“Not enough. Not enough people,” says Damian Landless. “Capitalism is collapsing all over of the world. Greece. Rome. Iceland. Oakland. But everyday this camp gets smaller—and encampments across the country abandoned. What will happen to our sinister crop for economic justice? Where will we find an audience who will agree with our ‘evil’ plan to replace corporate dictatorship with what’s best for the people?”
Landless flares his bodylength coat as he marches across the stage. “We are not enough,” he continues. “If we are going to undermine the 1 percent we have got to remind our fellow Americans that our real enemies aren’t other nations or religions or each other, but those who profit while we fight amongst ourselves and that our only hope is for all of us to Occupy the nation! Shhh. Someone’s coming.”
An elderly couple—hunchbacked, carrying protest signs—takes over the stage, representing two protesters joining a giant throng of shouting people:
“Capitalism sucks! Capitalism sucks!”
“Down with the 1 percent! Down with the 1 percent!”
“Power to the this! Death to the that! Seems like a lot of trouble. I don’t know how this is gonna stop the foreclosure,” says the male member of the couple to his wife as they approach the rally.
“Don’t worry Mr. Puffy. We’ll find work to pay it off,” she replies.
“Where? The factory closed. After 30 years of working in the munitions plant. Making weapons to keep America safe—and what did we get?” Mr. Puffy says.
“They couldn’t pack us up and take us with ‘em to Uzbekistan,” Mrs. Puffy says.
Landless, who has been watching from the wings, chimes back in. “Soon the people will build a new country, where there are no bosses and everything’s free,” he says.
“Free?” the couple replies with a long breath.
“That’s right,” Landless says firmly. “Free housing. Free colleges. Free healthcare. All for the people and all paid for with taxes.”
“Taxes?” both cry out.
“Not your taxes,” Landless assures them. “Taxes on the rich. Taxes on corporations. All we have to do is raise their taxes and we can have everything we want. Now back to the picket lines.”
He stands before the couple. “Whose streets?” he yells.
“Our streets!” their voices reply.
It’s Wednesday night, and just over a hundred people had filed into Lakeside Park—just off of Bellevue Avenue—to see The San Francisco Mime Troupe perform “For The Greater Good, or The Last Election” during its annual run through the city. The play transformed the Occupy protests into a melodrama. Its narrative, filled with the tensions of Occupy—protests, an encampment, and death—also played on morality and the nature of fate.
R.G. Davis, a dancer and mime, founded the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1959 as an actors’ workshop. The troupe’s early performances focused on movement with visual art and music. Two years later, Davis began to use commedia dell’ arte—the theater of the Italian Renaissance—leading to spoken movement-based acts. They became famous for their leftist political commentary and satire as early as 1967, satirizing the Vietnam War. Operating as a collective theater well into the Reagan, Bush and Obama presidencies, the new generation of troupe members—based in San Francisco’s Mission district—continues to satirize hotly debated issues: the disillusion of the country’s left, America’s relationship with “big oil,” U.S. military aggression, and, of course, Occupy.
Passersby, many of them taking their kids to the nearby playground, were surprised to see a talking and politically charged “mime” show on Wednesday. “I was expecting white painted faces, black uniforms and jazz hands,” says James Milner, an Oakland resident who was standing in the crowd with his 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
The troupe comprises six members—Velina Brown (playing Lucy Fairweather), Ed Holmes (Gideon Bloodgood), Lisa Hori-Garcia (Alida Bloodgood/Mrs. Puffy), Keiko Shimosato Carreiro (Mrs. Fairweather), Victor Toman (Jack Badger/Mr. Puffy), and Reggie D. White (Damian Landless)—and doesn’t go the route of silent pantomime. Their free shows—often performed in public parks—are designed to touch a person’s nerves while bringing on a lot of laughs, too.
A part of the play’s inspiration comes from “The Poor of New York,” an 1857 melodrama by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault. Michael Gene Sullivan, the writer and director of “For The Greater Good,” employs Boucicault’s villainous character, Gideon Bloodgood, a banker who is unscathed by his failing bank during the financial panic of 1837. But that is where most similarities end between the two. In Boucicault’s play, justice falls in line with Aristotle’s Ethics—absolute justice is reciprocity. At the end of “The Poor of New York,” the corrupt man of money is brought down.
In Sullivan’s play—first set in the year 1987—Bloodgood is dealing with an economic downturn and the aftermath of embezzlement. Captain Algood Fairweather, a soldier, enters Bloodgood’s bank to make a $2.5 million deposit for his wife and his daughter, Lucy. He’s given a receipt before leaving the bank, but returns promptly. His wife wants him to put the money in a credit union. But Fairweather dies from a weak heart before he can give his final instructions for the money.
Bloodgood, the banker, is left with a decision: Give the money to the Fairweathers or use it to restore the nation’s faith in the free market by using the money to restore his investors confidence, balance his books, and “cheat the big government watchdogs who are trying to destroy America.”
He chooses the latter. Badger, a character who works for Bloodgood and serves as the play’s narrator, witnesses his “moral dilemma.” The receipt—pocketed by Badger—is proof of Bloodgood’s wrongdoing.
After the players act out this initial drama, other troupe members take over the stage with a “25 Years Later” sign, teleporting the audience—and the characters—into the heart of the current Occupy protests and healthcare debate.
Mrs. Fairweather, the captain’s widow, doesn’t know the details of her lost fortune and depends on social programs to survive. Her daughter, Lucy, is serving in the military and hasn’t learned of her mother’s plight. Mrs. Fairweather joins the Occupy protest and moves into an encampment. Landless, an Occupy protester, learns that Lucy entered the military after 9/11 and wants her to become the face of Occupy when she comes home by becoming a leader for the group.
Meanwhile, Bloodgood wants his daughter, Alida, to take a Congressional seat once she returns from studying in Europe. “Who better to give voice to the downtrodden corporations then the heir to the Bloodgood fortune?” he asks. “If only her mother—M something or other—could have lived to see it.”
The troupe moves through several more scenes: Lucy returns home but refuses to be the face of Occupy, declaring capitalism to be good, pure and the average American’s best friend. She vows to be an American success. Meanwhile, Alida turns against her father, wanting to embrace the world, and leaves to join the Occupy protests.
Lucy finds her way to Bloodgood, the richest man in town, but doesn’t know the Bloodgood fortune is her father’s money. Landless also makes his way to Bloodgood’s home, too, where he sees Alida, “a rich girl turned revolutionary” and decides to make her the leader of the protest movement rather than Lucy.
Alida is eager to join the Occupy camp. “I’m leaving this mansion of oppression—move!” she tells her father.
Meanwhile Badger, who hopes to blackmail Bloodgood in order to get money to tour the world, decides to approach Mrs. Fairweather with the truth about what happened to her husband’s fortune. “Years ago, in this very room, something terrible happened—a crime, a dead solider, $2.5 million,” he tells her. “I never told anyone the true shocking story of what happened that night.”
“Badger!” Bloodgood yells, hoping to shut him up.
“If you don’t make a deal quick, Bloodgood, Justice Department here I come,” he replies.
But Lucy intervenes. “Wait a minute,” Lucy interrupts. “Are you about to betray your employer?”
“Unless he pays me off,” Badger says.
“Blackmail! You villain!” Lucy shouts. “It’s criminals like you, blowing the whistle on the innocent mistakes of their honest employers, that make people lose confidence in the system.”
“But look at this receipt,” Badger cries, trying to show its connection with her father. “It’s from Bloodgood!”
“I will not look at this receipt of lies about this great man,” she says firmly. “Whatever the receipt is, I’m sure you’ve twisted it for your whistleblowing blackmail purposes.”
As the play continues, Lucy goes on to become the next member of Congress—making the ballot without a primary with Bloodgood’s help—while her mother and his daughter continue to live at the Occupy camp. Meanwhile, Alida (who changes her name to Tanya) becomes the fresh face of the Occupy movement. Ghosts of the past begin to haunt Bloodgood, and he hopes to win back his daughter’s love.
Things take a turn for the worse in a scene set at an Occupy camp. All of the characters, including the narrator, show up on the stage at the same time, but freeze between connected scenes: Bloodgood trying to speak with his daughter, Lucy trying to teach her mother that rebellion and revolution is un-American, Landless panicking that people might buy Lucy’s rhetoric. A fire breaks out in the camp, and while the whole camp is in flames, everyone is searching for their loved ones.
The play reaches its climax when Mrs. Fairweather, aware of her stolen fortune, meets Bloodgood face-to-face with Lucy.
“You’re the man who stole my husband’s money. Mr. Badger told me the truth!” Mrs. Fairweather says.
“What?” Lucy cries.
“All those years living in poverty while you lived in luxury,” says Mrs. Fairweather.
“Luxury? No!” Bloodgood says, “I am an investment banker. I did that for the greater good. And isn’t that what Captain Fairweather fought for in El Salvador? Zaire? Nicaragua?”
“But I believed you were an honest man,” says Lucy. “I thought you were decent and fair.”
“Lucy, there are some things in this world that are more important than honesty and fairness,” Bloodgood says.
“Like what?” Lucy and her mother ask.
“The free market,” he replies.
Lucy hesitates about whether or not to forgive him. “Daddy, is this the right thing to do?” Lucky asks, looking towards the sky. “Sacrifice everything for the free market?”
“Yes. Lucy! Yes it is!” a heavenly voice cries.
“Then I forgive you,” she says to Bloodgood.
“Then you won’t be needing that receipt,” he says.
As the play’s actions come to an end, it’s revealed that Badger set the fire, which is blamed on Landless. As a reward, Bloodgood makes him the campaign manager to “lead Lucy to glory in this last election.”
Alida, however, has perished. “Yes, very tragic,” Bloodgood says. “But then she had gone to the other side and sometimes sacrifices…”
“Fucker!” Someone in crowd can’t resist screaming during the line.
“… have to be made,” Bloodgood continues, “for the greater good.”
“So that’s our story…the people united will always be defeated,” the narrator begins to conclude, but suddenly there is screaming about Landless, who has escaped.
“Don’t worry he will be caught,” the narrator tells the audience reassuringly. “Anyone who fights the system will be caught.”
The play ends as all the troupe members—still in character—file onto the stage to give heroic speeches filled with campaign jargon about the value of a free market and capitalism, which are meant to cause the audience to question the words they’re left clapping over.
The audience, many of them standing, cheered and hollered before making their way out of the park. Several troupe members grabbed buckets to collect donations for the free show.
“I’ve always wanted to see the San Francisco Mime Troupe,” said Heather Hitch, who attended with her 3-year-old daughter, Sophia. “My husband and I both lost our jobs recently. So, we’re both unemployed. I’m eight months pregnant and I completely believe in the cause.”
Hillary Near has been coming to see the troupe for the last four or five years. “I live around the corner, so it’s a good chance to have a picnic and see a musical,” she said. She brought her neighbors and friends along. “It’s anarchistic theater—they always have a contemporary take on what’s going on. It seemed like they had more wigs last year.”
“Some people miss the irony of the thing, the switch of the hero,” said Holmes—who played Bloodgood—after the show. He points out that in the original “Poor People of New York,” Bloodgood was portrayed as a villain right off the bat. “He wore a tall black stovepipe hat. A big mustache. So, he was instantly the villain,” Holmes said. “Michael Sullivan wanted to play with that format—take it, play it around, and change it. This is a play from the one percenters view. This is how they think.”
Holmes knew that irony would stir the audience, especially if they were Occupy protesters. “I was hoping that some Occupy people would show up—and they did,” Holmes said with excitement. “I just talked to a batch. They loved it. They very much enjoyed the show and they’re going to spread the word. The show is fun to do and getting good response—people come and talk to us in the end. ‘They’ll say, ‘Wait a minute. What are you meaning here?’”
You can find out more about the troupe and view their performance schedule here.