Circus showcases black performers, urban culture

Sunday, October 26, 2003

OKLAHOMA CITY -- There are no ringmasters with tight white pants and smart red jackets at the UniverSoul Circus.

Its ringmistress is a gospel singer disguised in frumpy dresses and a ratty wig, and hip-hop music booms from the navy blue big top tent. Most of its performers are black, and UniverSoul claims to be the nation's only black-owned and black-operated circus.

With limbo queens and stilt dancers from Trinidad and Tobago, trapeze artists from Paris and Brazil and break dancers from South Africa and New Orleans, the circus promotes black performers and taps into the lively urban culture of the cities where it plays. It celebrated its 10-year-anniversary this year, and stopped in Oklahoma City this week as part of its 50-city tour.

"This is clean family entertainment," said Cedric Walker, president and CEO of UniverSoul Circus. "Culture is very important in every race, the music, the rhythm and energy are all major parts of our culture and that's reflected in the show."

Backstage, a man puts on makeup in the corner of a semitrailer that has been converted into a dressing room. He transforms himself from 62-year-old Robert Dunn into Onionhead, the clown "from the 'hood."

Dunn, a self-taught hobo clown, started out as a cook after being turned down for a job as a clown. Then he became part of the crew that put up the big top tent. Dunn proved himself one night when he performed in a pinch.

Now he's the first act in the show and one of the better-known black clowns.

"I came into this circus through the back door," Dunn said. "There's just something about this show. I've visited other circuses and there isn't the same energy."

From gospel background

While the circus highlights the accomplishments of black performers, not all its acts are performed by blacks.

There are contortionists from Mongolia, a white Russian gymnast troupe and a member of a South African slapstick group is white.

"We can't just have black performers," Walker said. "This is about the emotions and thrills of a circus. There are elements of black culture in the show like that hip-hop energy, but it's for everyone."

Walker entered the circus business by chance. The former concert promoter was researching ways to make his gospel plays more interesting to children and to showcase the talents and history of black entertainers.

He researched vaudeville and other black entertainment acts, then included animals and comedy acts to keep people of all ages interested.

"We were sitting around talking about it and somebody said, 'Hell Cedric, you got yourself a damn circus,"' Walker said. "I jumped 6 feet in the air I was so excited."

After nearly a decade of circus promotions that often included giving away most of the tickets, the circus finally is coming into its own. It has been featured on an HBO special and its performances are sold out weeks in advance.

Black school teacher Doyle Rowland drove nearly 140 miles from Muskogee to bring his three grandchildren to the circus.

"Let's face it, this is rare," Rowland said. "They might not ever get a chance to see something like this again and this is something that they'll never forget."

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