Two Comic Artists Speak for the Oppressed


Dario Fo, clown, prolific writer, and playwright, has been denounced by the Vatican. He has been to court in Italy for “contributing to criminal acts” with his satirical jabs at the Pope’s stance on abortion.

In the 1970s and 80s, he was barred from the United States under the McCarren Act. Invited here to perform in 1986, by the head of the American Repertory Theater, he sarcastically thanked Reagan for all the publicity for keeping him out of the country. Then, in 1997, he won the Nobel prize for literature at the age of 71.

Fo’s plays are rooted in an old comic tradition, and are written to open audiences’ eyes to societal injustices. One of his plays, “We Won’t Pay, We Can’t Pay,” was recently performed by the Shotgun Players in Berkeley, Calif. It dealt with the bleak lives of Italian factory workers and their need to confront constantly rising costs of food and goods during the 1970s-a period of political radicalization and frequent strike actions in Italy.

The play centers on an instance in which working-class wives rebelled in a supermarket. With filled carts, they stormed through the checkout stands, shouting, “We won’t pay! We can’t pay!” A clownish policemen, investigating the supermarket theft, had had it with the repressive actions of those in power against alleged perpetrators, so he became anti-establishment.

Performed today, the play, in part, comes off as dated, with some sexist themes. In the early 1970s, in Italy, the feminist movement was just getting started, as compared to the United States, where the Equal Rights Amendment had passed in 1972 (only to peter out in 1982 when the states failed to ratify the amendment).

In one scene, the Pope is slammed for his stance on birth control and abortion when there’s no money, no jobs, and no food to feed children without bringing more into the world. One character stated that terrorism is being held hostage by a minimum wage job. He went on to sermonize about the homeless.

Looking out the window of a one room apartment, the workers and their wives watched as poor people started a riot against the cops. Though fear had turned to rage, the people still hoped for justice.

Dario Fo’s plays remain popular because he incorporates elements of the clown in his staging and characters, a device common during medieval times, when clowns were the voices of oppressed people. Carey Perloff of the American Conservatory Theatre once said that Dario Fo wakes up an audience through comedy, rather than bludgeoning them over the head with his point of view. n

Astrid Hadad, a native of Chetumal, Mexico, was in San Francisco last month to present her funny, politically charged cabaret performance. Culled from a decade of best-hits shows, she performed in Spanish and “Spanglish,” using Mary Magdalene, sinner par excellence, as the leading thread.

Hadad keeps the flame of passion burning, saving it from extinction where she fears it is bound. Some have likened her work to a Frida Kahlo painting come to life, as she includes some of the richness of images engendered by Mexican history and culture: Heroes and saints, indigenous iconography and art; lusciously crafted, colorful native foliage, as well as elements of historic Mexican films.

One reviewer has called her a “walking museum of popular cultures;” another, a one-person “Beach Blanket Babylon” (a stage show in San Francisco in which the actors wear huge, elaborate headdresses). Her show throbs with tongue-in-cheek dark comedy and satire. Tim Weiner of The New York Times wrote that Hadad could be one of the most provocative stage acts since the Weimar Republic was in bloom.

In a take on the Virgin of Guadalupe, Hadad, costumed in a wedding-cake dress replete with skulls and a huge bustle of large spears from the maguey plant spreading behind her like a peacock tail, and huge serpents on each hip, related how the virgin was once the goddess Coatlicue. She said that Coatlicue’s “Third World immaculate conception” happened while she was sweeping, indicating that the poor always have to work.

Astrid Hadad retakes the spirit of everything Mexican. Like Dario Fo, through her comic sense, she sets the forces of evil against those of goodness and leads the audience to acknowledge its shadow side as well as its enlightened glories.

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