El Payaso: Not just clowning around

Milagro's bilingual Fertile Ground play recalls clown/activist Ben Linder and highlights current social and political struggles

On April 30, 1987, David and Elisabeth Linder buried their 27-year-old son, Ben, in Matagalpa, a small city in Nicaragua. Ben Linder had been tortured and killed two days before with American arms at the hands of Reagan-backed Contras fighting an insurgent war against the nation’s leftist Sandinista government. A funeral led by then-Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega Saavedra followed, with a procession of thousands of local and foreign mourners, and in that crowd marched clowns from the Nicaraguan National Circus, their painted mouths turned downwards.

Milagro contributes to Portland’s ninth annual Fertile Ground Festival of new works with its world premiere of El Payaso, a bilingual agitprop play that matches our times and is based on Ben Linder’s life. El Payaso (The Clown) runs through January 21 and then sets off for a national tour to educate middle schoolers.

Milagro’s “El Payaso”: clowing, engineering, pushing for change. Photo: Russell J Young

Based on talks with Linder’s parents and some of Ben’s letters, rising Latino star playwright Emilio Rodriguez wrote the script. Rodriguez co-owns the Black and Brown Theatre Company in Detroit, where he is also a teacher. He’s known for writing scripts with a well-developed poetic muscle, and El Payaso is a living eulogy to the fallen activist Linder. Half the play is spoken in Spanish, and an elementary proficiency is helpful to follow along.

Elías, played by Marlon Jiménez Oviedo, is a young college student working to get good grades while struggling with poverty and the failing infrastructure in Flint, Michigan, where high concentrations of lead in the city’s water supply has caused a health crisis and political scandal. Portland Public Schools also have had a recent lead crisis in the buildings’ tap water, leading to the departure of the district superintendent.

In one poignant early scene of El Payaso, as Elías is getting ready to leave for his environmental studies class, his sister Celia (Emile Dultra) begs him to fill two 12-ounce plastic bottles with water from the school’s fountain. Cecilia is a dormant seed, trapped in an apartment, with not much in the way of a future. The family’s promise lies with Elías, but his demons cast long shadows. He often fights with authority figures, such as his enivronmental studies teacher, because he doesn’t think they’re in touch with everyday people and their education doesn’t give him immediate access to a better life. Elías can’t listen, can’t wait, and while he sees his community is falling apart as government hides its sins, he’s a volcano of rage ready to erupt at any moment.

Elías’s teacher, Stacy (Danielle Pecoff) sees the intellectual promise behind the righteous anger he struts. She gives him bait by suggesting he hit the books and write an essay to win a scholarship to Nicaragua. He wins, and off he goes for the first time by plane to meet Oscar and Gilda, who run a hydroelectric facility built by Ben Linder in the tiny village of El Cuá.

Linder was a Portland native who graduated from the old Adams High School and studied engineering at the University of Washington. He was known for riding his tall unicycle around campus. After graduation he set off for El Cuá and wrote to his father that he could count on one hand how many engineers in the world were working to bring change to impoverished countries. He was an ectatic activist, a dreamer with science to back him up, a creative dynamo with a heart of gold. Bringing renewable electricity to El Cuá meant people could turn on lights to study by at night; they could refrigerate food and medicine. They could move out of the 19th century and into the late 20th with their aspirations.

The Portland branch of Clowns without Borders has sponsored this show, because Linder inspired them. They have an annual juggling award named in his honor. While doctors administerd measles shots to the children of the village, Linder would put on smuggled-in white face clown makeup, ride his tall unicycle, and juggle for them. Alvaro Uriarte, the owner of a small store in El Cuá, told the New York Times in 1987: “We were amazed last week when we found out the clown was a mechanical engineer. He never let on.”

Linder wrote: “I see the kids and I feel like taking them all away to a safe place to hide until the war stops and the hunger stops and El Cuá becomes strong enough to give them the care they deserve. The pied piper of El Cuá. But I can’t do that, and even if I could it wouldn’t help the neighboring towns. So instead, I try to put in light, and hope for the best.”

As the character Elías begins to learn about Ben Linder and grassroots change, his heart softens toward the people at home in Flint. He and the other characters are in clownface, but the colors of their makeup are earth, clay, and dark skies. As the actors tell the story of Linder’s life, the makeup pops them in and out of circus retellings and formal stage performances.

The vivid acting chops of Milagro’s Ajai Terrazas Tripathi bring Linder’s spirit back to life. In one scene, he’s uplifting single mom Gilda’s (Emile Dultra’s) self-confidence to take over running the hydroelectric plant for her town. Terrazas Tripathi brings a magical buzz to Linder’s persuasive power, a trait that the real Linder probably used in working with the villagers. The most outstanding scene in El Payaso comes when Terrazas Tripathi as Linder works through some acrobatics with the young Elías to illustrate to the audience how a hydroelectric dam works. In the post show Q&A for that evening, an engineer in the audience commented on how “accurate(ly) the physical play described the mechanics of that kind of facility.”

The tight cast of four play 10 or more characters and use circus props, gags, and jokes to weave through a play with a lot of flashback sequences. It’s not an over-the-top Barnum and Bailey spectacle; more an homage to the creative ingenuity a big tent brings to theater’s imagination. When Elías gets frustrated at the beginning of the play, characters use noisemakers to invoke the cacophony of angry thoughts and emotions running through his head.

The backgrop mural, painted by Quetzal Brock-Rivero, is part Diego Rivera propaganda of the lily pickers of the fields and oddly reminiscent of El Cuá’s own mural dedicated to Ben Linder. This is an agitprop play, so we’re not left with a warm fuzzy feeling about the legacy of a long-past activist’s work. Instead we’re shown how on our own doorsteps lie many social, environmental, and racial injustices. Now that we’ve been given a slice of history, what will we do next to help bring change?

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El Payaso continues through January 21 at Milagro Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

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