In their first theater performance in two years, two dozen youth with the Prescott Circus Theatre donned sparkly, striped, and splashy patterned clothes as they juggled props and turned cartwheels across the stage.
The high-energy show, performed at Oakland Technical High School, was the culmination of six weeks of immersion in circus artistry: learning to juggle, tumble, ride a unicycle, walk on stilts, and act as a clown. Students wrote poems about circus camp and the pandemic, made new friends, and learned how to use their bodies as drums.
Prescott Circus Theatre got its start—and its name—at Prescott Elementary School in West Oakland in 1985, when teacher Aileen Moffitt taught juggling to students after school. Today, the organization has after-school programs at several elementary and middle schools in Oakland and employs teaching artists to help students build up their skills. It also runs a summer program that culminates with grand performances in July, and opportunities for older students to be apprentices. All of the programs are free for students.
“If kids come to Prescott Circus, it’ll be fun, their confidence will go up, they’ll meet new people, and be able to express themselves,” said Dannys Lumpkin, an incoming freshman at Oakland Tech, who has been part of Prescott Circus Theatre since she was a student at Prescott Elementary. This year, Dannys served as one of the student leaders, since the organization is mainly geared towards elementary schoolers.
While the troupe started gathering in person again last summer, this year was still tough as youth adjusted to being around each other again, said executive director David Hunt.
“What that means is taking more time and using circus and theater to build community, self-awareness, communication skills, social-emotional skills, and I think we’ve gone even deeper on that,” Hunt said. “We might be working on juggling or acrobatics, but sometimes you need to sit down and talk. Sometimes kids need to express themselves or play.”
Prescott Circus Theatre’s summer program also hit an unexpected snag this week when its van was stolen, Hunt added. The van was used to transport students and props to their performances. He’s hopeful that the van will turn up, but if it doesn’t by the time the school year and fall programming begins, they’ll have to fundraise for another one.
Another challenge has been building back up students’ body strength and endurance, and working with students while their facial expressions are obscured by masks, said Lance McGee, who’s been a teaching artist with Prescott Circus Theatre for 25 years.
Incorporating culturally relevant exercises, like hip-hop dancing and hambone body percussion, is another element of the organization. McGee introduced hambone, a rhythmic dance that includes clapping, stomping, and using one’s body like a drum. McGee, who goes by Derique when he’s in character, felt it was also important to teach students about the history of hambone, also known as the Juba dance, which came to the United States during the slave trade. Enslaved Africans weren’t allowed to use drums because slave owners feared they would send coded messages to other enslaved people through the beats, so they resorted to using their bodies as drums, McGee said.
“Hambone is creating something out of nothing,” he said. “I feel compelled to make sure students learn about their ancestors and honor their ancestors, community, and family by keeping the tradition alive.”
Wednesday’s performance at Oakland Tech had several acts, including a hambone routine, juggling balls while balancing on a giant globe, doing one-legged hops on three-foot stilts, and other acrobatic feats. This year, the students came up with the theme of the program, which was to “clownify” COVID. Throughout the performance, a COVID monster menaced the clowns on stage, only for the monster to be turned into a clown by the end of the show.
Ratia Naggayi joined the Prescott Circus Theatre when she was a student at Piedmont Avenue Elementary in 2016. Now she’s heading into her junior year at Oakland Tech and participated as a student leader this summer, like Dannys. During the acrobatics portion of the show, Ratia acted as a base, holding up other students as they posed in the air.
“My favorite act is acrobatics—building trust with the flyer and yourself,” she said. “It builds confidence in my strength. If someone can sit on top of me, I can handle it.”
Ratia didn’t participate during the pandemic in 2020 or 2021, but she returned this year because she wanted to help other students build up their abilities and self-esteem.
While Wednesday’s program was the last of the group’s summer shows, Prescott Circus Theatre will also be performing with Circus Bella in San Francisco this weekend and next weekend in San Francisco and Richmond. In August, the group is putting on a hambone body percussion workshop at Kinetic Arts Center in Oakland.
“This program is an outlet for students to experience circus and learn about themselves and grow into their power,” McGee said. “There’s another meaning for PCT: Powerful Clowns Turning it up.”