A ragtag group of circus performers landed in front of the Liacouras Center Friday afternoon to perform acts of whimsy for people waiting in line to submit their mail-in ballots at the satellite early voting station inside.
For about 10 minutes, they were the show, until the show arrived: A small fleet of black cars pulled up next to the sidewalk, and out jumped the rapper Common.
Fresh from an outdoor performance at City Hall just moments before, Common at first looked befuddled behind his bandana face mask to see a stilt walker, a contortionist, a juggler, a rider on a tall unicycle, and somebody dressed as a mailbox all dancing to a five-piece brass band. This was not something he expected to see, but he quickly decided he wanted to be part of it, jumped into the band and started rapping.
The show, accidental and impromptu, had truly arrived.
“This is the icing on the cake,” said ringleader Maya Pen.
The “cake” started earlier in the afternoon about a mile and a half north of Temple University, at the 12th and Cambria Recreation Center in the Glenwood section of North Philadelphia. The small group of performers began parading south as Cirque d’Vote, a get-out-the-vote circus.
“This election in particular, in the middle of a pandemic, a lot of the narrative around getting to vote can feel aggressive: If they don’t vote, they are threatening the fabric of our democracy,” said Pen. “This is a different approach. Voting can be fun, and it can be easy, and we can do it together.”
Pen works with Emergency Circus, a troupe that makes socially engaged performances for what it called the “under-circused.”
“Folks that don’t get enough circus performance,” explained Pen. “Taking circus and really uplifting art forms that can be done in any language — because we’re just being goofy and being clowns and laughing together — and bring them to people that deserve to have more of that.”
Emergency Circus is putting together seven Cirque d’Vote parades in seven cities across the country. Philadelphia was the first. Pen, who grew up in Philadelphia and now lives and clowns in New Orleans, rounded up a handful of local circus performers mostly by word of mouth, as well as the Snacktime Brass Band, a marching ensemble of a tuba, a drum and three saxophones.
The troupe walked through the Glenwood neighborhood down 12th Street, cut over to Broad and entered the Temple University campus, along the way handing out voting information and buttons to anyone who stopped to look. Plenty of residents did just that, cellphones in hand.
“We heard you coming down the street, so we all came to the corner to see what was going on,” said John Bellinger, sitting with a handful of friends in lawn chairs on a corner of 12th Street. “As you all walked past, it brought a smile to all of us over there.”
It all happened fast. A couple of clowns rushed over and pushed printed cards into Bellinger’s hands before he was able to understand just what was going on. Eventually, he figured out that it was about voting.
“It was a good hype. It was really important for us to get out and vote. We need this,” he said.
This section of North Philadelphia suffers from high poverty, crime, and historically low voter turnout. That’s why Pen wanted to parade through with music, juggling tricks, and colorful costumes — to add a bit of levity that will turn heads and maybe nudge people to vote who might not otherwise.
Common had the same goal, simultaneously, in front of City Hall, though unbeknownst to Cirque d’Vote. “I want you to vote,” he told the crowd in Center City, according to CBS Philly. “When we vote, we stand up for our people.”
In front of the Liacouras Center, the two campaigns clashed. The Snacktime Brass Band launched into Common’s “The Light,” as the rapper spontaneously joined in. After that, he improvised a freestyle rap.
“Feel it in your body. Yeah, Philly. Feel it in your body. Everybody,” Common vamped, sizing up the band while working up his flow, then stepped off: “It’s conscious y’all. Yo, I gotta keep it simple. We’re rockin here while we’re voting — that simple. You know how it is, I got to be cunning, man. I see you scramble like my man Reggie Cunningham.”
(Common was referring to Reginald Cunningham, an entrepreneur and photographer who, along with his wife, Brittany Packnett, is known for his activism for racial justice.)
Almost as quickly as it started, it ended. Common and the band finished their jazzy freestyle jam, he signed some autographs, took a few pictures, then slunk back into his entourage and pulled away into the flow of Broad Street. The circus performers packed up their gear. The band members started their long walk to their cars parked back in Glenwood.
After the commotion quieted, all that was left were the voters, still standing in line, waiting for the chance to submit their ballots.
Which way will Pa. vote?