I met David and Bekah upon arrival, my co-teachers from Portland, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado, respectively. We were to arrive in Dallas and figure out how to teach two weeks of clown workshops to both students and adults. They were all refugees from around the world, having arrived in the States anywhere from weeks to months ago. Some could speak English, some could not. As the Artistic Director of a mime theater company with no formal experience in clowning, I knew this would be a trip of many firsts.
Becky and David demonstrate an act in their training workshop for refugee children new the United States.
I quickly learned that Bekah and David were experts in a world I knew little about: Street performing, juggling, rope tricks, audience participation, solo performing. We arrived on a Sunday. The following weekend we would present a 1-hour performance for 150 new refugees at a Thanksgiving meal hosted by Kessler Park Methodist Church. David, a long-time CWB volunteer with plenty of experience, putting together shows like this one, led the charge. “Don’t worry about too many tricks here, Bekah,” David said as they worked on their juggling act in the backyard of our two-week Dallas homestead. “For laypeople who don’t see a lot of juggling, just doing the simple stuff is exciting to see.” “Yes,” I told them from the grass. “I am said ‘layperson,’ and I am freaking out right now!” Seeing their clubs move in complex rhythms was meditative, beautiful. I’d never seen anything like it before. It was magic.
When skills performers as accomplished as Bekah and David rehearsed, it was hard to imagine my theater-style mime in this venue. I stayed focused on what I had to offer as a teacher, on my confidence in ensemble building and theater games. I believe in mime because of its ability to empower the imagination. I reminded myself of why I came.
For a long time, I’ve struggled with my relationship with “social justice work.” I went to a university whose motto is “active citizenship.” I majored in International Relations with a minor in Studio Art. My beloved advisor was a professor of Peace & Justice Studies. Throughout my education, I encountered some invisible monsters: pride, arrogance, presumption, exoticizing the Other. I witnessed my colleagues doing damage where they didn’t mean to, professors not noticing, or perhaps just too occupied to help unpack the difference between good intentions and good impact. I have always believed that my artmaking is a political statement, but I’ve never quite been able to directly bridge the gap between my desire to partake in social action and my own art.
Clowns Without Borders allowed me to do just that. I don’t pretend to believe that laughter can heal all. I’m not sure what state of mind I’ll be in a week from now, let alone what state of mind you’d be in as a Bhutanese refugee still in search of a job. But I do know, with confidence, that in this one hour we can have a good time together. We can play and hang out, and you don’t have to speak English for any of it. You can remember what you know; what you’ve always known since you were a child: how to pass a ball, how to make a joke, how to call and respond. You can witness a young, white, American, Jewish girl from Boston by way of New York City say, “Welcome.” That is something I can say without reservation.
Our first day with the groups was election day. The whole day I thought about my grandma Bubby, a woman who passed along to me a slight fear of conservative Texas. Bubby has always been my role model: intelligent, bold, kind, generous, charismatic, and curious. Her eyelids are each painted with a shock of blue, her lips a bright pink in the shade our whole family knows is called “lilac champagne.” She is a New Yorker, a liberal, and a worrier. She is still afraid of (very real) antisemitism. Bubby is 93 years old, and she voted for whom she hoped would be the first female president. Her parents’ Ellis Island certificates hang proudly on her wall. Of course, the refugees I was about to meet come from a world different than that of my ancestors in myriad ways, but what they had in common was real: a hope that this place is safer, that we can hold our families tight and make a home therein, that our laughter is a renewable resource always and forever.
My trip to Dallas took a lot of prep, a suspension of my NYC responsibilities, a 3-hour plane ride with travel on either side, ten days away from home. I was nervous heading into that first workshop. We gathered around and said our names, and immediately folks giggled. It took no time at all.
At the end of mime 101 with our adult group, an Afghan man pulled me aside. His English was great, he’d been here for 8 months. His wife and little boy leaned in to listen. “I just saw a documentary on ancient India. What you teach us—this storytelling—is how they told stories at the very beginning.” I could have swooned.
At the end of 101 with the kids group, we did a mime lean: stick your elbow out, relax the hand, stretch the outside leg, bend the one with weight on it and wobble the knee. The kids loved this illusion, leaning on something that isn’t there. It’s so simple, the way the body moves, and yet the effect brings a smile, like a joke we all understand. We connect through imaginative play. And when Madena learned how to put her weight on the bent knee and not the outstretched one, suddenly she got it. She was doing the lean! Her body, and only her body was responsible for telling a story. How fantastically powerful. No translation needed.
The refugee children hold their own comedy performance after training with the clowns.
I cried hard when Trump won. The night of the election I woke up and saw a tarantula on my cellphone. I had to turn on the light to prove that it was a trick of the eye. On the drive to our workshop, I just wanted to be in New York where everyone was feeling the same thing. I didn’t know how to look Kalisa in the eye, a tall, young Congolese man. My mind started to speed—a man just went free for shooting an unarmed black man with skin lighter than his. A schoolgirl just reported having her hijab pulled at by bullies. A few days later was the anniversary of the Bataclan shootings in Paris. “And 100,000 anniversaries of 100,000 things I don’t even know about, some things that haven’t even happened yet,” I thought. “I can’t wait to go home and hug my Bubby.”
I had to stop crying to lead some workshops. I did okay, thanks to the support of my co-teachers and friends from home. I read on Facebook about the term “white tears.” I spent a lot of time thinking about tarantulas.
A few days after the election we held a workshop for the staff of Refugee Services of Texas. Christopher Cambises, a man who lives up to his beard, surprised his staff by replacing their weekly staff meeting with an hour of games and laughter. And oh, did they laugh. Bekah, David and I were honored to do something for this staff. These people, some of them refugees themselves, are the America I pledge allegiance to.
I’ve studied acting for several years, and many teachers speak about where in the body we “hold” different emotions or experiences. It was hard for me to imagine what these people had felt or experienced. What they had seen. I don’t even know if I’d align with their political views. I had no concept of what scars were on their skin or under it. For me, being a storyteller has helped me to process, or escape from, or celebrate, or protest my own scars. A simple lean on an invisible wall looks like a cool trick. It also offers the body a new shape to take, a new story to tell. I have no idea if our visit to Francoise’s afterschool had any effect on her experiences. When I try to locate my work in Dallas on my body, I touch the corners of my mouth (where the laugher is), the center of my stomach (where the impression they made on me is), and the palms of my hands (where my sadness is).
The performance at Kessler Methodist went swimmingly. David and Bekah juggled to the excitement of the many faces in the sanctuary. Bekah put a child on her shoulders and rode a unicycle. David made the audience resound with laughter when an adorable little girl kicked him in the behind. My mime piece went over okay—a story about someone trying to get to their family but a wall prevents them from traveling home. She plants an apple seed, grows a tree, and climbs over to find her loved ones. I was going to use fast motion technique when the tree grew but decided that some people may not have ever seen a TV fast-forward. Not sure if that was true, but it’s a question I’d never asked myself before (I spun in place instead). Overall I wasn’t sure my mime act totally fit into the mix. I hadn’t found exactly the right use for it yet.
On my last day, we went to work with our adult group at the Greens, a community center where they met for English classes. This group was almost all Syrian. On our second visit I had made a breakthrough, realizing that with their little English I could teach them something about body language in the U.S. I wrote, “I am angry!” and “Are you sure?” on the board, and had Bekah and David take the two poses. We had to match the language to the body. It opened up a fantastic exercise in body language and communication. It’s so much easier to learn when the body is engaged.
Balancing a stick on one finger is not easy, but the refugee children take on the challenge!
Now was our third visit to the Greens, and we tried something new: splitting into a men’s and women’s group. Turns out that, separated from the men, the Syrian women we met were much more willing to play, even dance! (If the window to the men’s group is properly covered, of course.) I got emotional at the end of class, thinking about going back to New York City the next day, back where the protests were happening. I thought about the FBI who had already come to their homes and checked in on them, registry or not. I thought about the people who would laugh at a hijab or scowl at a Middle Eastern man. My Bubby’s grandparents fled Europe because of pogroms and hate. I wonder which Russian neighbor outstretched their hand to say “things are about to get bad, you should go.” I wonder what New Yorker welcomed them after they made it through Ellis Island. Here I am, about to go back to New York, thinking, “things are about to get bad.” Wanting to outstretch my hand.
What would I have said to my great grandparents? What should I say now? I don’t feign to have grand ideas about bravery or survival; I don’t even know the stories of these women. All I know is that they were willing to play with me for an hour, to laugh and pass an invisible ball. They were trying something new. “You inspire me,” I said to Fatima. Her friends gathered around the google translate on her phone, trying to understand what I’d said. It didn’t translate. Their eyes squinted in an effort to understand. I tried to think outside the box. I put my hand on my heart, pumped it, and pulled an invisible heart out in my hands. I made it grow and pointed around to them. Then I put my hands on my head. I made the faint noise of an explosion, an expansion, and used my hands to grow my mind outwards, opening my eyes wide. I pointed around to them. They smiled, their eyes softened. “Habibi,” they said and kissed me on both cheeks. “I love you!”