Director Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe talks turning politics to musical in ‘Seeing Red’

Jessica Doojphibulpol / Staff
Jessica Doojphibulpol/Senior Staff
Jessica Doojphibulpol / Staff

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A Donald Trump voter starts to rethink her decision … because of a visit to 1912. Musical numbers, time travel and a politics-driven plot make up the premise of “Seeing Red,” which the San Francisco Mime Troupe is putting on at various parks and locations in the Bay Area, all for free, through Sept. 9.

Each production performed by the SF Mime Troupe is written and directed by its members and mostly focused on political issues. This year’s production, “Seeing Red,” is written by Rotimi Agbabiaka and Joan Holden, with music and lyrics by Ira Marlowe. Directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, the play chronicles a Trump supporter being transported back in time to 1912, when the Socialist Party of America was making headway in the U.S. political scene.

“We wanted to take us back to when we were more than a two-party country. When people felt empowered enough to vote for someone because they were for something,” Cooper-Anifowoshe said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “And then we wanted to track what happened and how we lost that.”

Each year, the SF Mime Troupe seeks to tell stories of current issues to get audience members thinking and hopefully wanting to take action. Moreover, the troupe strives to teach something new to everyone who comes to see its productions.

“When you work with a company that has (a) 59-year tradition, it’s challenging to continue to write something that both appeals to the audience and takes things somewhere new,” Cooper-Anifowoshe said. “A critic last year suggested that we didn’t give them any more information than they had when they walked into the show, and that’s always something we hope we’re doing.”

For the politics- and information-driven stories it is telling, the SF Mime Troupe relies mostly on the Brechtian style of theater to construct its productions. Brechtian style focuses on reminding audiences that they are watching an enactment, rather than letting them become so absorbed that they forget they are watching actors. This is called the “alienation effect” or the “estrangement effect.”

Cooper-Anifowoshe and the SF Mime Troupe pull from the alienation effect to subvert the expectations of the audience.

“The show opens with an Ethiopian immigrant who is a Trump supporter, which is not how you would expect her to operate,” Cooper-Anifowoshe said. “And by taking that in, we’ve upended your exceptions already about what we’re going to say about Trump supporters.”

Despite the serious political issues being explored, the SF Mime Troupe consistently keeps a comedic tone for each of its productions. Cooper-Anifowoshe described how the troupe pulled from a multitude of different styles in order to create a unique and specific humor-driven drama.

“Brechtian form holds a lot of different things. We used sound effects … a lot of things that you find in slapstick comedy. It’s not slapstick, but we borrow from that tradition,” Cooper-Anifowoshe said. “It kind of becomes a pastiche of not choosing. We have melodrama, film noir, slapstick or even just prop comedy, combining all of those to its end, which is political, action theater.”

Adding to the comedic nature of “Seeing Red” is how the troupe chooses to depict the time-traveling element. Cooper-Anifowoshe noted that it took time to find the right way to handle the concept onstage in a way that felt natural to the play.

“We put it off, saying we’ll wait for that day in the shower when we figure it out,” Cooper-Anifowoshe said. “Each time it came up in rehearsal, I just started saying, OK she whirls on, OK she whirls off. She whirls into 1912, she whirls back into 2018. And eventually that’s what we ended up with. She whirls in, she whirls off. And it’s very beautiful and very funny.”

The specific date of 1912 was chosen to showcase a period of time in American history in which the Socialist Party seemed to be paving a path for itself within U.S. politics. Eugene V. Debs ran for president of the United States as the Socialist Party candidate a total of five times. And, in 1912, he received 6 percent of the popular vote.

“There was a moment when socialists were kind of sweeping the nation,” Cooper-Anifowoshe said. “I wouldn’t say that the SF Mime Troupe is socialist — I would say it uses socialism to talk about our future and what is possible.”

At the end of the day, the SF Mime Troupe aims to try to make sense of what’s occurring in the world through its productions.

“We really just set out to try to understand the country and to try to speak to the moment that we’re in with the tools that we have and with an understanding of what we want to see in the future,” Cooper-Anifowoshe said. “I want people to walk away with some kind of hope that there are people working on a better world and a better message.”

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected]. Tweet her at @Nikki_m9.