Move over, Common Core. Babbittry is the dogma at the former Eleanor Roosevelt Academy once it becomes the Learning Academy of Virtual Achievement (or LAVA) in the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s production of Schooled. With encomiums to “make American schools great … again,” it’s immediately clear who this burst of social commentary has aimed its arrows at.
And when a frustrated veteran educator, fed up with slick technological improvements, despairs of what is to become of good-old-fashioned civics — “There is no app for citizenship!” — as a professional woman of color who’s the mother of a struggling student gets caught between her hard-nosed ambition and the idealism still burning within her, the play becomes more than an indictment of no-nothingism. Like John Barth’s 1996 novel Giles, Goat-Boy, a metafictional farce that’s essentially one long pun on universe/university, Michael Gene Sullivan and Eugenie Chan’s script about the transformation of Eleanor Roosevelt into LAVA (and later the Babbit Academy) echoes the dire implications of the world around it.
The Mime Troupe has been staging highly politicized comedies since the 1950s, and this energetic play is no exception. As the four-member cast (Velina Brown, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Keiko Shimosato-Carreiro, and Lisa Hori-Garcia) share seven roles among them, its quick changes yield moments of physical comedy and satire — even as dialogue about Prop 13’s destructive effects on public-education funding is intended to get the audience to yelp in disapproval. (There is, it should be noted, no pantomime here.) Schooled is not so much a ham-fisted screed against capitalism, but a critique of neoliberalism and its insidious ability to make market solutions seem inevitable, unchallengeable, and good for every last have-not.
Curmudgeonly school-marm Ethel Orocuru (Shimosato-Carreiro) may be the Bernie Sanders stand-in, but she’s also the joyless social studies teacher we all hated. Upon seeing the character fight the system that’s hemming her in on all sides, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of remorse upon realizing just how progressive the mission of public education is, and how hapless its proponents have been, fending off corporate stooges while trying to make ungrateful teens into good citizens. Meanwhile, the path from tech-savvy innovation to the undermining of democracy is presented as startlingly slippery.
And the Mime Troupe doesn’t always play in its own theater space on Treat Avenue, either. All summer, they’ve been performing up and down the coast, from Dolores Park to Live Oak Park in Berkeley to Todd Grove Park in Ukiah.
Hori-Garcia — who plays the Donald Trump character, Frederson Babbit, as well as student Michiko Chimlis — believes there are good and bad sides to each. “You can have a lot more nuance as an actor on the stage,” she says. “You aren’t competing with the elements out in a park, like dogs barking or the buses coming by.”
But indoors, the tradeoff is that — well, you’re indoors. “In terms of reaching the broadest possible audience — like in Yerba Buena Gardens,” she says, “if someone hears the show and comes closer and ends up watching it, that wouldn’t happen,” in a traditional setting.
Switching back and forth rapidly among roles is its own reward, as well.
“It’s an actor’s dream,” says Agbabiaka, who plays middling student Thomas Jones and termed-out school board president Arthur Quisedo. “What I love about theater is the chance to walk in someone else’s shoes, and play with presentation and what it means to be whatever identity. I love the fluidity that theater affords, to be someone else.”
Speaking of fluidity, Hori-Garcia’s Babbit starts out as a pompous executive before morphing into an out-and-out fascist. It’s a role that she feels the Mime Troupe is well set-up for.
“Where else but here would a woman of color get to play the Donald Trump character?” she says. ” A lot of people have come up to me and were like, ‘Wow, I love the fact that you’re spoofing on the character, Babbit, and you get to say these really sexist things and be really bombastic and gross.’ It’s more of a commentary when a woman is doing it. Women have said to me, ‘That’s amazing, and wouldn’t be able to take in all those jokes and gags as readily if it were a man playing that role.’ ”
Curiously, over the course of its run, as the tectonic plates beneath the presidential election have shifted, the audiences responses to the various characters have, too — particularly regarding Lavinia Jones, who might be the most complex figure on the stage.
“I think earlier in the summer, audiences were more willing to accept Lavinia as a villain,” Agbabiaka says. “I think now they like her and trust her, because if she’s the Hillary stand-in, then she’s our only hope at this point … The Lavinia character does come around at the end and says to Thomas, very clearly, ‘I’m on your side.’ For the audience, it’s a saving moment.”
Schooled, through Sept. 5, at the San Francisco Mime Troupe, 855 Treat Ave. (and at other venues).