Super is as super does

Since I’ve been working on a series of short stories about superheroes, I have been struck by how many iterations of the superhero meme have appeared this year. There’s the Sci-Fi Network reality show “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?”, the NBC drama “Heroes,” big-budget Hollywood movies about Superman, Spiderman and the X-Men, and several new books, including Deborah Eisenberg’s “Twilight of the Superheroes.” Then a friend sent me a notice about a new show that happened to be about… superheroes. At least in part.

super:anti:reluctant is the title of a madcap theater piece on the themes of heroes and heroism. During the hour-long play, the five performers of the theater group mugwumpin embody classic American heroic archetypes — the gunslinger, the noir detective, the super hero, the pioneer family, the Olympic athlete — as well as some modern heroes, like the super fast and efficient barista and a bicycle rider who miraculously escapes injury.

On Wednesday morning I sat down to talk with Denmo Ibrahim and Christopher White, two of the three co-founders of mugwumpin, to talk about their play and their process. The third member of mugwumpin’s core group, Joseph Estlack, performs a remarkable pantomime of a super-fast barista during the show. Leda Lum and Celeste Martinez also appear in the cast.

Q. Why is this superhero meme everywhere now?

Denmo: There’s something timely about the wide spread terror or fear, this ‘war on terror’ — and America stepping up and saying we’re going to save these other countries, bring democracy to them — we’re the heroes that are going to save the world. And of course, our fascination that we’re doing it for good, and we’re going to be saved.

Chris: It’s not just a trend that we’re running after. I’ve never seen those shows, I don’t read comic books anymore. There’s something that’s permeating the culture. Maybe something to do with the sense of needing a hero.

Q. How was the show developed?

Denmo: Denmo: In the beginning of a process we invite the cast to introduce different aspects of research — songs, things we’ve written. These become our raw material to draw from. Since everybody is involved in the initial stages in generating the material, we all have an opportunity to till the soil and see what will grow. We also looked into what is our super power was, or rather, is.

Chris: We looked at the super hero model as it is a part of the human ordinary world — how that could be linked. (The other mugwumpin co-founder) Joseph told us about an episode of “This American Life” in which they went around asking people, if you could choose between two super powers — the ability to fly, or to be invisible — which would you choose? And more importantly, why? And everybody immediately said they chose their power because it would make their life better; nobody jumped to the idea of helping people.

Denmo: None of them said they would use their power for good; instead it would be something that would help them just get by.

Christopher White (l.) and Denmo Ibrahim
Chris: I read Jonathan Lethem’s novel “Fortress of Solitude,” about kids in Brooklyn, one of whom is given a super-power ring by a homeless man that gives him the power of flight. This story informed a lot of my thinking about how super powers might actually affect somebody in the real world, how they might either use them to their advantage, or do something amazing with them, or not so amazing things with them.

Denmo: We also did a writing exercise describing our actual super power. Everyone had one. Leda Lum, another performer in the company, recognized her super name as Oblivion — her super power to be oblivious in situations — which in turn she realized was also her weakness. We also looked at what the power was that could destroy us — our kryptonite.

Chris: Our company manager Sarah Elovich says “We suffer from the excess of our strengths.” For example, one of her strengths is taking on responsibilities and lifting everybody up. But sometimes she becomes overwhelmed by that.

Q. What are your super powers?

Denmo: Denmo: In the show, (my superhero character is) Manifestina I have the ability to manifest or create situations. My weakness? To manifest situations — learning, more or less, how to let things happen is probably where I’d say my challenge lies.

Chris: My power is being able to figure out how things work, logically break things apart. And then the negative aspect of that is always looking at things that way. But another I discovered recently is that while riding a bicycle I got hit by an SUV, went through the windshield, and pretty much came away fine.

Q. How do you account for that?

Chris: My helmet. But it felt pretty super.

Denmo: The superheroes are only one aspect. The show is also about our relationship with the American hero, whether that’s a character we play, or a desire or longing for that character outside of us. We had to focus our energies to develop other things, so it wasn’t just about super man or bat boy or other things. The office worker who wishes she were something more, the writer who can’t quite tap into her powers. So it becomes much more of a human story that everyone can relate to.

kerristrug.jpgChris: This is something that drew us toward (1996 Olympic gymnast) Kerri Strug — she had an injury, but (by the end of the competition) if she didn’t land this one vault perfectly, she would lose the medal for the Americans. But when the moment most counted, she pulled it off.

Denmo: In some ways, the athlete is the closest we have for the superhero — they have the ability to transcend their body, like Michael Jordan — how can you do that? Also, the structure of the Kerri Strug video was essential in the construction or build of the piece. There was something about that five minutes and eleven seconds that was heartbreaking, and that was in 1996 — our cast and friends we showed this to, still get teary-eyed. Perhaps we cry when we see the hero in a position when there is no other choice left, at the razor’s edge.

Chris: We found the Kerri Strug thing drew the most immediate emotional response thing for us. There’s something about it that is so contained, almost like Greek tragedy; it all takes place in this one location and has this entire journey to it. And it elicits this huge response.

Q. Another heroic theme that the show keeps coming back to is this pioneer family — at least, it seems like they’re a pioneer family going west, but then it turns out they’re actually in contemporary times, and the land they think they can stake their claim to is actually someone’s back yard. So they keep moving west, and when they finally reach the Pacific Ocean, they can go no farther.

Denmo: In the beginning, we researched various types of heroes — the super hero, the reluctant or noir hero, and one of them was the cowboy or the frontiersman. They moved west, claimed their own, one of the most heroic acts that could be done. But it was already clamed. We really wanted to look at how we actually came into the American story about what the frontiersman was — without making it wistful or romantic.

Chris: It is so foundational to America to want to strike out westward and be individualistic; the residue of manifest destiny as part of the American dream. And we were so successful at it that we killed the dream. Now there’s nothing left, but it continues to play itself out in a political and economic way all over the world. (American) car culture is something that’s left over from the American idea of rugged individualism — which is just another word for selfishness.

Q. Tell me about your company, mugwumpin.

Denmo: We’ve been in SF just over 3 years. We graduated from the physical theater program of Naropa University and moved to SF to start this company. Our first show seen by the people at Exit Theater, they invited us to perform at the Fringe Festival, and then we were granted a short term residency at the Exit. And have continued to build our company.

Chris: Now we have sponsorship from Intersection for the Arts — fiscal sponsorship, which means we’re under a 501c3 umbrella, they give advisory services, do our books, and look at grants we write.

Q. How do you find other performers for your shows? Do you do auditions?

Chris: We hate auditions.

Denmo: They don’t really work. We just want to play with people who want to play with us. We’ve done some workshops, and we’re talking about doing a sort of play session in which we invite people to play with us.

Chris: We can provide a framework, but in a selfish way, we want to see what it’s like to play with people.

mugwumpin’s super:anti:reluctant plays at 8 pm Friday-Saturday at the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy St. in San Francisco through December 15. (415) 673-3847 or

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