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Mime Troupe plans to get loud in Petaluma

(l-r) Marilet Martinez (Zaniyah Nahuatl), Rotimi Agbabiaka (Bahdoon Samakab), Velina Brown (Shopper), Lizzie Calogero (Shopper) in WALLS. PHOTO BY Mike Melnyk

DAVID TEMPLETON,

An undocumented Mexican immigrant, an asylum-seeking Somali refugee, and an Irish immigrant ICE officer all walk into a bar.

Or in this case, a wall.

A really BIG wall.

That’s the set-up for “WALLS,” the new San Francisco Mime Troupe musical that will be headlining this year’s Petaluma Progressive Festival, Sunday, August 6, from Noon to 5 p.m., in Walnut Park.

“With humor and hijinks and a bit of political analysis, we explore how our immigration system works, or doesn’t work - and we add singing and dancing, because that’s what we do,” explains WALLS’assistant director-actor-and- choreographer Rotimi Agbabiaka, describing the sharp, four-actor satire of current American immigration policies. Targeted will be the President’s promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, the on-again/off-again Muslim Travel Ban, and other subjects that, all things considered, aren’t actually that funny.

“That’s always the trick, to find the humor in a topic that does not seem, on the surface, to be very humorous,” allows Agbabiaka. “But on the other hand, the level of absurdity that exists in our government immigration system right now is prime material for satire.”

The San Francisco Mime Troupe was founded in 1959, dedicated to using political satire in free performances throughout the Bay Area and beyond. It’s first few shows did employ the art of mime, and the name has continued (out of tradition), though for nearly sixty years, the Mime Troupe has employed music, spoken words and an exaggerated commedia dell’ arte style in its popular public performances. Over the years, the company has used its patented brand of political comedy to tackle everything from racism, sexism, and homophobia to greedy corporations, global warming, and the destruction of the American steel industry.

And now, they’re taking on the hot topic subject of immigration.

For the parts of WALLS that involve the struggles of Mexican immigrants and migrant agricultural workers, the company spent time in the Central Valley, speaking with people whose experiences provided powerful details. In researching WALLS, Agbabiaka says, the play’s writers found plenty of material to work with.

“It’s pretty outrageous stuff,” he says, “in the true sense of the word ‘outrage.’”

In particular, the writers were stunned to learn exactly how some people gain quick access to green cards, while other people must wait for years.

“Basically,” Agbabiaka says, “if you pay enough money, you get to the front of the line. That’s it. That’s the difference between being ‘legal’ and ‘illegal,’ between being ‘documented’ and ‘undocumented.’ It’s pretty ironic that poor people who are fleeing war in their home country – wars often caused by U.S. policies - can’t get a green card to come to America.But someone who has $600,000 can.”

Agbabiaka is quick to add that that figure, $600,000, is not an exaggeration.

“It really does cost more than half-a-million dollars to get to the front of the line to enter this country legally,” he says. “In the musical, we find lots of ways to make fun of that fact. The whole play is humorous, but it’s obviously dark humor.”

The Mime Troupe primarily plays in parks. They’ve been performing WALLS up and down the state since July 1.

For the last several years, the company has made a tradition of playing Petaluma as part of the Progressive Festival. It’s an audience, he says, that gets what they are doing.

In public parks, of course, you never know who’s going to happen by. With WALLS, Agbabiaka says, “they could find themselves becoming surprisingly moved by the story and the original tunes.

“It is a comedy, and there are plenty of laughs,” he says, “but the shadow of sorrow is right on the other side of that laughter.”

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)