After skipping Palo Alto last year, when it was denied permission to solicit donations at its annual free performances at Mitchell Park, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is back with a new musical, "Seeing Red," and will perform at the Cubberley Community Center Amphitheatre on July 12.
In "Seeing Red," the troupe puts a musical-comedy spin on the history -- and possible resurgence -- of socialism in the United States.
"I was reading an article about the American Socialist Party, about how in 1912 over 1,200 socialists were elected into political office across the country. I said 'Wow, why don't we know this history?,'" the play's co-writer, Rotimi Agbabiaka said of his inspiration for the show. After doing a bit of research, he learned that some regions of the country that are deeply "red" (as in Republican) today were a century ago red in a different way, as strongholds of socialism and progressive ideas.
The protagonist of "Seeing Red" is Bob, a resident of a middle American town devastated by outsourcing and inequality, who's feeling disillusioned on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections. After voting for Obama and then Trump, hoping for positive change, she's now so fed up that she plans on not voting at all. A mysterious stranger offers a time-traveling twist: He shows her what the town was like back in 1912, when folks like her were struggling with surprisingly similar issues, and socialism was seen as a viable alternative.
Bob is able to visit "a time when people really had a hope for the future, when they really believed they could overcome these problems," Agbabiaka said of the era when the U.S. made strides toward labor laws, safety regulations and women's suffrage. While the term "socialism" carries a lot of stigma in the U.S. today, he said, the popular presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders and his brand of democratic socialism has led to a resurgence of interest in possible challenges to "unbridled capitalism."
The show is full of the troupe's trademark irreverent humor as well as songs by Ira Marlowe. The music, Agbabiaka said, includes both modern, rock-influenced sounds and ragtime and military tunes reflecting the 1912 setting.
Creating and premiering a new, original show each year isn't easy.
"It's kind of a crazy thing to do, putting up a brand new musical in a few months," Agbabiaka said with a laugh. "We are nothing if not ambitious." He and his fellow SF Mime Troupe Collective members began discussing possible topics last autumn, with the playwriting in earnest starting in the winter and early spring. Even now, as the premiere dates draw near, the actors and band are learning new songs and scenes as they rehearse. "It's all happening at the same time. It's kind of a madhouse," he said. Agbabiaka is used to it, though, having been with the troupe for around eight years, including working in five shows as an actor.
The venerable (59 years and counting), Tony Award-winning political theater company performs its original shows at parks and public spaces all over the Bay Area each summer. The "mime" in the name refers not to silent pantomime but rather its more ancient use of "mimicking," as the troupe uses satire to address modern issues in a humorous, accessible way. Last year's show, "Walls" tackled immigration and "Schooled," the 2016 musical, took on the public-education system.
Agbabiaka said the group is very glad to be back in Palo Alto, where it's performed for the past decade. By booking the outdoor space at Cubberley instead of Mitchell Park (and thus not using dedicated parkland), the troupe is permitted once again to ask for donations in order to help with expenses, including paying the actors and musicians and to keep the performances free to the public.
"I hope that ('Seeing Red') will be a reminder that the path toward progress is a long one -- a steady march for centuries -- and to keep pushing for that change, for a brighter future," Agbabiaka said. "We're hoping that just like our protagonist, audiences discover a new way of seeing 'red;' new ways of looking at some of the issues."
What: "Seeing Red."
Where: Cubberley Community Center Amphitheatre, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Thursday, July 12; music starts at 6:30 p.m. with play to follow at 7 p.m.
Cost: Free (donations accepted).
Info: Go to SFMT.