How can a couple clowns possibly contend with America’s entertainment for kids; video games, movies with special effects and all those fancy sparkly toys??? Well, when you’re performing for kids who’ve lost all those things, they use the one toy they will never be without… their imagination.
As clown duo Farquar and Dasani, Selena and I have been taking children to the ocean, the desert and the swamp in search of the perfect home. The children come with us, playing the roles of ocean bubbles and seaweed, swamp trees and even a shark! (the kid who plays this role usually won’t let go of me and Selena has to pry him off…he takes his role very seriously). The kids go crazy as we dive under a giant blue ocean tarp and our heads pops up through holes. When the show is over, we ask them “okay, does anyone have any questions for us about Clowns Without Borders or the show. Yes, you, in the stripped blue shirt.” “YOU’RE FUNNY!” “Okay, thank you. Any other questions? Yes, you in the pink shirt.” “I LIKE THE PART WHEN THE MONSTER CHASES HER!” “Okay, good stuff…um…any other questions?” “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?” “Well, we like to make people happy and bring laughter. So we’re going to all the different summer camps”
And man, oh man. Some camps sure appreciate it. There are still 13,000 families in trailer or mobile home parks. Shiny while trailer after shiny white trailer, glistening under the hot sun at the Diamond FEMA Trailer park. Selena and I will perform for the children here, in an old courthouse, shredded by Katrina. And for the kids at Diamond, it seems there’s not a lot around for them to enjoy. Other performance venues we’ve played include community centers, schools and yards.
We do several shows in gymnasiums with over 200 children, who are rambunctious and steamy. Kids often go nutty during our interactive show, as we are something different for them to enjoy. And our clowning around doesn’t exactly calm them down….however, near the end of the show, when Farquar and Dasani threaten to be apart from each other, you could hear a pin drop. After realizing that sending Farquar via Express Post to the moon won’t work and Dasani’s magic is bogus, they blame each other for their inability to find the perfect home. At one particular performance a young girl in the front row yells, “Y’all shouldn’t be fightin’! Y’all are friends!”. I love how they come along with us on our adventure.
But you can’t blame the kids for being unfocused. They lost structure when they lost their homes, schools, family members and don’t know when they might lose their FEMA trailer. The heads of our partnered organizations are grateful that we have come to bring smiles to their kids. And the kids are grateful too, “Are y’all gonna come back soon?”
“So what is Clowns with….or is it… without?….Borders exactly?”
“We’re an international non-profit doing clown shows in areas around the world that have suffered some kind of crisis.”
“Well – welcome to New Orleans…!”
The tone of voice full of the implication of all of the hardship that so many people have withstood and continue to withstand day after day. This voice belongs to a teacher at one of the Catholic Charities summer camps where we perform.
We incorporate the kids in our clown show. When we go underwater they are the seaweed, some blow bubbles, one is a shark. In the swamp they are the trees and help me hide from the swamp monster and then transform the swamp monster back into Dasani (Alice). Our show at this particular summer camp is very energetic and when we get to our desert scene, the kids get a little carried away telling us which way to go to find water. “There! No that way! That way!” One kid in the front row can’t contain himself and periodically shouts out “She’s funny! You’re funny! Funny!”
We are here in New Orleans performing for kids all over the city. We are partnering with a large variety of organizations – local church groups, organizations that sprung up after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, established arts programs, a local farmer’s market:
Dominion Power Ministry
Jefferson Youth Foundation
Pentecost Baptist Church
The Renaissance Project
Zion Hill Baptist Church
All of these groups are doing amazing work fighting to rebuild and support kids whose support structures have been ripped apart. We do a show at the Emergency Communities summer camp in the Diamond FEMA trailer park. Only 35 kids but they get out of hand easily and the counselors have trouble keeping them quiet and sitting down during the show – they start talking to each other or come up on stage with us. These kids live in a trailer park – rows and rows of white boxes – so many of their parents working at night, or not working at all. Most people in the park seem to stay in their trailers all day and it’s a drop-in camp program so the counselors don’t have much authority – the kids can always just leave and go back to their trailer.
Our show is in the “courthouse” – a former courthouse that was totally ripped apart by the storm. Only the basic structure is still standing, the floor a mess of ripped up tiles, insulation and wires hanging from the ceiling, but it provides much needed shade on such a hot day.
At the end of the show the kids want to see our props. They want to take our stuff or they want us to give it to them. One little 4 year old girl absent mindedly takes my orange arm floaty from the show and starts to walk away. A patient counselor says, “Baby, you need to give them back the armband.” The girl doesn’t seem to even notice that she’s being spoken to; she walks in the opposite direction with the floaty. The counselor tries again, “Honey, look at her, she needs the floaty to swim in the next show. What’s the matter? Did you sleep okay? Baby, look at how sad she is. You need to give it back to her so she can do another show.” I put on a sad face, the girl looks up, smiles and gives it back to me.
I am so impressed by the counselors at this camp – wow is it hard to teach these kids respect when they have been disrespected over and over so many times – before the storm by the systematic oppression of poor black children in this country, and after the storm being pulled around from one living situation to another, so that almost 2 years later they are still living in a bleak trailer park with the constant threat that they will lose their FEMA benefits.
Of course they want to grab at our arm floaties, stereo, clown noses, even the half eaten apple from our show. I really can’t blame them.
Two days later we return to the trailer park to teach a workshop. The kids trickle in slowly. I do a very little intro to clowning with them. We start off going around in a circle, each kid coming up with a clown name and a gesture. Peachcows, Blue, Skip, Blockbuster, Netflix, Heeltoe, Blueberries, Sir Isaac Hagen Daaz of Utah, CocoGoddess, Spiderman, Red, Stars, and Dasani (Alice) and Farquar (Selena). We do a group juggling exercise throwing balls in a pattern. The kids actually stay still and quiet totally concentrated for it! Then we all practice silly walks, and chant each person’s new clown name as they do their walk one at a time. Finally, we practice tripping. “Hey Heeltoe, how’s it goi…WOAH!…..(look back) what was that?” They totally go for it. And at the very end, one by one they put on a clown nose, do their silly walk and trip as we chant their new clown names.
We’ve had a great time, the kids have really opened up in just that one hour, and they have been respectful to each other and to us.
Yes there has been a crisis in New Orleans, but as a woman who watched our show at the Pentecost Baptist Church reminded us, the crisis is not contained to New Orleans. This particular woman is still living in Dallas because she can’t afford to move back to New Orleans to live. Her old home was ruined and is contaminated with black mold. Rents have skyrocketed and there are few jobs. She can only come to visit her son and his kids briefly. She asks if we aren’t by any chance going through Dallas so that we could perform for all the displaced people at her church there, cause they could really use us!
There are so many people who have been displaced by these hurricanes all across the U.S.A., faceless in our media. What does that mean for Clowns Without Borders, an organization whose mission is to work in areas of crisis? Is our entire country an area of crisis?