A Call for Black Laughter.
I’ve been a medical clown for 21 years. With medical clowning, I found my calling. This work requires a performance skillset and a personal vulnerability to be impacted by the patients and families we see.
Part of this vulnerability requires that the clowns meet the patients where they are. This means that the clowns can come prepared to be funny or to do a fantastic trick. But, before we do our clown thing, we have to pay attention to the patient. We have to get a sense of what the patient and the family want.
One of the unique challenges in the field now is that there are very few African-American clowns doing this work. When I began this work 21 years ago, I was one of eight people who were hired. I was the only black clown on the team. When the COVID pandemic paused our work in March 2020, I was once again the only black clown on our team of twelve. During my 21 years of clowning, I have almost always been the only African-American on our team. There was a short time, when we had two black clowns on our team. I often think back to that time when another Black clown, Dr. J man, and I would pair up and work together. I remember the comments from the African-American staff at the hospital who noticed that two black men were representing the clowns that day. They noticed, they liked it. However, the times we had two black clowns representing the team were rare and brief. Eventually, Jamarr left the team to become a schoolteacher. Once again, this left me as the only black clown on our hospital team. Many of the clown teams don’t have any black members at all in their ranks.
I’m familiar with being the only black person in the room. That reality has been customary to me throughout school, where I was often the only black student in my classroom. I’m used to being quite literally… the minority. I grew up in a black household with two black parents in a black community. I attended an African-American church. This is the community, family, and church where I was nurtured. It made me who I am.
As I grew older and started my career, I found myself outside of that community. My work environment put me in more situations where I was “the only one.” The one black guy in the room at work. The one black guy in the theater production. And definitely the only black clown in the hospital. In these workspaces, I am aware of how I am seen. I’m “the black one.” The nice, safe, black guy. I lived the double consciousness, that sense of looking at myself through other’s eyes. Constantly measuring myself through the view of other’s opinions of me.
As hospital clowns, we see patients and families when they are vulnerable. Being a patient in the hospital obviously is not fun. Caring for a loved one in the hospital can be exhausting. As medical clowns, we address this issue. We make a connection with the patients and family members in those times when they need a respite from hospital life. I especially enjoy the links that I’ve made with other African-American patients and families. I’ve had moments of great joy and celebration, especially from some African-American patients and families. More than a few times, I’ve been told that they’ve never seen a black clown before. In those moments, there’s less of a need for a double consciousness. I am seen simply as an agent of joy, an agent of black joy for black clients. These moments have been precious to me.
The Laughter League is hosting the ABOUT BLAUGHTER (BLACK JOY) WORKSHOP for entertainers who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). I’m grateful to Tiffany Riley at the Laughter league for hosting this workshop and for the opportunity to work with such great artists as Michelle Matlock and Carolyn Ratterray. I hope that this workshop and others like it can help create more moments of black joy. Let’s have more clowns of color who experience the pleasure of doing this work and more families who can easily relate to the clowns they see.
More joy all around.
To register: https://www.eventbrite.com/…/laughter-league-tickets…
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