By Jarrel Phillips
I was invited to join the Prescott Circus Theatre (PCT) troupe as acrobatics instructor while I was traveling in East Africa. I was so excited about the opportunity. I had never heard of PCT before. Upon my arrival back to San Francisco, I went to check out a performance that PCT was doing for Sunday Streets in the Tenderloin. I was in awe of the skills they demonstrated on stage—juggling clubs, dancing on stilts, riding backwards on unicycles and balancing atop a big, heavy globe painted like Mother Earth.
Thanks to its founder Aileen Moffitt, PCT has been a staple in the community of West Oakland for nearly 30 years. David Hunt, executive director, calls it a “Social Circus.” It seems like everyone in West Oakland has been a “Prescott Clown” at some point in their youth. Even two of the main coaches DeMarcello Funes and Ceara Walton grew up as clowns. PCT’s home-base is still Prescott Elementary, where it all started. With age, experience and much development, PCT has expanded and now offers satellite programs with similar programming all around Oakland. What’s more fun than kids learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) while getting to clown around whether upside down, right-side up, on stilts and unicycles, juggling three balls in their hands?
At Prescott, not only are the children the main attraction, they are also proof that children can play hard, work hard, and make a difference in their community. PCT does over 100 shows per year including their annual spring showcase where they share their arts and talents with Oakland and the Bay Area. We need more programs like PCT in our neighborhoods. We must support these programs in order for them to grow and persevere.
It was, and still is, such a pleasure to witness and be a part of something where youth have the opportunity to show the world their greatness, despite the fact of being overlooked, undermined and overshadowed in our society.
Misconceptions of West Oakland lead us to believe that it is nothing more than a desolate ghetto with little to nothing of value. But the children of PCT exist as proof that life in West Oakland goes far beyond the confines of such boxed realities and perspectives.
Nonetheless, every environment has its challenges.
Unfortunately, in many low-income communities drugs, violence, and the absence of both dreams and fellowship are often prevalent. This is only part of the reality that plagues West Oakland. And yet, it was residents of West Oakland that mobilized to resist the “urban renewal” projects of the 1950s-’60s. The Black Panthers grew out of this resistance and West Oakland became the center of the revolutionary Black Panther Movement in the late 1960s. West Oakland was home to leaders like Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, and Huey P. Newton. Thus the reality we think we see is just an illusion; a distraction that can cause a community of people to forget or overlook all that West Oakland really is. Environmental justice activist, Grace Lee Boggs says, “The time has come for us to reimagine everything.”
The Prescott clowns will grow up and give back to our communities. This is why they are encouraged to explore, apply and value their imaginations. With their gifts, they are the sparks that will connect the future and the past to our present.
Over the last year I have been given the opportunity to see the Prescott clowns grow and blossom both on and off stage. I’ve seen students fussing and fighting one moment, and the next basing and supporting each other for acrobatic pyramids. I’ve seen children triumph over skills they couldn’t do before. I have seen students teaching other students. I myself was taught how to juggle clubs by a tremendously talented 5thgrader who aspires to be a world-renowned West African stilt dancer.
AVE, as a name, can be broken down into many things. One of its key acronyms is Access Via Exposure. PCT is that in a nutshell. What our youth need in ostracized, exploited communities are meaningful experiences so that they can grow into individuals that can maneuver inside and outside of their communities and act as contributors to the world around them no matter where they go. Prescott is a gateway into the unexplored, providing access to endless opportunities in and out of their West Oakland community.
Prescott’s social circus teaches them character, presentation, culture, community, teamwork, body awareness and a playful spirit. They are reminded that they are the stars and the world is their stage. One Drum. One Sound. One Circus.
For more information about Prescott Circus Theatre, please visit prescottcircus.org