The Green Circus Goes to the UN
By Tariqah Adams
January 31, 2005

The United Nations staffers that didn’t attend the “Healing Our Planet: Youth Take Action for Environmental Responsibility” event in honor of the work of environmentalist Wangari Maathai of Kenya, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, missed quite a treat. The event launched the 2005-2014 UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development and marks the 8th annual Season for Nonviolence—a national 64-day educational, media, and grassroots campaign inspired by the memorials of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 2-hour program featured guest speakers, performances, a short film screening, and a panel showcasing New York City youth engaged in the fight for environmental justice. The youth groups shared the stage with an appearance by the environmentalist clowns of the Green Circus. Anyone not lucky enough to see the event got a glimpse of the action beforehand, though, while zipping through the halls of the first floor of the Conference Building at the United Nations Headquarters early Monday afternoon.

The men and women’s restrooms as well as a bench in front of the doors in the hall are quickly transformed into a makeshift backstage area for the group to get ready. International civil servants stare blankly at the clowns as they ran lines and exorcise last minute jitters. The silence of the staffers reveals a certain uneasiness about the bizarre scene: A half-made-up Hempy, played by Justin P. Finley, going over his speech—a brief history of the uses of hemp fibers with a plea to reinstate its as primary commodity for manufacturing; Smog Gog, (Jessie Pagano), a capitalist’s capitalist, swaggers about in oversized clown shoes, purple bowler hat, pin-stripped trousers and vest, with a fake mustache and cigar to complete the look; Petro Leum (Noah Pagano), the incarnation of tired, old fossil fuels, sports a black curly-haired wig, black robe, and garbage-bag-covered shoes haunts the hall, as well.
The female players dart back and forth between the bench and restroom, adding finishing touches to their elaborate make-up and ensembles. Multi-talented artist Bobbi Williams’ role, Psychic Fabulina, is “green and clean” from head to toe—shimmering green face paint, lime green evening gown, and flower and plant inspired hair ornaments. The three Forest Creatures also employ the monochromatic color scheme and fairy-like qualities in their stage looks.

Neon Genesis (Dharana Greenberg), coiffed in a rainbow-colored wig, is the star reporter for the fictitious Green Circus TV. Today, she conducts interviews with the performers. Topics to be addressed include updates on Hempy’s charges and experience in jail, Smog Gog’s ultimate agenda and thoughts on the Green Circus, and James Green’s (Jason Rosenberg) encounter with the plant spirits in Washington, D.C. Sadly, GCTV coverage is cut short for the moment by a staff member who claims that visitors are authorized to do filming in the conference room and lobby areas only, but not in the hallways.

As showtime approaches, Conference Room 2, the event’s venue, is alive with diplomatic hustle and bustle. A sober space with ‘70s-style décor, high ceilings, and emblematic semi-circular tables equipped with microphones, country name plates, and earphones, the conference room is a place where even the signs on the wall must adhere to the strictest codes of diplomacy: a plaque by the door reads, Smoking Discouraged/ Veuillez Evitez de Fumer.

The General Assembly is holding its 8th informal meeting of the Plenary in the room just minutes before the 2-hour youth conference is set to begin. Some of the 600+ New York City middle and high school students invited to attend wait patiently outside the doors as His Excellency Mr. Jean Ping, President of the 59th session of the UN General Assembly declares the meeting adjourned. A handsome Middle Eastern delegate with a pearly white smile and jovial manner asks about the King-Gandhi event as he and the other exit the room.

Once seated, the students flip thorough reports left behind on the tables and toy with the earphones despite several requests by the Master of Ceremonies, Deepen Shah of the Temple of Understanding Youth Council, to leave the equipment untouched. Teachers pass out programs, film and take pictures, and give pop quizzes to the young diplomats-for-a-day. Deepen soon calls the group to order with a few seconds of b-box music. In the opening address, Deepen introduces the notion of “environmental nonviolence” and praises Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, drawing connections between her work and the world visions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

The program kicks off with a Hip Hop performance. Young talent from the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, in a poignant adaptation of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, voice concerns about modern-day racism, body image, the war in Iraq, substance abuse, sex education, and the AIDS epidemic.

The guest speakers go on to deliver equally inspiring speeches. Precocious 13-year-old Jonathan Purcell of the Association for Global New Thought speaks out against the use of force and advocates worldwide collaboration, reaching out to foreigners, and channeling inner kindness. Prasad Paritosh, Ghandhi’s great great grandson, in a true show of humility, highlights the hypocrisy common in all who struggle for a better world—from passive violence to day-to-day wastefulness of natural resources.

Next, the youth-friendly Green Circus group unveils a new piece entitled “Environmental (In)Justice on (Mock) Trial,” written exclusively for the UN event. In this skit, described as “powerful and interesting” by Deepen Shah, Psychic Fabulina and the Forest Creatures are just about to teach the audience about renewable energy sources when the formidable Smog Gog crashes the party. In a clever play on words that recurs throughout the entire skit, Smog Gog, not known for his intellectual prowess, mistakenly pronounces “U.N.” like “un” and creates a carefully balanced cadence with words beginning with “un-”: “I want you here at the un to undermine these uncivilized Green Circus people.” In denial about his destructive force on the environment, he shouts, at various moments in the scene, “That’s absolutely untrue. (...) This is unreal. (…) This is unpatriotic and unconstitutional.” The Forest Creatures’ exaggerated facial expressions and overstated movements superbly convey their plight at the hands of Gog, the mad developer.

While Gog’s weakness is in his speech, Sammy Solar (Patrick Greco), the bringer of solar energy, finds his strength in his song. Sammy shouts the praises of solar energy in the form of a gospel hymn and asks the audience to sing along. His close relative Gail Force blows onto the scene as well to communicate interesting facts about the present day uses of wind energy worldwide. Gog is finally convinced to change his ways and the skit ends with a short group meditation with the students.

Members of the following group, UpRose Youth Justice, shed light on the environmental hazards they are subject to as low-income peoples of color living in the Bronx, describe the measures they have taken to fight it (like their victory against the building of a neighborhood power plant), and introduce the screening of “the takeover”, a music video by Frank Torres—co-founder of UpRose—which features the problem of truck traffic pollution.

A group of grassroots organizers from Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice relay shocking information about their communities like the startling number of highways located nearby and the unusually high asthma rates in the areas as a result. They campaign to restore Bronx River, reconstruct local parks, and reduce high asthma rates.
The program draws to a close with a peace heroes flag ceremony led by Nickolai Parker of Youth for Peace and the Temple of Understanding Youth Council. Accompanied by musical improvisation from the Green Circus, students choose a national flag and parade out of the conference room as they chant, “May peace prevail on Earth.”

The opportunity to participate in the Season for Nonviolence event will be remembered as a major highlight in the list of Green Circus performances. “It’s such an amazing experience to be here,” says Anita, one of the Forest Creatures. As the troupe eats a late lunch in one of the dining rooms overlooking the East River, the event’s organizer Jill Strauss of the Temple of Understanding stops by for a short chat. “What you guys did was really great,” she says. “You gave a lot of important information [about renewable energy] in a short block of time, something the kids will remember. Listening to a lecture never could have achieved that.”

As the clowns, still in full costume, leave the dining area, a woman who’d seen the skit sums up her impression of the group’s work: “Forget CNN, CBS, and MSN! You go show them who the real clowns are!” The Green Circus is a not-for-profit organization composed of multi-disciplined artists and teachers whose mission is to educate the public on ways to live a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle through multimedia performance and workshops. Green Circus also teaches yoga and meditation and has worked with Lower East Side Girl’s Club, Greenpeace, The Sierra Club, East New York Farmer’s Market, Greensphere Inc., Henry Street Settlement, Indy Media NYC, Staten Island Greens, and the Green Party.