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Britain’s First Black Circus Gets a Live Radio Art Tribute

Artist Derrick Adams reimagines Pablo Fanque’s Victorian era Circus Royal.
Images courtesy the artist

As artist Derrick Adams played Nas’ "You Owe Me" inside a black-and-white pitched circus tent, a performer, dressed as a mime in a black leotard with her face and legs painted white—meant to evoke the film Dead Presidents—twerked and moved about the stage. The moment alluded to the Beatles appropriation of a Pablo Fanque's Circus Royal poster that inspired their 1967 song, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." On the track, John Lennon coos, “There will be a show tonight on trampoline, the Hendersons will all be there, late of Pablo Fanque’s fair, what a scene.” Pondering the forgotten history of Fanque’s Victorian era circus and performance as an everyday aspect of life, Adams, commissioned for Performa 15, presented a scene of his own by reinventing the musical lineage of Circus Royal and Fanque-worthy showmanship in Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal/SIDESHOW.


In staging a poststructural circus in the context of Fanque’s Circus Royal, Adams aimed to reconsider the collective understanding of the circus as a site of playfulness, and use the concept to implicate society in the often-disparaging commentary associated around the racial performance of the black body. “In research, I realized there were so many definitions of a circus and that liberated the idea of what a circus could be for me,” says Adams. “With this piece I wanted to talk about the linguistic structure of the black body. I was interested in talking about entertainment in a way that isn’t necessarily pleasurable to people,” Adams explains to The Creators Project.

The four-hour-long performance radio format also included a circus psychic, who introduced the performance by telling jokes, and a politically-charged live rap set by musician Abdul Ali, who performed his original tracks, "Keep Movin (Negro Kai)" and "I, Exist." In between the live acts by the circus troupe, Adams' audio mixed in speeches and interviews by James Baldwin and Nina Simone, and played Erykah Badu’s "Tyrone" and Michael Jackson’s "Dirty Diana," narrative hits that aided the artist’s exploration of gender and race performance. Adams, in recalling the black power aesthetic of the Black Arts Movement and 90s nostalgia, draws contrasts between now and the era in which Fanque worked as an anomaly—late 1800s Britain, where black cultural output was largely kept off of the national stage.


“I wanted to do a performance piece that felt really raw and genuine to the type of people who I engage with on a daily basis, who don’t necessarily consider themselves in a performance structure,” explains the artist, who is largely known for his pop culture-deconstructing collage works. “I wanted to bring that into the academic structure of performance and capture the things I think about that happen everyday.”

To listen to Derrick Adams’ Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal/ SIDESHOW performance, click here.


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