Today we perform in Juba, Sudan, for the very first time. Our audience is incarcerated youth. Beforehand, our minds race with the possible challenges we might meet once we’re inside. We heard that the young men were shackled together during a cholera outbreak. We imagine hardened criminals. But what actually happens changes us.
As we enter the courtyard we see the prisoners roaming around. We’re informed that all the incarcerated people have been invited to attend the show, not just the youth. Some men are shackled, others have intense tribal scarring on their foreheads, and some have what appears to be staph infection. The youth are all sitting on the ground in the only spot of shade in the whole courtyard, and the youngest of them looks to be about 10 years old. They’ve been waiting for us. We sit in front of them while our partner organizations, Confident Children Out of Conflict and International Rescue Committee introduce us and gave an informational talk on HIV/AIDS.
We begin our show by playing our musical instruments, and the prisoners’ immediate response is laughter. Throughout the show eyes are wide and grins are huge. They support our performance with punctuations of applause and laughter. We’re a hit! All the inmates we bring onstage for the audience participation sections are respectful, cooperative, and funny. The section they like the most is when our South African clown partner, Gavin, juggles three toilet bowl cleaners. They’re also impressed by his ability to ride a unicycle! It might be the only unicycle that has ever been to Sudan.
After the show, they surround us, wanting mostly to try out the unicycle, but also to say thank you and ask us questions. I probably should feel nervous as a group of strangers swarms the stage, but instead I feel at ease. When I look into their smiling eyes, all I can see are humans. Warm, kind, welcoming, humans.