By the People, For the People: San Francisco Mime Troupe's New Radio Drama

Brian Rivera, Lizzie Calogero, Andre Amorotico, Michael Gene Sullivan, and Keiko Shimosato Carreiro spar in San Francisco Mime Troupe's 2019 production, Treasure Island. (Mike Melnyk)

For hundreds of Bay Area dwellers, July 4 is a day usually best spent in Dolores Park for the traditional opening performance of the “never ever silent” San Francisco Mime Troupe’s summer tour.

A tradition gleefully leaned into by the irreverent political theater company, the annual Mime Troupe show generally speaks to a specific topical issue across a wide thematic range, including for-profit schools, factory occupations, police violence and land speculation and development. Currently part of San Francisco’s LaborFest—which runs for the entire month of July—this worker-owned collective proudly wears its politics on its quirkily costumed sleeve.

This year, due to COVID-19 concerns, instead of gathering in the park, the Mime Troupe has changed their open-air musical theater approach to that of a more stay-at-home friendly format: a serialized radio drama. And though picnicking in my living room while listening in on the Fourth of July wasn’t quite the same as being surrounded by fellow Mime Troupe fans at the park, the knowledge that other folks were also tuning in online at the same time did give me a sense of solidarity.

Michael Gene Sullivan penned and stars in 'Jade for Hire! The Mystery of the Missing Worker.'
Michael Gene Sullivan penned and stars in 'Jade for Hire! The Mystery of the Missing Worker.' (Lisa Keating)

A brief half-hour long, the first episode of the Mime Troupe’s nine-week series is modeled after the hard-boiled detective noir. Written by and starring Michael Gene Sullivan, Jade, For Hire! The Mystery of the Missing Worker sends the titular Jade on a search for a vanished tech worker, Derrick. Punctuated by droll, dystopian advertisements for surveillance systems and rest homes (written by Marie Cartier), Jade for Hire! travels through a working-class milieu of bars, cabs, employment agencies, independent coffee shops, and whispers of unionization.

Voiced by Mime Troupe regulars, including the redoubtable Velina Brown as a crisp, no-nonsense case manager, Andre Amorotico as a nervous techie snitch, and former trouper Amos Glick as the interstitial announcer, The Mystery of the Missing Worker culminates neatly with a twist that sets Jade up for future adventuring. As a spoof of serials past, it’s solid, quick-witted, and sets the bar high for subsequent episodes, which will satirize other radio-drama templates—namely adventure, horror, and science fiction.

San Francisco Mime Troupe collective member Marie Cartier recording her vocals. (Courtesy of San Francisco Mime Troupe)

Interspersing their jocular dialogue with didactic thought-bubbles such as “if the people can’t make it with the current system, it’s not the people that have to change, it’s the system,” the Mime Troupe’s commitment to proselytizing to the workers makes their shows a perfect fit for LaborFest, now in its 27th year. Originally founded to run from July 5, the anniversary of “Bloody Thursday,” but now encompassing all of July, LaborFest has offered an eclectic lineup of panels, films, poetry readings, concerts and more interrogating the role of organized labor in the modern state since 1994.

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This year’s array of educational discussion topics includes AB5, the so-called “gig worker” bill, public health, and the current status of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union—established after the 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike, LaborFest’s raison d’etre. For those more interested in artistic representation of labor politics and working-class struggle, LaborFest’s programming also includes plenty of presentations from poets, playwrights, and even visual artists—albeit mostly from virtual spaces.

One exception to the virtual programming: Shaping San Francisco’s in-person Labor History bicycle tour, which occurred on July 5. As keeping socially distanced on bicycles is easier than with most other congregate gatherings, this weekend’s sun-blessed tour was both an exploration of the past and a welcome nod to future possibility. Led by Chris Carlsson, instigator of crowdsourced history archive FoundSF, the Labor History tour is one of Shaping San Francisco’s signature rides. Wending its way through the Mission District to the waterfront, stopping at locations of labor monuments and moments, the four-hour tour gave participants a crash course in the role of unions and working-class rebellion in the building of San Francisco.

A socially-distanced labor history bicycle tour with Shaping San Francisco. (LisaRuth Elliott)

Straddling a line between "sightseeing" and "lecture series," Shaping San Francisco’s primers of radical history are always informative, not least of all because they frequently attract other history buffs who contribute their own observations and findings to the conversation.

Broadly speaking, LaborFest’s multi-faceted examination of the Bay Area’s leftist legacies and leanings is a boon to the activity-starved. But more importantly, it offers a timely inquiry into class consciousness and worker solidarity during a moment where those concerns have risen to the forefront of national discourse.

LaborFest runs through July 31, 2020; details here. Listen to San Francisco Mime Troupe radio shows (through Oct 24, 2020) here. Shaping San Francisco's most popular walking tour—Beers, Dunes, and Trains—gets underway July 18, and their newest iteration, a boat cruise on the Bay, takes place July 24; details here.