I don’t know if it’s some childhood image left over from Victory at Sea or from a book of pictures my uncle brought back from the service, but when I think about the war in the Pacific, I see pink cumulus clouds piled high, one upon another, on the decks of aircraft carriers. It’s not the iconic image of violent battle that usually represents the war, but my imagination seems to be telling me that the iconic images aren’t the whole story, that serenity and beauty coexisted alongside the bloodshed and were a large part of the day-to-day reality of the war.
It’s for similar reasons that I think the nitty-gritty details of life near Ground Zero as presented in one of the first theatrical responses to 9/11, comic monologist Reno’s Rebel Without a Pause, appeal to me so. They provide relief from the media’s iconic packaging, which has been beamed at us ever since the attack on the Trade Towers and the (rarely mentioned) Pentagon attack.
With a deluge of energy, Reno, who lived near the towers from 1981, relates what it was like in lower Manhattan “that gorgeous day.” She recreates the clicking sound, like the noise an old machine gun would make, that was the sound of the floors collapsing into one another. She exhibits dismay at the total absence of Conelrad and the Emergency Defense System. (“Maybe this wasn’t enough of an emergency.”) She tells a story about finding her ATM emptied out at 9 am and the bank refusing to open its doors so customers could get their money.
But mostly it’s the human reactions to catastrophe that are so wonderful, so wildly hilarious. The rumors that the terrorists are holed up with machetes in a macrobiotic restaurant on Prince Street; people rushing home to have their televisions validate what they’d just seen with their own eyes; and what Reno calls the “hierarchical bragging rights of pain and knowledge”–New Yorkers one-upping each other over what they knew and what they’d suffered.
Reno’s warnings about changes in constitutional protections make for a very disturbing second half of her monologue, though she herself doesn’t seem to fear the new spy agency powers: She gives voice to her every political thought, no matter how out there it is. She points out how cheaply reporters have been won over by chummy Don Rumsfeld, and she contemplates Henry Kissinger being arrested for war crimes. Reno even suggests that Florida be allowed to float down to Uruguay, “where all the other fascists are.”
She also reveals some interesting facts, like ones you find in this magazine but not in the major media. For instance, Hamid Karzai, the new president of Afghanistan, used to work for Unocal. And this from Frank Lindh, who saw the show the night before I did: FBI agents treated his son kindly because even they knew “he was a hapless kid.”
After a while, I began feeling the tingle of what I hope was just my own paranoia (although as I learned the last time–when Watergate lanced the Nixonian pustule–paranoia can be a very accurate predictor of reality). Reno talks about what is being done to our civil liberties in the context of Christian fundamentalist influence on this Administration. At 342 pages, the USA Patriot Act, she suggests, wasn’t written in the days after 9/11, and the Padilla case has clearly crossed the line of innocent until proven guilty. She builds a picture of how really extremist the Bush people are and how far to the right the President has taken the country. So far, in fact, that Colin Powell is the “Communist of this Administration.”
Such points may be made with laughter, but Reno brings a fierceness to her criticisms and an urgency to her concerns about the current Administration that we are only beginning to see in the big world, and then over financial wheeler-dealering and privilege, not civil liberties and constitutional guarantees.
You will walk away from Reno with a clear sense that the changes aren’t minor, and they won’t fall only on bad guys and enemies. It’s a real turning point: Democracy is up for grabs.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe’s free summer show, Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan, likewise treats the aftermath of 9/11. In it, Condoleezza Rice (Velina Brown) and Dick Cheney (Cheney lookalike Ed Holmes) seek to sell the Bush presidency as an Administration that cares about democracy, not profits, and so devise a plan to send 9/11 firefighter Jeff Smith (the always wonderful Michael Gene Sullivan) to oversee the first free election in the Central Asian, formerly Soviet, republic of Obscuristan. The winner of this contest is certain to be warlord and privatizer Automaht Regurgitov (Victor Toman), since he is the only candidate. That is, until the oppositionist Ralif Nadir (Amos Glick) throws his hat into the ring, arguing that “people should vote their hearts, not their fears.” (Of course, had one or two percent of Florida’s Nader voters forsworn that advice, the Mime Troupe wouldn’t have a Bush Administration to satirize.)
(Or would they?)
Smith, who has been kept ignorant by outfits like SNN, the Selective News Network, believes America wants freedom for everyone. He is, however, disillusioned when it becomes clear that there is oil in Obscuristan and that the Administration’s real interest is that Regurgitov win, since he will insure the atmosphere necessary for US investment. Smith then sets out to prove that the ordinary American doesn’t want to screw Obscuristan over, and by the end of the day rescues Nadir, who was kidnapped and branded a terrorist. He also helps bring an SNN reporter and the US ambassador over to the side of a fair shake for Obscuristan.
The Mime Troupe hits many of the right points: that energy sources are a major factor in our involvement in Central Asia, for instance, and that much of the weaponry in the area was originally supplied by the CIA. And they raise questions about just how free our own elections are. Given that, I was left pondering why Mr. Smith seemed so tepid and not particularly funny compared with Rebel Without a Pause. It’s doubly strange given that the Mime Troupe brought in the usually very funny monologist, independent filmmaker and former Nation intern Josh Kornbluth (Red Diaper Baby and Haiku Tunnel) to help write the script.
The difference is, I think, that Reno articulates things you hadn’t thought about, or says things you may have thought a lot about, but in ways that create the old shock of recognition. As when she says, “The people of Missouri were so worried about Ashcroft making decisions, they voted for the dead guy.”
There are moments like that in Mr. Smith. Barbara Bush (Ed Holmes again, this time in a gray wig and pearls) explains the rules of the oil game to George W., and the whole facade of her Betty Crockerdom smacks right up against her tough capitalist intelligence. This is a Barbara Bush who says, “Never send a member of the working class to do an aristocrat’s job.” But such moments are rare. For the most part, the Mime Troupe’s most incisive statements, such as “Only an American would confuse a fixed election with a real one” or “Welcome to democratic nations like Saudi Arabia who protect human rights,” simply restate our perceptions or are so bitterly ironic that a lot of the laughter I heard was sniggering.
Given that the source of the satire is Capra’s populist classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I think the Mime Troupe missed a real opportunity to have us question ourselves by asking, Who is Mr. Smith and what is he about? In the mythos of Mime Troupe plays, the ordinary American is decent and fair, and in every respect there’s a lot of daylight between him and the ruling class, and therefore between us and what our government does in our name. The Mime Troupe believes that like Jeff Smith, the ordinary American has been kept in ignorance by the media, and that if he only knew what was really going on, he would rise up and change things.
That conveniently ignores the fact that ordinary Americans are of many minds, and that many of us do understand that our comfort is based on the deprivation (and worse) of people in other parts of the world. So then, you have to ask whether we feel we can’t do anything about it or whether we don’t want to. How much is the ordinary American willing to give up to see people elsewhere get a larger slice of the pie?
And what is the usefulness of a mythos of unquestioned fairness and decency, and in this play, as in other Mime Troupe efforts, of a sellout who regains her soul and of a decisive victory over the people’s enemies? It’s positive, but does it send us out of the park feeling hopeful and intent on action? Or do we feel that a lot of what we witnessed was too simple and fantastic?
The appeal in Mr. Smith is ultimately to idealism, to looking out for the other guy and doing the right thing. Reno, on the other hand, talks about self-interest: that we are losing our rights and that some of us were slaughtered. “The [US] government,” she says, “created the mujahedeen that came to my town and killed us.” That seems a much stronger motive for action.
Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan will be performed through Labor Day in various Northern California locales (415-285-1717 or www.sfmt.org). Rebel Without a Pause played a week at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco in June and went on to an extended run at the Lion Theater on 42nd Street in New York City.