Breitbart Mime Troupe Freakout Tests NEA Funding Assumptions

In its 58th year, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is caught in what I would describe as an extended aesthetic rut. The company delivers a variation of the same show year after year: a kind of longform Saturday Night Live sketch with a more robust leftish agenda.

The Troupe’s shows are more a summer ritual gathering than a place for theater. The productions go up and down in quality. Thanks to Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe’s direction, this year’s offering, Walls, zips along for the first half-hour or so. But the experience ultimately feels like most other Mime Troupe productions -- you’ve seen and felt it all before.

So when Breitbart News, basically scavenging the work of the Free Beacon, flipped out last week over the Mime Troupe receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) (“Trump NEA grants $20k for lesbian illegal alien musical") the online publication got at some uncomfortable truths. Perhaps the most pressing question the article raised is, what do we expect from political art, and art that is partially funded by the government?

Both the Breitbart article and the one it filches from in the Free Beacon hew to the facts, for the most part. They quote from the show's press release, have a clear sense of what Walls is about, and demonstrate an understanding of the Mime Troupe’s mission. What these publications object to is the notion of support, primarily financial, as well as the simple act of giving credence to anything they deem un-American.

In a basic way, the mere existence of the Mime Troupe is a threat, a counter-vision that is so destabilizing that a $20,000 grant is treated as a bankrupting of the entire economy, to say nothing of the nation's soul. The Breitbart headline -- “lesbian illegal alien musical" -- says it all. But what’s damning about it all is how the Mime Troupe takes such potent, promising material and churns it into indifferent mush.

The outline of Walls is promising, and asks serious questions about national policies and personal responsibility. Zaniyah Nahuati, a young Mexican woman, has crossed over to the United States and has been hiding in her lover’s apartment. That she's a lesbian and her partner Mary is an ICE agent is just the beginning of a series of farcical mishaps that cut to the heart of our national immigration policy. It's not just President Donald Trump's way of doing things that comes under scrutiny in the show, but also the policies of former Presidents Obama, both Bushes, and Clinton.

The setup is by far the most effective aspect of Michael Gene Sullivan’s script. Mary is essentially two citizens: a private one who wishes to protect the illegal Zaniyah, and a public one who is sworn to track her down, turn her in, and escort her back to Mexico. And so this is a love story between a person without legal standing and another split between law and desire.

Great farce moves so fast that we can barely keep up with it. But in Walls, all the comic bits, minor characters, and overly long set-ups to obvious jokes slow down the action. Rather than concentrate on the lives of people living in complex times and how they negotiate them, we end up numbed by a narrative we’re light years ahead of. Scenes that should fly by go on and on to less and less effect.

If the set up offends Breitbart and the Free Beacon, the follow-through should offend all those who dream of an engaged political art, one that’s funded, free, and alive to the world. There should be more to an offending vision than its mere presence.

'Walls' runs through Sep. 10 at various outdoor locations throughout the Bay Area. Tickets are free. For information on show times click here.