A Saturday matinee with the kids makes for a perfect memory. This was the case for a majority of the families I encountered on my way to the Children Theater’s Company latest show, Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams. Walking there, I saw boys and girls run to the big doors of the theater as their parents casually stepped behind them. Tepid breezes blew by as summer began to wave goodbye to what was, presumably, the last family outing for many this season. The whole scene would be picturesque if not for the forced avoidance of the protestors on the sidewalk.
If readers do not know, the CTC was recently cleared of liability for the heinous actions of former acting teacher Jason McLean. Early this year, McLean, who fled to Mexico, was found guilty of sexual assault and required to pay over 3 million dollars in damages to his victim. This is not the first charge against McLean as several women have come forward to share their stories of abuse. Many believe the theater should have done more to protect McLean's victims and have been protesting ever since.
Inside, I took my seat next to a little girl and her mother and waited for what I assumed would be, as I put it, caucasian malarky. When I heard there was an Ethiopian circus act in town a certain level of cynicism activated. I’m Eritrean, and if you know anything about African geography or history you know that the two countries are intimately related. Because of this, I was annoyed by what I assumed would be a standard circus act dressed up with Ethiopian tradition. Cultural appropriation with juggling. “How grand,” I thought.
Ready to dislike the performance about to begin, I can now confidently say my cynicism did not last long. Everything from the show’s opening request to turn off phones and flash photography to the contortionists resonated with a real Ethiopian authenticity that could not be denied. The Amharic music, the story of the performers-- everything was genuine, which made for an incredible show.
The stage was hardly ever empty as act after act mesmerized the crowd with wonder. Performances one would expect from the circus were scaled to fit the stage, and, while one might expect that to take away from the experience, it only enhanced it. The tumbling crew of boys delighted with their tight flips and high jumps. The girls enthralled with their hoop, silk, and contortion work. If you have never been to a circus all of the daring and pizzaz will be new. If you’ve been to a circus act before, many of the acts will look familiar, however with the size of the stage you’re view will be better than anything a traveling circus could provide.
Thanks to the energetic music and light show, the crowd of children felt captivated during the entire experience. In fact, there were multiple times when I heard children attempt to sing along to the music they did not understand. We all clapped to the beat only stopping to applaud some feat of wonder. It was a beautiful time that only seemed to stop with the sight of the clown in the first act.
Clowns are silly and light and not to be taken seriously. And that was the case with the clown in the first act. For nearly an hour the audience is excited by the spectacle only to be brought back to Earth with a slew of oddball jokes. The energy dissipated in a boring way. Perhaps this was intentional, I can’t say. What I can say, relative to everything else it felt like the only negative moment which is impressive in a way.
The clown moment was odd, but tolerable for the sake of circus tradition. Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams is not a CTC show, it’s a traveling circus. In fact, the only plot point in the entire show revolves around two boys leaving Ethiopia to join the very traveling circus we’re watching. It’s magical in a meta sort of way. It also explains the perfect cultural import we witness. All of the designs, music, and performers glowed with the pride only found in knowing who you are and where you come from.
Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams brings the circus closer than most will ever get to see thanks to its venue. Thanks to its authenticity, the culture and people of Ethiopia aren’t manipulated for a cheap thrill. Instead, the history of its people is added too and shared with the young through dazzling performances everyone will enjoy.