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For the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the show goes on

Lezak Shallat

San Francisco Mime Troupe has a history of being one of the city's most vocal social critics. This August 7th marks the 50th anniversary of the day they almost fell silent.

On August 5th, 1965, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Commission declared the Mime Troupe’s latest show to be  "obscene, indecent, and offensive."

RG Davis, the founder of the Mime Troupe, explains: "We knew that Recreation and Parks was going to censor us. But we got a permit for 15-20 performances. And after the fourth performance, they said 'we don't like the play. We think it's not appropriate for the parks, and we don't like the content of it, because it's anti-Semitic and it's anti-Catholic and it's anti-anti-anti.' We knew we were going to get arrested if we did this show again. So we went to the park that day, August 7, and it wasn't clear what they were going to arrest us for. "

About 1,000 people were there and not just playgoers. The park was full of  commissioners, lawyers, media and the police.

"And we're all discussing, 'what is it you're going to arrest me for?'" Davis recalls. "'Are you going to arrest us for putting up the platform?' They said yes. I said, 'I don't want to be arrested for that. This is like false arresting.'"

For Davis and the troupe’s fans, the issue was censorship. Tensions were mounting.  As the show was about to begin, Davis improvised - he donned a mask, grabbed a microphone and announced:

"Señor, señora, signorina, madames, messieurs, mademoiselles, ladies and gentlemen, iI Troupo di Mimo di San Francisco presents for your appreciation this afternoon, an arrest! "

Photo courtesy of RG Davis

And as if on cue, Davis flung himself into the arms of the policeman who had stepped forward to arrest him. As the crowd roared, Davis was escorted away, booked for performing without a permit, and released on bail two hours later.

The incident became a rallying cry during the free speech battles of the 1960s.  Benefit concerts to raise money for the Mime Troupe’s legal fees made HaightAshbury history, with bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane lending support.

Today, parks all around San Francisco and the Bay Area host the Mime Troupe.

The show currently being performed is "Freedomland." Despite the slapstick, it's a play about  racial profiling and policing.

"Our audience is mainly made up of people who have questions about the way things are going right now," says playwright Michael Gene Sullivan, who also stars in the show.  "This particular show is definitely bringing in people who may not have seen a Mime Troupe show because this is their issue. They may not think of themselves as particularly political, left, right or center. They just know that this issue is outraging them."

Entertainment is only part of what the troupe does. As Sullivan notes: "We also want them [the audience] to feel like something must be done. That's one of the real tricks in trying to do political theater – to not have the revolution finish on stage. We want to leave something for the audience to do."

Today, people  still gather to see the troupe.

"It’s really great to come out for so many reasons," says Jamie Tibbets. "I mean using our parks and public spaces, getting community together to celebrate the arts."

"We've been thinking about how to talk to our daughter about being multiracial and how to engage with it," says Hillary Sardiñas. "We thought this would give us more fuel to think about it in a different light."

Arnie Passman, now in his 80s, was in Lafayette Park fifty years ago defending free speech. "I remember someone throwing a rock into the performance and me trying to chase the guy down. It's been a love affair ever since."

The Mime Troupe that refused to be silent celebrates another outspoken season in the parks, performing throughout the summer, with final performances in San Francisco on Labor Day weekend.

For the SF Mime Troupe's summer performance schedule, click here

* This piece was produced with help from Catherine Girardeau.

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