I’m delighted to bring you this refreshing interview with San Francisco-based, award-winning actor, singer, director, San Francisco Mime Troupe (SFMT) collective member, and drama professor Velina Brown. Since graduating with a degree in counseling from San Francisco State University, Velina has combined these skills to develop her life and career coaching services through The Business of Show Biz. She also contributes as a monthly columnist to the Theater Bay Area Magazine.
Velina was a principal actor in the 2013 SFMT musical satire Oil & Water, speaking truth to power about the corporate, extractivism fueled, environmental devastation of the Ecuadorian Amazon and the lives of its residents – both human and nonhuman. In this interview, we explore theatre as a platform for socio-political and environmental activism, the revolutionary ethos of the Mime Troupe, and why intersectionality is at the heart of it all. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You have been a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe for 21 years and been involved in over 27 productions. What first drew you to political satire, which the troupe employs?
What first drew me to wanting to work with the company was a show called Seeing Double (1989). If you heard our recent radio plays, Tales of the Resistance, the song that finishes the first episode, “Jade For Hire,” is from this comedy of errors about the Israel-Palestine relationship and the two-state solution. One of my classmates in the Counseling Department at San Francisco State, the late Emily Shihadeh, was one of the main writers for the show. Her family was forced out of the home that had been in their possession for 130 years when the state of Israel was created. My husband was a lead actor, having joined the troupe in 1988, but I didn’t get involved until 1992. When I first saw the show, I was really impressed by the blend of educational and interactive entertainment.
I learned a lot about what was going on in the Middle East from this source because at the time, the discussions people were having were simply, “It’s complicated.” It was a huge project; they went onsite to Israel and Palestine, playing both sides of the bank even though it was potentially dangerous (they received threats for presenting controversial material). There were perspectives contributed from Israelis, Palestinians, Jewish-Americans, and Palestinian-Americans, which represented a broad viewpoint. I was really moved by the powerful combination of witty, humorous scripts, spectacular performance, and music into a holistic package that impacted people’s consciousness and awareness of the world. What started as a one-time experience turned into a thirty-year adventure of mine.
Tell us a bit more about the mission and inner-workings of the Mime Troupe. There is great emphasis on a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multigenerational, democratic vision to unite people across boundaries with artistry and humor. How does this influence the process of making?
People come into the collective with specific skills to contribute. Over time, other talents are developed and expanded to different areas. Our head writer, Michael Gene Sullivan, has 32 years of experience acting and 20 years of experience directing and writing with the troupe. The last head writer, Joan Holden, had a 33-year involvement. With 11 members, the troupe determines democratically what material will function for the next season. Newer member, Marie Cartier, collaborates in writing the clever commercial skits. Daniel Savio, our composer/lyricist, has a lineage of activism through his father Mario Savio – leader of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley. Everyone has a hand in the decision-making process in the sense that collectively, we are all the artistic directors. We decide as a collective. Our process is ever-evolving, discussion-based, writing and rewriting as we act. The troupe creates shows about our burning issues whether environmental justice, elections, racial justice, and economic injustice to ultimately highlight the oppressive profit > people mentality fueled by unbridled capitalism.
A huge part of our mission is the accessibility of our art. Theatre institutions are exclusive/elitist in that not everyone is allowed into the traditional theatre space or able to afford shows. The majority of SFMT performances are free and we mostly perform in public parks, although we do ask for pay-what-you-can donations to support our craft. We often perform in rugged conditions where we strive to be resourceful. It is exhausting, rewarding work. Even though we are a leftist, radical group, we still get critiqued by liberal audiences for “preaching to the choir.” The truth of the matter is that people go see shows where the demographics match their own and each place has its own specific population. We encourage our audiences to venture outside of their spheres of familiarity as the troupe has performed nationally and internationally. We sometimes speak to constituencies who do not share the same mindset as we do, connecting across differences to find common ground. In this way, it is essential to realize that true listening is not the same as agreeing.
That is what attracted me to SFMT. Many people who come to watch us are active, engaged, intelligent global citizens, who want to be part of actual change. They have this innate understanding that no one is free until we all are free. “Who are we and who do we want to be?” We explore these questions interactively to envision the just society we want to see.
Oil & Water, the 2013 environmentally-focused musical show featuring dual storylines tackling corporate extractivism, inspired me to reach out to you regarding this series. Did SFMT connect directly with scientists while composing this piece? What investigations influenced the research?
While we did not go directly to the site, we conducted extensive research during the origination of the material. We gathered a resource list to provide the scientific and experiential background for the writing. The list includes literature – The Tyranny of Oil by Antonia Juhasz, and Blue Gold: The Fight to stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke – that feature a relationship between the pursuit of oil, water privatization, and clean water access.
We are not environmental scientists – we are artists who are progressively showcasing social issues from the perspective of the working class. If we feel that an issue is especially pressing to those who have to work for a living, we reach out to experts in the appropriate fields and ask them to come talk with us.
We host talkbacks and panels after each show so that the public can interact with experts and organizing leaders, and ask questions. SFMT reaches out to activists to offer our performance space as a platform for publicity and an effective organizational tool. For Oil & Water, twelve environmental organizing groups, including 350 Bay Area and Amazon Watch, had booths set up to give them greater exposure and mobilize interested participants. After watching our shows, people feel motivated to seek out involvement with the subject matter, to become better informed on how to assist with the cause.
Why was this show different from the traditional Mime Troupe performances? What roles did you play and what did you hope would be conveyed about the climate crisis?
The National Endowment for the Arts, which typically funds us, had been slashed that year as the federal emphasis shifted away from the arts. People in Congress actually complain about us by name! These representatives don’t know what we do; they believe the troupe spends frivolously on tights and makeup. In response, we created a stripped-down show with four actors where I played the devil in the first act, “Deal With the Devil,” and one-half of a lesbian couple, Gracie, alongside Lisa Hori-Garcia, in “Crude Intentions.”
Lisa’s character, Tomasa, is a documentarian shooting footage to capture the exploitative oil interests in the Amazon – a story based on a real whistleblower who was threatened by giant Chevron. Tomasa shields herself as a modest restaurant owner in the Mission District of San Francisco, all the while retaining the investigative side of her nature. The play ends with a catering scene at an exclusive event for oil executives and a mastermind plan to expose the injustice. That’s the interesting aspect of these corrupt, supposedly invincible, entities – they assume that people in service industries will not wield this information against them for social good. Working-class folk are not seen as important enough to care or worry about…
In “Deal With The Devil,” the given circumstances are that a woman president has been murdered, Rotimi Agbabiaka is reinstated as the new Obama-esque president, and Earth has been totally destroyed after being stripped of environmental protections. The only area that is preserved is Washington D.C., showcasing the class inequities caused by the climate crisis. Those who are on the frontlines of the crisis, BIPOC, are not the ones exacerbating the issue. Yet, though they contribute the least to the problem, they are the most impacted. That is environmental racism in a nutshell. The people in control of making decisions that poison our ecosystems do not have to deal with the ramifications. The problem that my character, the devil, is experiencing is ironic in that she must prevent humans from becoming extinguished by the impact of environmental degradation in order to preserve her mission of temptation. In this hilarious scenario, the devil is a climate activist advocating for the health of the planet. This role reminded me of the prophetic words of Chief Seattle: “Only when the last tree has died, the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, will we realize that we cannot eat money.”
In what ways has climate change impacted your life and community personally?
I guess that depends on what the definition of a community is. The Mime Troupe is affected primarily by how weather fluctuations affect outdoor performances. The weather has changed drastically in just 20 years and the fact that we are performing right out in the open makes it that much more real. The climate conversation is visceral for us because we are working out in the elements. We see what the differences are in real time; they are impossible to ignore or negate, whereas most people can live their hermetically sealed lives in denial.
As a California resident, it blows my mind that now there is such a thing as “fire season.” That’s not a good season to have. Usually, we think of holiday seasons or cherry-picking seasons but to have a situation where there are constant droughts and wildfires is a frightening sign. The long term impacts of forest fire air quality and pollution are yet to be understood. How is that going to affect us down the line – especially if it continues?
The reality is that this is not just a community concern, it is a species concern. One must have an awareness of that scope. I just finished the audiobook The Grown-Up Guide to Dinosaurs by Ben Garrett. There is something really poignant about these species that dominated the planet for much longer than homo sapiens have existed. It is humbling to know that this land was once fully inhabited by these prehistoric creatures and then suddenly they were gone. Some might say that this is the ebb and flow of evolution but one thing is for certain: human activity has greatly accelerated the alteration of our climate. If we don’t act now, we will not be around for much longer. The Earth has been around for a few billion years; it will repair itself. It is the survival of living beings that we should be concerned about.
What does the future hold in store for you?
I am going to be continuously working on the eight-part serialized radio plays titled Tales of the Resistance, presented by the Mime Troupe, in place of doing a live performance. This is the way that we adapted to COVID-19, a symbol of the resilience of theatre. The first episode, “Jade For Hire!” is a half-hour detective noir looking at racial discrimination and class divide in an increasingly gentrified, tech-bound city. The second episode was released on Saturday, July 18 online and through local Bay Area radio stations KALW, KMUD, KTDE, KZXY, and KZFP. Check out the wonderfully bizarre radio plays in the adventure, horror, and science fiction genres on the SFMT website. The episodes continue on into fall 2020.
(Top image: Velina Brown singing.)
This article is part of our Black Artists & Storytellers series.
Imara-rose Glymph is a student at Bennington College pursuing an interdisciplinary degree looking at multi-cultural identity, language, biology/ecology, and performative arts. Most recently, she was a media fellow with Global Citizen Year, documenting Indigenous Women’s agricultural stewardship, and a representative of Intersectional Outreach with Extinction Rebellion. She has been involved in the climate conversation since leading youth delegations in the GIN 852 conference Hong Kong, organizing bio-tours of mangrove conservation areas, and guiding students as an Arctic Hall Docent with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.