a dramatization of the questions and inconsistencies the audience already feels in a society. Issues of injustice that the citizenry experience personally or read about are dramatically analyzed, put in social context and sometime set to song, but any political piece requires the audience to already feel the tension between the way things are and the way things should be. Our job is to entertain them with possible answers and fire them up to change the world.

Q Are you closer to your goals than ever, given the rise of Occupy movement?

A The Occupy movement is a great expression of real populism -- the people reminding our elected employees that they work for us, and if they want to work for corporations they should quit government and start sending out résumés. If that doesn't get us closer, our democracy is doomed.

Q How has the rise of a popular protest movement impacted the troupe?

A The troupe has always seen itself as a populist theater. We are presently working with Occupy locals around the country to stage our radical, worker-oriented adaptation of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at encampments this winter. Our mission has always been to bring radical theater to the people, to entertain and encourage them in difficult times and, hopefully, put a smile on their faces as they kick oppression's butt.

Q Is it almost too good to be true that so many people are now alert to issues of class and democracy?

A When people start accepting that there has been a class war going on for decades but only one side has been fighting, when they realize that the corporate media is the mouthpiece of their enemies, when people stop letting race, sex, sexual orientation or just petty differences divide them from their fellow workers -- that will be almost too good to be true. Almost.

Q Why is the "Last Election" the story you wanted to tell right now?

A The play is really about living in a time of such obvious crimes by the American corporate aristocracy, but still having them portray themselves as innocent victims of an overly regulated system.

Q Why is the Fourth of July the perfect time to open the Mime Troupe season?

A What could be a better way to celebrate our nation than celebrating free speech and dissent, and challenging the powers that be? Is there any doubt that Ben Franklin would be a Mime Troupe fan?

Q What should people know about politics in America that they don't?

A That not participating politically is like not helping to bail water out of a sinking ship; if the ship sinks, your not-involved ass drowns, too. So you might as well help if you can. The highest job in a democracy isn't president; it's citizen. Those jerks work for us, and it's our job to hire the best -- not the richest, or the cutest -- the best. Oh, and that the corporate philosophy is antithetical to democracy. Anybody who says they want to run government like a business is an idiot.

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