Circus Minimus

Jennifer Miller Wows 'Em in the Nabes

Drawn by the oom-pah-pahs and the kindergarten colors, people drift into St. Mary's Park in the South Bronx from the projects or from East 149th. Backstage—a patch of park behind the red curtain—seven Circus Amok troupers sit in front of open suitcases, applying makeup. Scattered around them on the lawn are all the accoutrements of low-rent razzle-dazzle: stilts and Indian clubs, giant giraffe and blue-jay heads, a cardboard ambulance, a cardboard Volkswagen attached to a hunk of road, a chute and a ladder, and costumes in various shades of spangly, fringy, garish, and clownish.

The South Bronx may not get many circuses, but this one begins like most Amok shows, with kids sitting right up next to the lime green­and-purple circus ring, watching the performers warm up and asking, "Is that a man or a lady?"

Jennifer Miller, founder and director of Circus Amok, sees it as part of the project, this inevitable talk with the kids: "Yes, I'm a woman with a beard." And when they ask her why she has one, she tells them, "It grows there."

This is a circus with a message, though it's only incidentally about facial hair. Amok gave free shows throughout the month of June in parks like Van Cortlandt, Marcus Garvey, and Prospect, asking that question of the hour: "How's your quality of life?" And defying the notion that circuses are "pure" entertainment with elephant acts instead of politics. Here in the South Bronx? Not a pachyderm in sight.

But the Amoksters do fool ya. They swagger out on stilts and dance in striped pants as circus acrobats have done for centuries. Then one of the roustabouts, in an outfit that is half-dress, half­business suit, tackles the center stiltwalker—Miller—pulling off her mufti. Under the stripes, she's in a long dark-green gown, a costume for the classic bearded lady, yelling about Yankee Stadium and traffic and the high incidence of asthma in the Bronx. "Crosstown traffic's more important to relieve, even though you can hardly breathe." This is the charivari, the setup act. A man dressed in bra, girdle, and heels bursts through the curtain. Da Mayor? He's holding up a big sign: "Behave!" The other troupers tumble and handstand around him. It's chaos and cacophony—the old Times Square, I guess. Someone just scooted by in Mouseka-ears.

As a girl, Miller was never much interested in circuses, but she did have this romantic attachment to street performance. She taught herself juggling in high school—from a book.

Working a sideshow was never something she planned on either, but that's her paying gig for the rest of the summer, at Sideshows by the Seashore, 1208 Surf Avenue, in Coney Island. One day seven years ago, she was on the boardwalk, peering into the joint, when impresario Dick Zigun walked out and boldly asked, "We're looking for a bearded lady here. Interested?"

"I don't remember what I said," Miller reflects, "but it was sort of a preposterous idea. Yet at the same time a completely appropriate idea, and I really wanted to check it out. Get to the roots of the iconography that I was constantly being viewed in relation to."

Miller has had a full beard since her late twenties, and most of the pieces written about her focus on the facial hair. Miller says she doesn't really mind, but "it's hard for me to keep having fresh thinking about it." The sideshow's appeal has always been about giving people a look at the forbidden. Yet, Miller's managed to turn her act as "Zenobia" into a political statement. Zenobia is "a woman with a beard, not a bearded lady." Because she's one of many women with facial hair, she just chose to avoid waxing, shaving, plucking, and electrolysis. Miller figures she's done this "comedy-lecture with knife juggling" many hundred times, at the rate of 11 or 12 shows a day. She also does a Houdini-style escape act, and the "step-right-up" routine outside between shows.

For her the sideshow is just a job, but she likes performing for people who never see theater. She's also participated in that latter-day freak fest, The Jerry Springer Show, because, among other things, it allowed her to meet Priscilla the Monkey Girl, last of the well-known bearded ladies.

"The sideshow is a folkloric form. I have loved studying that and getting to know it in the craft sense, from the inside. But it has an awful history. In terms of cultural influence, it's in this category with minstrel shows and Wild West shows and the Venus Hottentot. It misinforms. It says these people aren't human. Or these people are pathetic. That women with beards are freaks and have to be in the sideshow, not the main show."

Miller thinks the Zigun sideshow has a sort of camp sensibility, but no one else in the show is political. "My being there sets up a dialectic," she says. Otherwise it's just "guys eating fire and skinny girls going into the blade box."

Miller performed in other circuses before starting her own, and those outfits were not exactly Ringling Brothers. They fell under the big tent of "alternative," yet she found them "very resistant to, first of all, any sort of queer outness. They had this idea that if you're going to bring work to people in parks, you have to bring work they can 'handle.' "

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