When a magician is ready to astonish an audience with a trick, he traditionally uses a phrase like “Presto!” or “Abracadabra!”
When magician Lisa Menna travels to a village in India or Ethiopia however, she’ll skip the usual cliches.
Instead, she’ll ask her audience to chant, “Kindness to women brings good things,” or “If you want good luck, don’t hit women.’” At those magic words, a ball suddenly appears in a child’s hand, or colorful handkerchiefs emerge out of nowhere.
Reducing violence against women has become the focus of Menna’s life since 2011 when she established Cause for Wonder, a non-profit organization that uses magic shows to pique curiosity, stimulate discussion, and promote social change.
After spending decades traveling the world as a professional magician, Menna, who lives on St. John, is now raising funds through a GoFundMe page to bring her message to Grenada and other Caribbean destinations.
“Sadly, in the Caribbean, you hear women say, ‘If he doesn’t hit me, he doesn’t love me,” Menna said. “We want to change that.” Menna plans to target her show to pre-adolescent boys, getting them to repeat the phrase “Helping women brings good luck,” as she makes the magic happen.
“There’s no question in my mind that these children will go home and talk about what they saw,” she said.
Menna has already brought her advocacy against violence towards women to Ethiopia, India, Papua New Guinea, Malta, and Sicily.
She doesn’t limit Cause to Wonder to only one issue. In Mozambique, she created the “poop show,” where the idea was to encourage villagers to use composting toilets and keep sewage and pollutants out of the river. At that series of events, the magic words were, “A clean lake is a happy lake.”
“We don’t want to lecture. The idea is to use magic to make people super curious, so that they will then talk about what they saw with others,” Menna said.
Virgin Islands residents became familiar with Menna in 2011 when Cause to Wonder brought Edward “Mr. Eddie” Hawkins to speak to students on St. Thomas and St. John about gang violence. As the students arrived in the auditorium, they saw Hawkins sitting in a chair behind a table.
He picked up a microphone and said, “I joined a gang at 13 because I thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’” Then he pushed aside the table to reveal that the lower half of his torso and his legs were completely gone.
This was no magic trick, however, in which Menna would magically restore his legs. Hawkins really did lose the lower half of his body when he was a gang member and was shot 13 times. As he told his tale about his traumatic life, “You should have seen the look on the kids’ faces,” Menna said.
Menna practiced magic for decades without any intention of being a social activist.
She began her career as a magician in Humble, Texas, when she was 12. Dressed as a clown called “Lisa Lollipop,” she performed a regular routine of five tricks at birthday parties. When practically every kid in her neighborhood became overly familiar with her tricks, she realized she’d need to expand her repertoire and started seriously studying magic from books.
By the age of 15, she had made money to pay for college. By 19, she was making a small fortune performing magic at trade shows. “I’d say, ‘See this quarter?’” said Menna. “’Look! It disappears. Just as your problems will disappear if you buy our product.’”
During those early years, Menna, who looked more like the magician’s beautiful assistant rather than the maestro dressed in a top hat and tails, established herself as one of a handful of successful female magicians. Here’s a vintage promotional video of her.
A quick look at Menna’s stage persona shows her to have retained much of her identity as a clown. In fact, now when she applies for visas to bring Cause to Wonder to international locations, she lists her profession as “clown” to avoid any suspicion that she might be involved in black magic. “I just do funny puzzles,” she said.
“Every culture has some form of a supernatural being who rewards good behavior and does things you can’t explain,” she added.
She realized early on that her tricks could be mistaken for true supernatural powers when she took a Semester at Sea as a college student. “I was traveling in Sri Lanka and performed some tricks for some children in a street. Suddenly, a woman thrust what at first I thought was a bundle of rags into my arms. Then I realized it was a deformed baby. She wanted me to cure it.”
Menna said she felt ashamed at the delusion she had created. “Of course I couldn’t do anything. All I could do was say, ‘This baby will bring luck to the village, but you won’t know until he’s 35,’ hoping they’d take good care of the child.”
Menna first came to St. John in the 1980s when her parents built a home on the island. She returned throughout the years to vacation before settling at a quiet spot on the East End of the island.
Menna still takes on bookings to do shows as a way of raising funds for Cause to Wonder. She has found a niche during the pandemic when operators of luxury yachts arrived in Coral Bay and saw her listing for her services on Google Maps. As most entertainment venues on St. John were shut down, they’d send a launch to bring her aboard to perform for their guests.
For further information, contact Menna at http://www.causetowonder.org.