I’ve been a professional clown for over 20 years. I began this career working for the Big Apple Circus in their Clown Care Unit in 2000. We performed in children’s hospitals. I’ve always found this work to be rewarding. It’s a combination of artist, service, and community that has been consistent throughout my professional clown career. The recent focus on Black Lives Matter and the racial awakening that began last year renewing a focus on an issue that I’ve wrestled with over these 20 years. The question is, what is Black Clowning? What are the unique qualities that can be identified as Black Clowning?
I have spent the majority of my career as the only African-American clown on my local team. During these twenty years, I’ve been one of the few African-American clowns anywhere with whom I could identify and share. Over these years, I’ve developed my personal approach—a style that fits me and my skill set and personality. However, my artistic approach is just that, Meredith’s approach, which doesn’t apply across the board to everyone. That said, there are unique aspects to being African-American. It only makes sense to assume that this uniqueness could manifest itself with other African-American artists in the field.
As a professional clown, I’ve noticed how having more women clowns can positively affect the work. When I first began doing this work, there was only one woman on our team. Now, our team of eleven is almost half women, half men. I’ve watched as female clowns make connections from a female point of view. It adds to the richness and quality of the work. I can only wonder how having more African-American clowns would influence the outcome. Especially since we are in Atlanta, an area with a large Black population. For a brief time, I had one other African-American teammate. There was a perceptible difference in how we were received and how we were seen by staff patients and families. This was especially true among the African-American staff members at the hospital. They were quick to notice that both clowns were African-American.
I’ve always been aware of the unique experience when I find myself performing for an African-American audience. This is especially true in the hospital where seeing any clown can be a surprise, not to mention seeing an African-American clown, one who looks like you. It reminds me of the “nod” that many African Americans will give each other when we see one of “us” in a crowd of mostly white faces.
A search for a black aesthetic in clowning is a real journey for me, especially now, in our current social setting. I was at the High Museum here in Atlanta several years ago. I wandered into a screening of a short film. The film was “Love is the Message, and the Message is Death.” This was a cathartic experience for me. The film showcased black horror, black delight, black joy, black pain, black celebration, and black destruction, all in seven minutes. It got my attention. It was made by director and cinematographer Arthur Jafa. As I learn more about the artists, I realized he has been addressing some of these same concerns as a filmmaker that I wondered about as a clown. One of his goals as a filmmaker is to create a form of black aesthetic expression in filmmaking that matches the power of the black aesthetic expression in music. As Jafa put it, there is unquestionably a black mastery in music. Black artists have a history of uniquely black artistic expression in jazz, gospel, R&B, rock and roll, and hip hop. Jafa seeks to have a similar form of expression in his film making. For me, his film “Love is the Message, and the Message is Death” expresses a sense of that blackness.
There are African-American clowns I know, a few I have seen throughout my career. However, my experience has been marked by the lack of these examples rather than the presents of these examples. This got me thinking about my artistic medium, clowning. How do I address this as an African-American clown? I’ve spent most of my career without significant examples of African American clowns as peers, mentors, and icons. Is there a black aesthetic in cloning? If so, where is it? Who is it? Where do I fit within this aesthetic?
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