It’s nearly impossible to be an activist in San Francisco and not know who Tommi Avicolli-Mecca is. Fiery, committed and energetic, Tommi’s face is a mainstay at protests against everything from the Iraq war to the demolition of SRO hotels. However, while he’s well-known for his fights for the City’s underprivileged, this Friday he’ll be stepping out as an actor.
It isn’t easy to be Italian, queer and dangerous at the same time, but Tommi Avicolli-Mecca manages to put it all in a new solo show coming to the Jon Sims Theater next week. In the space of an hour Avicolli-Mecca tells many stories; of growing up in a tightly knit “famiglia”, of being kicked out of the house by his father, of living in a queer commune called “Maison Duck”, of marching, protesting and dodging the draft, of being beaten, of finding a sense of family in unlikely places and, most importantly, of learning to laugh about his troubles. After coming out prominently at Temple University in 1971, and spearheading a fight with the school administration, he even received death threats.
But though he claims “you cannot imagine how bad it was,” he managed to say: “If they kill me I’ll look great in the papers. I just had to laugh about it because if I didn’t I would go nuts. It would destroy your mind, and I saw people that went crazy.”
He brings the same sensibility to his performance, saying: “.people come up to me after the show saying ‘Oh my God, that was so funny, but the pain.’ So they get the pain, they get the hurt.” His confrontation with his father was a traumatic part of his life and is a climactic moment in the show, but says Avicolli-Mecca “I love performing that part, because now I can look back on how ridiculous it was.”
Avicolli-Mecca was born in 1953 in Philadelphia’s “Little Italy.” His family was South Italian and held on strongly to “la Via Vechia,” or “the Old Life.” But that life wasn’t exactly for him. “With every immigrant group, the generation that grows up here goes through the same issues that I went through. My family would go on about.la via vechia, la via vechia, and I was like fuck la via vechia. It meant going to mass every Sunday and being an altar boy and all those things that I didn’t want to do, because this is America.”
Though he grew up speaking Italian and English, the Irish nuns at his catholic school made it their mission to get rid of the old language and eventually , he says, “I got sucked into that whole bullshit and I stopped speaking it. I stopped wanting to speak it, that was just for old people, I didn’t want to be like them, I wanted to be American, I wanted to be cool..Unfortunately I just let it go.”
Growing up different in such an environment was hard when the only choices were the priesthood or a gas station. Says Avicolli-Mecca: “my father was always denying what I wanted to be. I would say that I really want to be a writer and he would say ‘You don’t know what you want to be, you want to be a priest.'”
His father supported his attendance at Temple University to get him out of the draft. Not only was “college.the first time that I got to read really good stuff,” that broke through his intellectually sheltered catholic school education, Avicolli-Mecca found himself in the center of Philadelphia’s working class activist movement. He particularly remembers joining a large, spontaneous crowd the day after the Kent State shooting. They marched up Broad Street towards City Hall and were greeted by tanks and by countless police in squad cars. When the crowd refused to stop and disperse, the police rushed into the crowd, beat the students and arrested them.
This and other incidents hardened his resolve as an activist. “That made me angrier and more determined to fight constantly,” he says, “That was the reality of struggle in Philadelphia.” When he came out in 1971 at a gay pride meeting and then appeared on television at the fore of a protest against Temple’s counseling program, he was out of the house and out of the Old World forever.
Tommi Avicolli-Mecca remains a prominent queer and housing rights activist in San Francisco, but he doesn’t separate his political and artistic lives. “I think art is a manifestation of my politics,” he says, “Without my politics and without my struggle, my art couldn’t be, at least not this kind of art, I’d be writing Will and Grace.” For him, that would the ultimate sell out to harmless mainstream culture. For Avicolli-Mecca, “That’s why the revolution has to be bigger than that, it has to be bigger than that cultural stuff because if it’s not you lose..the fight for economic justice has not been co-opted.to do that they would have to make some massive changes.”
“Italian. Queer. Dangerous.” Is a series of monologues directed by Francesca Prada and is being incubated by the Intersection for the Arts. Avicolli-Meccas hopes to take it to the Queer Arts Festival in June, but says: “The excitement of this is that it’s not static. I don’t like it when life is static, I’ve always preferred an environment where I can evolve, because I’m not static.” “Italian. Queer. Dangerous.” Will be playing at the John Sims Theater at 1519 Mission St. between 11th and South Van Ness. The show play January 14, 15, 21, 22, 28, 29 (Friday and Saturday nights.) Admission is between five and ten dollars, but no-one will be turned away for lack of funds. Call 415-554-0402 for reservations.