Politics, humor, and a dash of boogie

When the San Francisco Mime Troupe opened in Boston recently, they were greeted with an auditorium papered with ``Stop Union Busting'' banners and audience cries of ``Long Live US Workers.'' Not your average theater-going audience. But then, this 17-member, California-based troupe is not your average theater company.

In the 26 years since the troupe's inception during the early days of the '60s student uprisings, it has rigorously pursued its particular artistic aesthetic -- a rebellious, irreverent, and infectious blend of agitprop and commedia dell'arte.

Their most recent work, ``Steeltown,'' is a musical about United States plant closings that is as critical of unions as it is of corporate America. Now on a seven-week East Coast tour, the musical has a score that runs to such numbers as ``Stand'n With the Union'' and ``National Defense Boogie,'' and a book that belts out as much political agitation as popular entertainment.

After a quarter-century of performing such left-wing ``guerrilla theater'' in parks, rented halls, and on college campuses, here and abroad, the San Francisco Mime Troupe has become America's oldest and best known political theater. (The name is actually an anachronism; the troupe abandoned silent mime years ago.)

The past recipient of two Obie (Off Broadway) Awards -- one given in 1967 for ``uniting theatre and revolution and grooving in the park'' -- the company is currently slated for a coveted and, for this staunchly antiestablishment troupe, controversial $90,000 ongoing ensemble grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Such recognition has added cachet to the doggedly independent group. It has also imposed new professional demands. The nation's most durable political theater now finds itself en tering a new era: maintaining its original commitment to socially relevant entertainment in the face of shifting economic and political conditions.

``We'd gone about as far we could go being funky,'' says Joan Holden, a senior troupe member, chief playwright, and author of ``Steeltown.'' ``[Accepting] the NEA grant was basically a question of [financial] survival. There hasn't been a major political change, just a new reality.''

``It does not mean the death of anarchy,'' says Dan Chumley, another longtime troupe member during a recent post-performance interview. ``We are still commited to attacking the contemporary issues and showing people you can live life with a purpose.''

Such ideological vigor has long been a staple of the company whose past shows, including ``Last Tango in Huahuatanago,'' ``Eco-Man,'' ``The Independent Female,'' and ``High Rises'' have decried US intervention in Central America, pollution, male chauvinism, and urban renewal, respectively. The more recent ``1985,'' performed outdoors at last year's Democratic National Convention, urged audience members to vote.

Since the troupe's inception in 1959 under the direction of Ronnie Davis, a student of French mime Etienne Decroux, the company has prided itself on being at the forefront of social and political issues. The 1967 touring production of ``Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel'' was considered among the artistic vanguard of the civil rights movement. While director Davis left the company in 1970 and the troupe evolved into a collective, the agitprop remained.

Today, however, that political verve is being tempered with a new commitment to artistic professionalism. ``We've always been taken seriously message-wise. Just by very few people,'' says Mr. Chumley. ``The art must [now] be good.''

To that end, ``Steeltown'' is the troupe's most subtle show in terms of message, and its most ambitious -- and successful -- in terms of artistry. The 2-act musical includes a 6-person cast, a 5-member band, 21 scenes, and 9 songs, several of which are choreographed. Confronting union-management relations in two separate decades -- the 1980s and 1940s -- ``Steeltown'' cranks up the volume -- and the politics -- with its foot-tapping numbers. Musical genres range from blues to swing, with the Andre ws Sisters-style ``National Defense Boogie'' and the percussive, ``People Make the World Turn'' by far the most successful. The book is heavy on the intricate plot details -- some of which are unnecessarily convoluted -- but the politics and humor come through loud and clear. This is helped in no small way by good performances from the principals, including Chumley, Joan Mankin, Audrey Smith, and Wilma Bonet.

The author explains the company's commitment to musical comedy. ``People don't like to be preached to; comedy disarms them,'' Holden says. ``Musical theater is the `people's culture,' '' explains Chumley. ``The trick is finding stories on top of the [political] topics,'' adds Eduardo Robledo, one of the troupe's songwriters-cum-actors and former member of El Teatro Campesino (Farmworkers Theater), a 20-year old spinoff from the mime troupe.

To keep costs down and artistic quality high, the company pared itself to the current 17-member staff several years ago. (At the same time a nonsexist, multiracial hiring quota was instituted.) However, the company's annual budget now approaches $600,000. Of that, more than half must be earned from ticket revenues. As a consequence, the troupe faces an increasingly ambitious performance schedule. One major new musical is written, produced, and toured every other year, while a second, smaller

show premi`eres each summer in San Fransisco's Golden Gate Park, the company's original performing space. In addition, every performer does double-, even triple-duty as a writer, director, musician, or member of the road crew. Salaries are at an all-time high: $190 a week, up from a $25 a week a few years ago.

Although the company has been criticized for functioning as blatant ``cheerleaders of the left'' and performing only to sympathetic audiences, cast members insist that ``Steeltown'' has received no offical union backing. ``Lots of workers have seen it,'' says Holden, ``but none have officially supported it.''

Admittedly, however, it is that politically liberal spectrum that best characterizes the troupe's audience. ``Our theory is that the US has always had a strong leftist tradition. Look at Eugene V. Debs,'' says Chumley, who unabashedly cites one of the company's goals, ``to radically alter the economic system of the US.''

Then, like any businessman on an out-of-town trip, Chumley excused himself and headed off for some shopping at Filene's Basement.

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