agitprop theater

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.

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