In her 12 years of clowning, Nikki Sandoval has maintained the same fundamental look, with small tweaks depending on the venue. While the costumes change–everything from various rainbow and Kente cloth dresses to a custom, white Brown Clown jacket with a tiny rainbow top hat–the green wig, red heart-shaped nose and perhaps most notably, visible Black skin remain the same.
The choice is very much intentional. Sandoval wants Black and Brown children to see themselves in her character. During parades and other large-scale events, she likes to throw on everything in her makeup box because, as a performer, she knows she has a responsibility not to look “plain” from afar. However, when she does classroom visits and other events that allow her to engage closely with children, she’s especially spare with her accessories. She wants children to see the person behind the makeup: a Northeast Portland lifer who, both in her clowning and prolific reputation of community work, is dedicated to serving and centering Black families.
“In Portland, I find it’s important to the parent and the community that people know who you are,” says Sandoval. “And that you’re more than somebody who just comes and takes the money. I like being connected to the community I serve.”
As her reputation has grown, Sandoval has fought two daunting uphill battles as a performer: society’s fear (and subsequent misunderstanding) of clowns, and Oregon’s fear of Black people. Oregon is infamous for being the only state to pass Black exclusion laws in its Constitution, and has only a 2.3% Black population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It was also part a national “epidemic” of scary clown sighting headlines in 2016.
Yet against this intimidating backdrop, Sandoval has helped put an engaging face on Black Oregon joy. Her face is all over lunch boxes and t-shirts, she’s won both the Rose Festival’s Entertainer of the Year and Clown of the Year awards, performed at the Nation of Islam’s Savior’s Day Children’s Village in Detroit, and received requests to perform not just throughout Portland, but also in places such as Fairview, Eugene, and Southwest Washington. Yet, Sandoval says she has never been invited to perform at a white child’s birthday party.
But gaining broader appeal to a “mainstream” audience is not the reason she got into clowning, nor is it a particular goal of hers. The fact that Sandoval has built a successful children’s entertainment brand in Oregon, without depending on white families and by catering purposefully and enthusiastically to Black and Brown children, might end up being the most enduring aspect of her legacy.
This month, Nikki Brown Clown performs at Multnomah County Library Story Hour on June 16, Juneteenth Oregon Parade and festivities June 17, and the Good In The Hood Parade and Music Festival June 24.
Sandoval says she was specifically inspired by Tommy the Clown, a performer based in Los Angeles. Tommy the Clown, whose real name is Tommy Johnson, is a hip-hop clown who uses a style of dance called “krumping” to engage with youth. Over three decades, he has used his character to host countless dance battles, inspire youth to form their own crews, and provide an alternative to getting involved in gang activity. Seeing Tommy the Clown made Sandoval realize that she could succeed without having to conform to the idea of being a traditional clown.
Sandoval can also rattle off dozens of clowning genres and subgenres as if it’s a reflex. Her ongoing study of clowning includes training with the Rose Festival and participating in different events sponsored by clown alleys, or groups that often function as unions and provide professional development services, such as Rose City Clowns.
As I wrote in The Skanner in 2013, “A lot of people are afraid of clowns. Frankly, many Portlanders are afraid of Black people. Imagine if they saw a Black clown speaking Spanish. That’s just what Nicole X does when she dons her makeup and begins strolling. Clad in rainbow socks, a quilt-like dress, and green hair with a yellow bow on top, her style is as colorful as she is. She speaks with a Southern accent, exudes Nation of Islam inspired principles of self-sufficiency and gets down to Motown.” In addition to being an award-winning clown with followers throughout the country, Sandoval is also a doula, foster parent, proud Nation of Islam member and caretaker of the Emerson Street Garden.
A Different Shade of Clown Art
“I’ve noticed that in our [Black] culture, we want to know who they [performers] are,” says Sandoval. “We’re steeped in, ‘Who are your people? Where are your people from? What church do you go to?’ We want to be connected.”
Sandoval notes that seeing her Black skin up close also serves the purpose of making clowns less scary to children in particular, and people in general. Much of that fear, she says, comes from the stylistic white face of Eurocentric clowns throughout history.
In fact, throughout her years of studying and developing her craft, Sandoval has spent the most time unpacking and refining her approach to makeup. Finding the balance between showcasing as much Black skin as possible, while also deploying her full arsenal of cosmetics, is a science she’s still perfecting, no different than cooking.
“Do you cook your greens the same way?” Sandoval asks.
Clowning Around Portland – And Beyond
Her clown success has surprised even Sandoval. “I didn’t envision making it very further than Northeast Portland,” she says. “I didn’t think it would be much more than these few blocks.”
Now, she’s aiming to extend her art beyond her own performances, and beyond its own historical limitations. One day, she hopes to start a Brown Clown school for other aspiring clowns of color, noting that traditional clown school is often still very Eurocentric in its focus, especially when it comes to makeup. In 2023, her eleventh year clowning, she’s focusing on establishing “new relationships with community and library partners outside of the Portland Metropolitan area and into other parts of Oregon that have underserved Black communities.” These efforts include not just performances, but also activities like throwing the first pitch for the Hillsboro Hops on Jackie Robinson Night in April, and performing in Kids For The Culture’s February community debut in Albany, Oregon.
“We are incredibly grateful that Nikki was willing to travel to join us for our community debut,” says Ty Anderson-Hubler, executive director of Kids For the Culture. “Black children need to see future versions of themselves in a variety of roles to expand what they believe they are capable of. This is particularly important for Black children living in rural Oregon.”
Ultimately, Sandoval’s approach, both to her makeup and outreach, comes down to meeting her target audience of Black and Brown children where they are.
“In any activism, there’s children,” Sandoval told me in an interview for an Oregon Humanities essay in fall 2022. “In our fight for freedom, the children still deserve magic. The children still deserve fun.”
She likens the children’s interactions with her to those of theme-park mascots like Minnie Mouse or Spongebob Squarepants. The big difference, of course, is that Nikki Brown Clown looks like the Black children she serves.
“Black children rarely get to experience icons who are human,” says Sandoval. “To stand next to Nikki Brown Clown is to say, ‘Maybe that could be me,’ or ‘Hey, that’s my friend.’”
Nikki Brown Clown will be performing at Multnomah County Library Story Hour on June 16 at 10:30 a.m. at the Woodstock Library, the Juneteenth Oregon Parade and festivities on June 17 and the Good In The Hood Parade and Music Festival on June 24. For more info and updates, go to nikkibrownclown.com.