Ben Linder

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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ArtsWatch Weekly: let the good times reel

NW Film Center's "Reel Music," plays about D.B. Cooper and Ben Linder and a guy named Fly Guy, atlas art from post-Gutenberg days

“Tradition!” Tevye the milkman barked, and with that emphatic proclamation the song and dance reeled on. The traditions that last the best are the ones that constantly reshape themselves within the structures they’ve set up, and certainly the Northwest Film Center’s Reel Music Festival, which spools into its 34th annual edition on Friday, fits that category. The basic idea is the same as always: pull together a whole bunch of films about music and musicians (documentaries, primarily), but do new ones every year, and let the good times roll. Or reel.

Thelonious Monk with his band in 1959, from “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith.” Credit 2016 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith, FilmBuff

This year’s edition, which runs through February 5, kicks off with a foulmouthed film about the Rolling Stones (Robert Frank’s 1972 Cocksucker Blues) that followed the band on tour after the Altamont debacle, and was so raunchy and revealing about the seedier side of rock that it was shelved, and is only rarely seen. Here’s your chance. You might want to pair it with the more genteel, if that’s the right word, The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!, filmed on last year’s Latin American tour. I like the looks of 1957’s The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, filmed by the Life Magazine photographer when he lived and worked in an illegal loft teeming with artists and musicians and house parties and jam sessions in Manhattan’s Flower District during a golden age of jazz; A Poem Is a Naked Person, a cinematic portrait of Leon Russell directed by Maureen Gosling and the great Les Blank that was unreleased for 40 years because Russell, a co-producer, didn’t like it; and Mose Allison: Ever Since I Stole the Blues, Paul Bernays’ portrait of the essence-of-hip pianist and singer who was yet another member of last year’s sizable artists’ march into the final sunset. You, no doubt, will find your own favorites. Check the schedule and put on your toe-tapping shoes. It’s a tradition.

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