Sunday, October 14, 2007

in New Orleans with Clowns Without Borders

"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:

Catholic Charities
Dominion Power Ministry
Emergency Communities
Jefferson Youth Foundation
Kingsley House
Pentecost Baptist Church
Play Power
The Renaissance Project
The Verge
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?

1 comment:

dan said...

Hi Selena,

I’ve been working as a hospital clown and social circus instructor here in Chicago for the past two years and I am interested in taking my work abroad via a Fulbright Fellowship. I was wondering if I could correspond with you to get an idea of how you presented the work of humanitarian clowning and social circus so that you were able to receive the Watson funding. Is there an email address I can use to contact you?