.Outspoken Mimes

Breakdown, San Francisco Mime Troupe’s Summer Musical, Arrives in Santa Cruz

Shortly before my interview with Alicia M.P. Nelson, a member of the storied San Francisco Mime Troupe, I realized I had no idea how to have a conversation with a mime.

Luckily, the collective’s website anticipates this misconception and nips it in the bud. “We use the term mime in its classical and original definition, ‘The exaggeration of daily life in story and song,’” they write.

And my, oh my, are these mimes ever loud. Working at the confluence of theater and activism, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is in its 64th season of political performance geared toward inciting revolutionary change on behalf of the working class. Their latest touring musical, Breakdown, written by Michael Gene Sullivan and Marie Cartier, takes a clear-eyed look at the housing crisis and interwoven issues in their home city. According to data collected by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing in February 2022, on any given night, about 3,400 occupy San Francisco’s homeless shelters, while 4,400 sleep on the city’s streets. Meanwhile, the city has the highest rate of billionaires per capita in the world. 

Breakdown the musical is about multiple things,” says Nelson, who plays Saidia, a social worker hacking her way through a bureaucratic jungle. “It’s about the homeless crisis in San Francisco and how the city is not really supporting the people who really need their help.” She continues, “It’s about mental health and how mental health can also tie into homelessness […] and it’s about the right-wing attack on San Francisco and how a lot of people try to use San Francisco as an example of how progressivism doesn’t work.”

Nelson acknowledges this is a lot to take on in an 80-minute show with a 5-person cast. But the San Francisco Mime Troupe has always gone boldly toward the most heated issues of the day, resisting the urge to simplify their complexity in the name of entertainment. In their current show, they connect social and individual implosion with the intriguing suggestion: “Sometimes it’s not all just happening in your mind.”  

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“The magic of the Troupe is that every show they do is really written to fit the time that we are currently living in,” Nelson says. Recent shows have tackled the immigration crisis, police brutality, climate change and social inequities exposed by the pandemic. Nelson, who holds a BFA in Acting from Boston University, also starred in last year’s SFMT musical, Back to the Way Things Were.

Nelson credits writer and director Michael Gene Sullivan for his ability to sift through the chaos of current events to create theater that speaks to audiences. “He just somehow has his finger on the pulse and is able to write pieces that feel really prescient,” she says, “and for the time that I’ve been with the Troupe, that’s been one of the things that makes it really special, because we are a political theater company, and it’s important to speak about what’s currently going on.”

While Breakdown follows some of the most distressing elements of American society—in addition to Saidia, the show stars an unhoused character named Yume and a self-interested Fox News commentator named Marcia Stone—Nelson emphasizes the humor and inspiration inherent to the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s musicals.

“We’ve got some hilarious characters,” she says. “Keep an eye out for wig changes and accent changes. And our set! Part of our set is the profile of a young woman.”

In addition to immersing herself in the moving songs and urgent political themes, Nelson’s part in the show has required her to think a great deal about what social workers across the country experience trying to solve these overwhelming problems.

“I’m not a social worker,” Nelson says, “but I do understand the feeling of needing a break, and I think that’s something a lot of people can understand. With Saidia, for me, I’m trying to find the balance between the exhaustion but also the drive and the purpose that she has to do this work.”

She has come to some wisdom about her character that extends far beyond the stage: “The exhaustion doesn’t have to take over the purpose and vice versa. They can both live simultaneously, and [Saidia] just takes it one day at a time and puts one foot in front of the other.”

If you’re going:

London Nelson Community Center – Outdoors
301 Center St., Santa Cruz 95060

Sat., Aug. 19 – 3:00 pm show (Live music from 2:30)                                        
Ticket Info: FREE

Sun., Aug. 20 – 3:00 pm show (Live music from 2:30)
($20 suggested donation)

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