The class clown

The Funny and Unique Derique

Derique takes clowning to another level.

Derique takes clowning to another level.

Photo By David Robert

When Derique was 15-years-old, he did what most boys his age do—put on his mother’s old night cap and pretended to be a robot.

The mother of this Bay Area native was a professional dancer who encouraged this kind of creativity. She often brought her colleagues from the arts world to their home. One of them was Arina Isaacson, the founder, artistic director and master teacher of the San Francisco School of Improvisation. Isaacson accidentally caught Derique’s robot act through his half-open door and thought it was hilarious. She suggested he enroll in her after-school clown classes.

“At first I was like, ‘Clown school? Yeah, right,'” recalls Derique. “But there was something about exploring and playing through humor in that way that really spoke to me.”

He stayed with the program through high school, and when he turned 18, he joined San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus, where he worked as a juggler and acrobat for nearly four years.

“During that time, I was discovering what kind of artist I wanted to be, and that didn’t really give me an opportunity to perform as a clown,” he says. “So I decided to develop my physical comedy as a solo artist.”

Derique isn’t your typical clown—big shoes, red nose, scary makeup. In his early 20s, Derique began studying the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the fathers of slapstick. Drawing upon those influences, his high school drum lessons, his “clown skills,” like juggling and unicycling, and what he had learned as a teenager about Hambone, the African-American body percussion art form, Derique developed a completely unique clowning method.

Then there’s Ham-Tech, the body suit he invented 20 years ago. The suit works much like a synthesizer. Its sensors collect sounds and voice samples, and then Derique mixes the resulting electronic sounds and plays with rhythms, taking Hambone to a whole new level.

Hambone was actually born out of slavery. “Slave masters knew that enslaved Africans talked to each other by drumming, so they stripped away their drums so they couldn’t form alliances or find ways to break free,” says Derique. “In the absence of drums, they’d play with hand claps, slapping their thighs, doing body percussion.”

On plantations, slaves would use the remnant of cow or pig bones they were given as food to make soup, which they’d share with other families, hence the name Hambone.

“It’s about taking nothing and creating something,” says Derique. “They developed a ritual that felt harmonious, and their spirits weren’t broken.”

While his act incorporates buffoonery and Hambone, it in no way is meant to degrade Derique’s African-American heritage.

“It used to be that if you wanted to perform physical comedy on stage you had to wear black face. It was a way of shaming us. … I want to show people another way of being funny that isn’t about making fun of our culture but sharing another aspect of it.”

They are just some of the lessons that Derique will share in his Hambone workshop—part of Artown’s Discover the Arts series—on July 2, the morning prior to his performance in Wingfield Park. It’s a show he says both kids and adults will find humorous.

“Physical comedy is really about laughing at someone else’s mistakes,” he says. “It’s cathartic. And when we laugh at clowns, we’re really laughing at ourselves.”