On Saturday, February 15, Andrea Jones-Rooy hung from a lira—a circus tool that looks like some industrial hula hoop—on stage at the Lower East Side bar and performance venue Caveat NYC. The angsty, rocking lilt of “My Own Worst Enemy” blasted. The crowd whooped as she flapped her gossamer cape like green-hued wings. On the projector behind her, “vote for me!” buttons danced and a life-sized, leering Joe Biden popped up with sheepish finger guns blazing. She spun on her lira, head thrown back, while Biden went up in rudimentarily animated flames.
The fanfare was all a part of Jones-Rooy’s Processing Iowa, a special edition of her regular monthly show Political Circus, which she’s been hosting monthly at Caveat since summer 2018. It’s equal parts political science lecture, stand-up comedy routine, and circus act. In it, Jones-Rooy breaks down political science theories and invites an expert, often a journalist, to link the abstract to the real. To close, she does a quick circus number because her “ego demands it.” Hence hanging on a lira while Joe Biden burns.
Jones-Rooy says she grew up in a “predictable” family. Her mother, Sally Jones-Rooy, was previously an English teacher and now teaches yoga and does aerial performance. Her father, Robert Rooy, is a Peabody-award-winning documentary filmmaker for his 2017 film Deej. Jones-rooy holds a PhD in political science from the University of Michigan. (Michigan is where she fell in love with circus—stumbling across the Detroit Flyhouse Circus School where she studied trapeze, lira, and silks. “Circus was, for me, kind of the thing that kept me afloat.”) Later, she went on to teach as a professor at NYU Shanghai—she even did a stint as a professional circus performer at a club there. Now, she’s a faculty member at NYU’s Center for Data Science.
So she’s a bit busy.
While Jones-Rooy’s Political Circus typically focuses on broader themes, her special edition shows, like Saturday’s, are tied to the news. The Saturday show, pulled together at the last minute, was a response to the now-infamous Iowa Caucuses where a hastily built data-collection app led to in significant delays and (still-debatable) final results six days later.
“Who’s ready to talk about Iowa?” Jones-Rooy began on Saturday. People cheered. Loudly. She laughed and quipped, “No one thought about that before Iowa fucked it up.” She relished in the laughter a moment before diving into how failures like Iowa’s can have long-term, debilitating effects on voters’ trust in elections. “Since it went to shit,” Jones-Rooy explained, “later on in the election if we don’t get the results that we like, people have even more things to point to about why the results aren’t legitimate.”
For a person whose life revolves around political science, Jones-Rooy is not political—unless you count the one time she dragged a graduate professor and some classmates to Ohio to canvas for John Kerry during his 2004 presidential campaign. “I think a lot of people think when they think about political scientists that we’re, like, politically active,” Jones-Rooy reflected before her performance. “But we’re not typically. We’re more hanging back and treating it like a laboratory.”
She isn’t a news fanatic either. In fact, the news stresses her out. And while she doesn’t particularly identify with any of this year’s candidates (apart from Amy Klobuchar) she does want to help people engage in politics. For her current- events-style shows she appeals to that constant Politico-refreshing politically active non-activist. But for her regular monthly shows, she’s often reaching for people like her who feel a bit overwhelmed by those “clickbait, alarmist headlines.” By analyzing the larger trends shaping politics—like what historically influences voter preferences instead of daily election polls—she hopes that people can contextualize the news, understand that what’s going on today isn’t all that unique, and find an alternative way to engage.
And her method has proved successful. Saturday was the highest turnout yet with 80 tickets sold. Typically, they’re lucky to sell 30. Tonight, she’ll be hosting another special edition for Super Tuesday and on February 27 she’ll be talking at NYU about oral communication and science.
As Saturday’s show wound down and Jones-Rooy went for a last spin on the trapeze, (an image of Klobuchar smirking in unfounded victory on the screen), she stripped off her red bra to uproarious applause, revealing her bare chest obscured by two emblematic donkey stickers.
Bowing, she clarified: “I just want to emphasize that this is a non-partisan show.”