Leaflets on 18th Street announcing lectures on Lenin; a poster by Spain Rodriguez; Jimi Hendrix’ quintessential American anthem; no Stars-n-Stripes but a single Red Star in Dolores Park on July 4th.  Acid flashback?  The Memoirs of a Flower Child?

No, it’s July 4, 2009 in Dolores Park and and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Mission’s own global icon, has just kicked off its 50th season entertaining and engaging audiences in their distinctive brand of political comedy all over world.  For Free.

Over 50 years the troupe has had its misses.  The good news is that the play commemorating a half-century of satire, song and socialism is going to be a hit.  The bad news?  You don’t need the Mime Troupe to tell you the bad news; you need to laugh at it, and this year, fortunately, yes, we can.

Too Big To Fail features the Troupe’s strengths: music, exaggerated movement, and a vaudevillian wit aimed at the rich and powerful.  It employs a story-telling device to keep the plot moving.  And it releases the varied and rich talents of the players, who were loose and seemed to be having fun on Sunday– usually a signal for a good theatrical experience.

The laughs, and there are many, are mainly at the audience’s expense.  The way the Mime Troupe explains it, although the insatiable greed and stupidity of the American oligarchy caused our current recession/depression,  the sainted “working class” (represented by Third World peasants in the play, retired hippies in the park) contributed to the catastrophe by wallowing in crazed consumerism.

We’re all in a  post-modern magical thinking mode, bewitched, benumbed and broke – incapable of fighting back.

A poor villager swindled into debt makes a magical journey.

Magical thinking, the theme of this year’s show, has characterized the Mime Troupe since its inception, both as a strength (theatrical) and a weakness (political).   At the end of the play, the Troupe calls for a payment strike – mass refusal to pay credit card, mortgage or any other wildly inflated debt we’ve accumulated over the past 10 years.

On its face, the idea sounds like a left –wing version of the “tea parties” sponsored by Fox News this past April 15.

It might be a good idea, but politics fails to work on magical thinking.  Without the infrastructure of a political organization, a social movement, or the vast communications reach of Fox News, the Bank of America and the Federal Reserve are not loosing any sleep.

So the play, like most Mime Troupe productions, comes to an awkward and unfinished anti-climax. We are surrounded by the players demanding cash, as the fog rolls in again over Dolores Park.

The inability to connect artistic vision and energy to an organized social movement capable of translating the inspiration of theater into politics will always be a problem for the kind of activist theater developed by the Mime Troupe when no such movement exists.  But that’s our fault.  Don’t blame the Mime Troupe for our deficiencies; celebrate the Mime Troupe for its resolve, patience and spirit even if at times it seems more in tune with 1969 than 2009.

It’s been a continuous source of light in dark and darker times; the Mission’s own ambassador to the world for the past 50 years, a homegrown institution of which we can be justifiably proud.

See Too Big to Fail.  Tell your friends and drag your parents, kids or grandkids (!) to the park.  Fill the Mime Troupe buckets with cash.

Upcoming performances below, but a full schedule is here.

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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