Can a Clown Be an Activist?
The Clown World Has a Racism Problem
There is a Facebook group called Clown Theory. Created by UK clown scholar, author, and teacher Jon Davison, its purpose is to encourage inquiry and debate on all things clown. On 30 May of this year a member posted to the group: “I’m wondering if there is a place for a clown amongst more serious gatherings like street riots and protests for social and racial justice.” It had been five days since George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis and the protests demanding justice for him and all Black lives were underway across the country and internationally. These images and experiences were top of mind when clowns from around the world responded.
Heated with deep grief and fierce advocacy, some folx proclaimed “absolutely not!” while others cited their own practices of clowning at protests and receiving a warm welcome from the local community. At the heart of the disagreement was the question: “Who is being centered when clowns show up in activist spaces?”
If we look at commercial and festival success, authors of practical guides, clown teachers, and the 4600+ membership of the Clown Theory group, the field of North American and European clowns is disproportionately white and male. The image of the average clown—an entity designed to captivate peoples’ attention—showing up at a Black Lives Matter protest struck several folx as an antithetical distraction from the purpose of the protests. The original post and much of the thread of responses, however, did not revolve around the uprising for Black lives. Indeed, several non-Black folx of color chimed in to say that activist clowning within social and racial justice protests is a well-documented and thriving practice. We sought out these voices for their perspectives on a range of clowning techniques in service of activism, bringing them together for this series.
It was a painful example of how insidious and pervasive white supremacist delusion, cissexism, and anti-Blackness is in clowning, even in a field dedicated to delightful humor and generosity of spirit.
Getting Our Own House in Order
We are both United States–based clowns and teaching artists who work to activate our audiences and communities toward social justice. We were in touch with each contributor during the spring and we established the point of view of this essay before the videos of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd’s final moments went viral. We stepped away from this process to join protests, to donate, to activate our communities, and to rigorously interrogate how our work and this series contributes to or interrupts white supremacy. We returned and began writing anew.
We presumed our peers in the international clown community were engaging in the same work of taking stock of their personal and communal responsibilities. We were wrong. In a conscious effort to lift up Black voices in our field, on 24 June, Davison posted a video created by Black filmmaker Maud/Dainty Funk titled, “Clowns Are Racist,” in which Dainty Funk shares their perspective on reclaiming some of the racist roots of clowning. Davison’s post invited a discussion around the question: “Which other performers and thinkers are researching and working on this right now?”
With 573 comments, the post garnered the most responses of any in the group’s thirteen-year existence. Unfortunately, few people were interested in Davison’s prompt. Instead, a cohort of almost exclusively white men responded with a barrage of defensive, often vitriolic, critiques of Dainty Funk themself and the quality of their research. When several members of color and a few white-identified supporters cited the harm coming from the paternalism, the gatekeeping, the repeated misgendering of Dainty Funk, and the dismissal of Dainty Funk’s worthiness, this cohort doubled down. A hornets nest had been poked. Several well-established and influential clowns, who have spent decades practicing, teaching, and writing about clown, felt threatened and compelled to discredit and dismiss this young Black YouTuber. Some even defended their positions through a counter-justice argument of free speech and cited clown masters before them to support their logic. Others chose to be patronizing, saying that clowning shouldn’t be taken so seriously and should be a politics-free zone.
It was a painful example of how insidious and pervasive white supremacist delusion, cissexism, and anti-Blackness is in clowning, even in a field dedicated to delightful humor and generosity of spirit. The two of us, along with a couple other group members, immediately began working with Davison on shifting Clown Theory toward an explicitly anti-racist and anti-oppressive framework. We were inspired by the moderators of the Facebook group Theatre Folx of Color, and by adrienne maree brown’s emergent strategy work. The new moderator team is multi-gendered and multi-racial, and they now focus on harm reduction, educating each other, and relationship-building through more one-on-one conversations. (If anyone is interested in learning more about our process related to the Facebook group, we’re happy to chat.)
There is still an exhausting, entrenched, and obstinate white male cohort resisting growth, but in this small, online pocket of the performance-making community, which includes many leaders in the field of clown, the culture is transforming for the better.
As the co-authors of this piece, our activism each takes its own shape. For Amrita, it focuses on further confronting this gatekeeping and on empowering the less visible bodies in this work in spaces like the Idiot Workshop, for which she is the managing director. The Idiot Workshop is dedicated to building community by bringing together contemporary clown and constructive troublemaking to comedians, dancers, and artists of Los Angeles. Alongside the founder John Gilkey, Amrita is challenging the pedagogy, which disproportionately upholds and celebrates cis het white men, and training and advocating for more Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ students and teachers.
Clown embraces some of the darkest experiences of humanity and transforms them into the communal release of laughter. Clowning is an invitation to subvert and overcome.
Clowns as a Tool for Activism
The dominant perspective on clown thinks in terms of a universal: clown stems from humanity’s capacity to bounce back and persevere in the face of certain doom. Doom for clowns, of course, can be anything from existential dread of mortality to a hangnail. Either way, most clowns are taught to consider themselves avatars for buoyancy and resilience amidst the suffering of existence. This is why many of us have been taught that some form of the clown has been present in every epoch of time and within every region and culture of the world. But context is important. What is the clown rebounding from? What’s holding it down?
If clowns are ubiquitous because they capture our shared capacity to bounce back, then the forces that oppress the clown are analogous to the oppressive forces in our own lives. Embedded in the nature of clown is the spirit of joy and resistance in the face of overwhelming power. Clown embraces some of the darkest experiences of humanity and transforms them into the communal release of laughter. Clowning is an invitation to subvert and overcome. So to answer the question from the Clown Theory post—“... is there a place for a clown amongst protests for social and racial justice?”—our answer is yes. A clown can be a tool for an activist.
The four contributors of this series— Larry Bogad, Sabine Choucair, Sayda Trujillo, and the folx of Compañía Siató—take this ethos to heart. They are antidotes to a white supremacist clown culture. They are empowered clowns of color and culture, or they co-mingle clown and white privilege to help dismantle oppressive power structures. Their practices are also aligned with the likes of the Center of Artistic Activism, an international leader in arts activism, who believe that shifting people emotionally is a powerful and necessary tool. Clown works to emotionally disarm the audience and leave them feeling more connected (or foiled) through joy. The humor they invoke creates an opening for vital social justice messages to be heard, so when clowns show up in activist movements, they have the makings to be a wonderful gift. This series calls attention to the power and efficacy of clown-based activism in the fight toward equity and justice.
This series calls attention to the power and efficacy of clown-based activism in the fight toward equity and justice.
Clown Activism Across the World
In our interview with Sabine of Clown Me In, she explains how her clown work has taken her to the streets of her home in Beirut, Lebanon. She organizes with local activists groups, like her collaboration with Coalition for Waste Management that helped catalyze community action and pressure authorities to “circumvent environmental and health hazards.” However, in the face of immense suffering among large swaths of society and unchecked power imbalance, Sabine sometimes turns to bouffon, a gritty and subversive cousin of clown. “It’s great to be a poetic, hopeful clown looking at life and showing your vulnerability,” she shares. “But when things are really heated you need to be able to be there, showing people who they are, what they are, and really pinching these parts.”
Both of us are moved by Sabine’s words and they strike at the heart of Nathaniel’s work—bouffon is his primary activist practice. In 2009, Nathaniel formed an arts activist organization Naked Empire Bouffon Company, which uses bouffon—a form of satire whose hallmarks include intense physicality and outrageously visual comedy with a joyously confrontational bite—to interrogate and undermine societal apathy. Bouffons—unabashed truth-tellers with no time for fragility or inaction—know how to party, and before long the audience comes to realize it’s at their expense. The first question the company asks themselves in a creation process is always personal. “How am I complicit? How do I contribute to my own oppression and the oppression of others?”
While bouffon work highlights injustice with dark comedy, Sayda and Clowns Without Borders (CWB) seek to bring light into the darkest places. CWB is an organization that brings the joy and laughter of clown to all, especially children, who live in areas of crisis, including refugee camps and conflict zones. In her contribution to this series, Sayda, a CWB volunteer for fifteen years and currently on the board of directors, writes, “Clown activism is about this play of listening and responding, of seeing and being seen.” She believes in clown’s transformative ability to highlight the dignity, delight, and power in everyone even amidst the direst of circumstances. The simple act of seeing these communities as needing laughter humanizes the crises and brings people into the conversation who otherwise would not have been involved.
Bringing focus to the turmoil within the United States, Larry, who has worked in the UK with a radical crew of misfits known as the Rebel Clown Army, shares his tactical approach. In the face of far-right Trumpist bigots, he encourages adapting and innovating new clown tactics. He writes that “by exercising our playfulness and our creativity, we become more lithe, nimble, and unpredictable across the board in everything we do—fast enough to outmaneuver our ponderous, but more powerful, dance partners/foes.” Larry, who is white, also writes about how one’s own visibility can be used to address the white privilege of the clown. “This privilege is a tool that can be useful in the hands of a movement that is flipping it around for leverage,” he writes, “but can also be problematic if it takes away attention from the work of people of color. Weaponizing privilege can be effective when following the leadership and direction of people of color.”
Like Larry, Compañía Siató of Santiago, Chile, leans into the populist roots of clown by showing up wherever the people are. The clowns of Siató cite the long history and acceptance of clowns in Latin America and consider themselves part of a sacred tradition of performing antics that “would not exist without validation from society.” They also share a strategy similar to the consent model in Sabine’s work by organizing with local communities. Their work takes them to remote villages and urban centers rattled by political and cultural uprisings. They say they are “guided by love, innocence, and the search for ‘the good,’” and that “in a society decomposed by capitalism and corrupt authorities [this] is a rebellious, liberating, and spiritual act.”
Clown-based activism isn’t new. This series features a small selection of clowns who are all part of a venerable lineage of clown activists. There are many more. Perhaps the subversive and community-serving history of clowning has been buried under the dominance of birthday clowns, killer clown horror movies and public panics, Ronald McDonald, and the popularity of calling our forty-fifth president a clown. Most significantly, perhaps the comfort and privilege of whiteness and white supremacy among teachers has obscured clowning’s relationship to inequity, power, and resistance. With all of this obfuscation, it makes sense that someone would ask a Facebook clown group about the existence of activism in our field. This series serves as a reminder of what’s possible and a potential road map for your own clown activism journey.