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For Mari DeOleo, Clowning Opens The Door To Possibility

Written by on November 17, 2023

To Mari DeOleo, being a clown allows her to share her most exaggerated and “epic” self-expressions through an artistic and comedic outlet. But at the core of her clownish personas, as with all of her work, is the hope of inspiring vulnerability.

Originally from the Dominican Republic but growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Mari DeOleo knew she would end up in Chicago from the first time she stepped foot in the city. 

“I was 15 and visited, and I really loved it,” she recalled. “Something in my gut was like, ‘I’m gonna live here.’”

Chicago’s Mari DeOleo performs as several different clown personas, and works to give young people the space to express themselves creatively through the Lyric Opera’s youth programs. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

After trusting her gut and moving 10 years later, DeOleo has called the city home for more than a decade. Throughout her time living in Chicago, she feels she has discovered her true identity in more ways than one; she dug into the history of the Dominican Republic, of her family and of her own racial identity, and what all of that means in terms of her work as an American artist.

“I’ve really found myself, here in Chicago,” she said. “Different parts of myself that I didn’t even know was going to be part of my story, but have been really, really important.”

DeOleo feels the arts have always been core to her identity, but found her art form by chance at the Second City, where she signed up for classes after seeing comedian Aidy Bryant perform.

“It all just clicked,” she noted.

As a clown, DeOleo has several personas: there’s Whimsy (or Kiki), the little girl clown, or Mango, a late-night clown whose jokes center on ideas of femininity, or there’s Vaughn, a more masculine or nonbinary persona rooted in fine and performing arts. DeOleo speaks about the personas almost as people she encounters, and even notes there are some she still hasn’t fully gotten to know or developed relationships with.

“There’s the old lady clown, and she’s an herbalist,” DeOleo explained. “I haven’t fully met her. She’s slower. She’s more intentional … I do know what she looks like, I’m working on her costume now.”

When she’s not performing as one of her several clown personas, DeOleo works to give kids the space and respect to express themselves creatively, which DeOleo feels she often lacked as a young person. DeOleo now teaches classes at the Second City, and helps operate two of the Lyric Opera’s youth programs: Opera in the Neighborhoods and EmpowerYouth! 

“If I can’t open the door for myself, I worry that the door won’t be open for the next person,” DeOleo described. “And knowing that I like to open really particularly strange doors, it’s worlds of possibility … I hope to hold open that door for them.”

For this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Mari DeOleo describes her work as a clown and finding her identity in Chicago.

Mari DeOleo has lived in Chicago for the past decade, and feels the city has prompted her to explore and discover so many new aspects of her identity. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

What do you mean exactly when you say you’re a clown?

Clown, for me, is both performance but also about sitting in a certain place in society and talking about it, let go of societal constructs, the wall that we build to not let people in. Because it’s scary! Because it’s hard to connect, because you’re afraid to get hurt. If I can create a costume, or create a device that allows me to be the most epic version of myself, so that people can have that moment with me, that’s always my goal. 

Where are you from?

I’m from Dominican Republic by way of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I moved here with my parents when I was 4, we came to New York and my parents thought it was like a cold Dominican Republic. They didn’t really love it, so we went to rural Pennsylvania. I made it over to Chicago by the time I was 25 or so. I had done a speaking tour when I was 15 and visited, and I really loved it and knew, something in my gut was like, “I’m gonna live here.” I’ve been here over 10 years. I’ve really found myself, here in Chicago, different parts of myself that I didn’t even know was going to be part of my story, but have been really, really important.

Understanding my Blackness has happened here in Chicago, for sure. So for a long time, I thought I was Native American, which is not true. But there’s a story on the island that you’re native if you have a particular tone of skin. And then I started getting into the history books, really digging into the history of the island, colonization and what all the stories were. So knowing that I have ties with colonizers, but, of course, we are mixing with everybody, and that my whole family is the swath of the rainbow. There’s everybody represented. And what does that mean for me, in this country, and how I move through making my own art form? So when I was like 2 years old, I was so sure there was something in my gut where I was like, “I am an artist, I need to protect my tools. It’s part of me.” And I’ve never deterred from that thought. It was just so clear. 

I went to a small private school, so there was a lot of opportunity for me to step up in the theater department. I made sets, but I was also in the cast. I worked with all the costumes, and I kept fluctuating back and forth between wanting to act, wanting to write, wanting to do art, and wanting to do production and stage stuff. I came to Chicago and I ended up finding my way over to the Second City, I was kind of having a hard time in life and wandered in, in my dirty scrubs, in my dirty sweats, and sat there and I saw Aidy Bryant on the e.t.c. Stage, and she ate it up. I ended up signing up for a class at Second City, and it all just clicked. 

Mari DeOleo did study to be an opera singer for a time — “until I found out I was maybe a little goofy!” Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

Tell us about your clown character!

I have a few different clowns. I have my little girl clown, that I toured with for birthday parties. Sometimes I call her Whimsy in my head. She’s had a few names, Kiki is another one. The little girl clown is all about discovery and wonder and awe and joy. She’s not the smartest in the bunch, but she’s always very enthusiastic. I work well with that clown with young people. 

And then there’s Mango. Mango is going to be the other side of it. Mango is the late-night, body, bodacious, bold and boobalicious character. There’s something about the way I do her jokes, too, that speak to being a woman. Speak to being a curvy woman, speaks to being a woman of color —specifically orange, for her — and playing with these ideas. I like to put historical characters into her bits, as well, like Sati Putman. 

There’s been a new character, Vaughn, who is probably my most non-gendered-slash-male. There’s another one who is male, that I haven’t been able to fully execute, El Diablo. But Vaughn came up in more of the performance art scene. I did Vaughn for the Arts Club of Chicago, when I was hosting their 150th Gala. And Vaughn is a big art lover. Diablo is my most intense clown, it’s one that I’ve only played with and developed here and there. 

And then there’s the old lady clown, and she’s an herbalist. I haven’t fully met her. She’s slower. She’s more intentional. I know that she’s getting into the world of really, really intense costuming. I do know what she looks like, I’m working on her costume now. She’s otherworldly. There’s some portion of her where she’s kind of pulling things from the ancestral past in the ground, while simultaneously opening up a vortex to another universe. And I’m excited. She definitely is probably the most connected to the shaman a clown that I have. 

“Being able to treat young people with a lot of respect for the artistry that they already have has been really important to me,” DeOleo expresses. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

Do you only do performance, or do you have a day job as well?

So my day job, I have a few day jobs. I work at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I act as the Opera in the Neighborhoods tour manager and the EmpowerYouth! program facilitator. Opera in the Neighborhoods is a tour that we do of a youth opera, and we get to spread that as a free program, also some free buses, to kids all around Chicagoland and spread the love of opera, which was one of the first types of loves that I had in the performance world. I studied to be an opera singer for just a little bit, until I found out I was maybe a little goofy! I still love to sing. And then my program, EmpowerYouth! I’m the program facilitator for that one, and that is a multidisciplinary youth ensemble. We have Black teens right now, going through the program, they’re writing their own show, they’re going to be putting it up. And then I also teach, I’m a teacher over at Second City. I get to teach improv, storytelling, the kiddos and maybe more in the future.

Why do you like working with young people?

I like working with young people — one, because they keep me young! [Laughs] I always make a joke. I’m like, “Because I suck them dry!” No, no, that’s not true. I like working with young people, because I don’t know how much I was actually respected as a young person. And that’s stuck with me. So being able to treat young people with a lot of respect for the artistry that they already have has been really important to me. They are so aware of so much, but also they’re challenging us. More than ever, the generations are coming back and saying, “You know, the world’s not exactly what we want it to be. Maybe we just change that.” And I find that fascinating and also incredibly encouraging. If I can’t open the door for myself, I worry that the door won’t be open for the next person. And knowing that I like to open really particularly strange doors, it’s worlds of possibility. I really feel tapped into that portal, opening that universal portal to the next thing. So I hope to hold open that door for them, yeah. 

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Written introduction, transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

Photos by Ari Mejia, edited by Morgan Ciocca

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