Jugglers For Peace – Nicaragua 1988

John Keeler T shirt

Political theatre is common in Europe and South America, so why not in the U.S.A? Judging by the demand for the “Juggler for peace” buttons and the support for the Renegade Jugglers antinuclear presentation, we seem to know what kind of world we want to live in. But what are we doing to help achieve peace or communicate our views?”  It was an 1988 article in Juggle magazine and I wrote, Jugglers have the opportunity to use their public platform to make statements about serious issues but currently there are very few politically active jugglers.” A group of us set about to change this paradigm. Sara Felder organised a womens circus tour of central America, Ray Jason led a TV film crew to Nicaragua and I returned there again with Jugglers For Peace.

On this third trip we had three Hawaii folks – Jim Good who drove us to gigs in his Chevy truck and also served as our translator, Cort Peterson, our videographer and me. Five courageous jugglers – Ali Williams, Steve Robinson, Clare Hudman, Sam Scurfield and Luci Gorell-Barnes – arrived from the U.K. attracted by my stories of the two previous tours and curious to experience post-revolutionary Nicaragua for themselves. Through the Cultural Workers Association I organised a full agenda of shows for the next month.

Thanks to Clare Hudman for excerpts from her Jugglers for Peace diary.

Sam, Graham, Ali, Clare, Luci, Steve.
Ben Linder Memorial Park

Four hours after their arrival we performed in the scorching Managuan sun at the opening of a park dedicated to the memory of Ben Linder. President Daniel Ortega was there to honour the U.S. engineer, juggler and unicyclist who had been assassinated by the contras the previous year. We were mobbed by the audience and had barely enough space to juggle. Ortega was so engulfed by children and press that I had to take photo’s and video standing on my stilts.

President Ortega and the Linders

The following morning we did our second show at the weekly demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy then drove north to Matagalpa where we juggled in a march to Ben’s grave, side by side with Nicaraguans and U.S. aid workers. We improvised a fire swinging demonstration on the cemetery hill as we hadn’t yet had time to rehearse anything.

Sam, Clare and Ali

Over the next days and weeks Mathew Broad,Tricia Selbach, Barrett Faulker and Henry Laupin arrived from the U.S. and helped out with the remaining 40 shows we presented in four weeks. Our first rehearsed show opened with Ali in a pink tutu leading our parade. She played trumpet accompanying our kazoos with the Monty Pythons theme tune. Clare and I waved silk flags on stilts, Sam rode his unicycle and we all dressed in colourful jazzy costumes. It was a bizarre sight contrasting with the dry, muddy ground and the smiling brown faces of the Nicaraguan audience.

We spent a day visiting a private circus, Ali learned knife throwing and Nicaraguan artist Rigoberto showed us his five straw hat act before we did a 20 minute spot in the sawdust ring. I later bought Rigoberto a ticket to the U.S. to perform on the Chautauqua tour but he was refused an exit visa because he needed to fulfil his military service. Life in a war zone is not easy. Next we visited the national circus in a tent full of patches and holes. We juggled a bit and they performed for us and the Linder family. Later that night, the vodka flowed as we partied with some wild, funny and very friendly Russian circus coaches.

We discovered that we had become Nicaraguan celebrities. Sam and Ali were on the front page of the national newspaper and four of us were interviewed and performed on national T.V. Our reality was far from glossy rose-tinted fame, we travelled on dusty, bumpy roads in swirling clouds of dirt, did seven shows in four days, were constantly soaked in sweat and we ate red beans, rice and tortillas twice a day.

Next we were invited to the isolated autonomous region on Nicaragua’s atlantic coast and flew there in a very shaky looking twin engine propeller plane. Puerto Cabezas was near the Honduran border and the mainly Miskito Indian and Creole residents had suffered many contra attacks and kidnappings of young men. Trenches had been built outside most homes and we could feel the tension in the air. With no road access they didn’t get many visitors so we were quite a novelty and the whole town turned out to see our shows.

The timing of our visit was remarkable. Recent ceasefire negotiations had resulted in the surrender of contras who returned from Honduras. We attended a celebration event where they paraded in looking worn out but remarkably still armed. This display of trust by the community was unbelievable considering the contras record of torture, killings and destruction of community health centres and schools. It was deemed necessary for repatriation and it worked. Peace eventually came to the whole country, Reagan was shamed and the contras disbanded.

Contras at cease fire celebration.

Living conditions in this coastal community were extreme. We washed in rainwater and the ocean and had only candles for light which made the 2 or 3 days a week of running water and electricity in Managua seem positively luxurious. Getting out of Puerto Cabezas proved to be a problem, with people scrambling furiously to get on the one daily plane. Over two days we all made it out safely but learned that the same, old, retired Russian plane, which was used for freight in the nighttime, had crashed into the forest two days later.

In Puerto Cabezas

Our final shows back on the west coast were for the army. We stayed in their barracks and travelled in a huge rickety truck. Our audiences were never scary and they loved us.

At a military hospital we were warmly greeted by dozens of amputees. They were just a few of the thousands of victims of the U.S. made claymore mines laid by the U.S. trained and funded mercenaries. The audience clapped and whistled throughout our 40 minutes show – Steve’s cigar-box balance to a trumpet fanfare, Luci’s baby puppet looking for it’s father, Ali peddling outrageously on the unicycle, top class juggling, stilt dancing, diabolo, rhythm sticks and clowning all led to appreciative screams of laughter. We were rewarded in the best possible way and as Clare said, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

Back in the U.S. Reagan was still clinging to power and attempting to get support to fight the Sandinistas. After our experience amongst the amazing people of Nicaragua and having seen for ourselves the achievements of the revolution we decided to speak our truth whenever and wherever we could to expose his lies.

Filmed by Cort Peterson, edited by Graham Ellis, music by Bruce Cockburn.

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

One thought on “Jugglers For Peace – Nicaragua 1988

  1. Bravo comrade. You helped take performance art not only “to the street” but also in the face of political, social and cultural portals. A lovely weekend to youBaba Gee

    Liked by 1 person

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