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Later this month, when 5,000 Republicans and their families descend on the city for their national convention, they will likely be greeted by tenfold their number of Bronx cheers. Scores of theatrical productions, festivals, and street actions are planned in response to the RNC's four-day invasion. In keeping with its ancient beginnings, theatrical satire will play a leading role in the symbolic dethroning of the powerful. And while authorities scurry around to prepare for 1,000 arrests a day, they might just be missing the point: The most lethal force to emerge from the RNC protests this summer could well be ridicule.
During the week or so of activism, look for groups like Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (a gaggle of men in nuns' habits), and the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (a squadron of George Bushes in "mission accomplished" flight suits). Meanwhile, so-called "people's acoustic orchestras" like the Hungry March Band, the Infernal Noise Brigade, and the Rude Mechanicals Orchestra will provide a rousing soundtrack, as will the Radical Cheerleaders, who shake their pom-poms to an anti-Bush-Cheney refrain. In a class of their own are the Missile Dick Chicksan a cappella singing group purporting to be from Crawford, Texas, who wear missile-shaped phalluses and sing songs like "Shop! In the Name of War."
Except for the phalluses, a cursory observer might be forgiven for mistaking such an assemblage for a Republican rally. With 65 chapters and hundreds of members nationwide, Billionaires for Bush will perhaps be providing the largest costumed contingent at the protests. The tuxedoed and tiaraed Billionaires plan a week of merry pranks, including a croquet game in Central Park, a "vigil for corporate welfare," ballroom dancing in Penn Station, an attempt to privatize the New York Public Library, and a "coronation ball" for George W. Bush.
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The use of humor and entertainment, says founder Andrew Boyd (a/k/a Phil T. Rich), is vital for making their message accessible to a large audience. The use of Republican drag and the just-short-of-plausible "pro-Bush" sloganeering ("Small Government. Big Wars.") also help generate interest. Says Boyd, "the costumed approach gives us tactical room to maneuver. There is often a moment of uncertainty, when spectators don't know if we're serious or not."
It is that priceless moment that allows the Billionaires and similar groups to hold the attention of the uninitiated long enough to make their point. Boyd cites an example of recent Bush campaign stops in Pennsylvania, where the group was placed in close proximity to actual pro-Bush demonstrators. The Billionaires managed to get the Bush supporters to change their chant of "Four more years!" to "Four more wars!" before the ruse was discovered and the pranksters were shooed away.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of scale is the outfit known as the Yes Men, whose core consists of just two members, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. Where the Billionaires use a sledgehammer to get their point across, the Yes Men use a precision-tooled stiletto. The group was founded by accident in 1999, when their satirical WTO website began to be mistaken for the real thing. The partners were soon invited to actual corporate and right-wing political events, which they attended in full conservative camouflage. On numerous occasions, the pair has made Swiftian PowerPoint presentations at such gatherings (advocating the sale of votes to the highest bidder, and defending Hitler's economic policies at a conference in Salzburg)sometimes with no one ever catching on. During the RNC, the Yes Men plan to clone themselves in a special "makeover booth," handing out free suits of clothes, haircuts, and "special buttons that will confer extra authority, so that the wearer will look like someone the out-of-town delegates ought to follow."
Where the Yes Men take a stealth approach, the group known as Greene Dragon is all about calling attention to itself. Dressed as Revolutionary Warera patriots, Greene members have been re-enacting some of the major events of the American Revolution, a timeline that will accelerate during the days of the RNC. On August 24, they will stage a parody of Paul Revere's ride ("The Republicans are coming! The Republicans are coming! One if by charter jet! Two if by SUV!"). On later days, they will re-enact the Boston Tea Party (with "Texas Tea"oilas the dumped substance) and Washington's crossing of the Delaware, which will consist of a trip on the Staten Island Ferry, after which, says Greene Dragon Elana Levin, "we'll regroup our army at Fresh Kills and have some beers."
Even more than the Billionaires, Greene Dragon's "patriotic burlesque" is about reaching out to a broad audience. "Some find the left intimidating," says Levin, "but we're not going to throw a pie in your face. We're not mimicking Middle Americathe right doesn't have a monopoly on the Stars and Stripes. They're the narrow ones; we're the big tent."
While these costumed characters run amok during the RNC, a number of other performers will be taking their political wit to the stage for special performances timed to make maximum hay out of the citywide ferment.
Greene Dragon: Re-enacting history with revolutionary zeal
photo: Fred Askew www.fredaskew.com
Comedian Scott Blakeman (who calls himself "one of the five stand-up comedians left who still do political satire") is producing a series of comedy nights called "Laughs From the Left" at HERE's American Living Room Series (August 23), as well as the Society for Ethical Culture (August 26). The lineup will include fellow comics Barry Weintraub and Palestinian American Dean Obeidallah, and will be followed by panel discussions and Q&As.
Just as American street theater enjoyed its first great flowering in the days of the yippies, the Living Theatre, and Vietnam, Blakeman and company are resuscitating a comic style that was last popular in the days of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce to tackle the current war and other injustices perpetrated by the Bush administration. According to Blakeman, audiences are responding: "I've been doing this kind of comedy for years, and I've never seen audiences revved like they have been the last few months. This president has everyone completely energized."
Perennial provocateur Margaret Cho, who will launch her State of Emergency tour at the Apollo Theater on August 28, agrees. "Everything political is personal right now," says Cho. "This level of upheaval hasn't existed in my lifetime. It's both terrifying and exciting."
But above all, what drives Cho up the wall is the fact that the Republicans were dumb enough to choose New York, a hotbed of protest, for their convention in the first place: "It amazes me! There are no Republicans here! They're going to have to import them all. And all the people here are against it. It's going to look like that movie The Warriors. The Republicans are setting themselves up for a terrible time. And we should bring them one!"
For a guide to the most interesting protest activity, theatrical and otherwise, check out Voice Choices' RNC Supplement, coming out August 25.
Research: Lisa Ferber