We always knew circuses had heart. Now
we know they have soul, too.
Founded seven years ago in Atlanta by Cal Dupree and Cedric Walker, UniverSoul Circus, now in Prospect Park by the Wollman Skating Rink, bills itself as the first, and only, black-owned, produced and performed circus.
Although some (most notably the New York Times) say there was a black-owned circus touring the United States in the early 1900s, certainly UniverSoul is the first circus to embrace contemporary black urban culture and present shows to a largely black urban audience.
Walker and Dupree, the ringmaster, have assembled a troupe of performers, mostly of African descent, who dazzle with amazing feats of daring and dexterity. There are stilt-walkers from Senegal, a Josephine Baker impersonator who wears a banana skirt and cavorts with an elephant, a Brazilian hand-balancing act, and a flying trapeze team from Cuba.
Young, Gifted & Black, composed of a South African woman and two Mongolian women, perform acts of synchronized contortion that are as awesome as they are graceful.
Dupree himself doubles as the Great "Caldini," a magician who makes a beautiful woman emerge from a smoky cauldron of "Brooklyn gumbo," a dog appear in a formerly empty box, and two women turn into a caged lion.
There are also plenty of clowns and dancers (my favorite was a quartet of dancing dwarfs), animals that come near enough so that ringsiders can get a whiff, whirling lights, and the live music - African, Afro-Caribbean, African-American - performed by the Platinum Soul Band.
UniverSoul Circus costumes have all the traditional glamour and glitter - leotards, tights, revealing costumes that flatter the figures of both men and women - that add so much to the spectacle, as well as a brilliant array of ethnic African dress.
My 14-year-old son, who accompanied me to the show, couldn’t figure out which was more interesting to look at, the huge elephant standing on one leg or the scantily clad woman who rode atop of the elephant. He didn’t blink for two hours.
If one-ring circuses are special because of their intimacy, UniverSoul Circus goes one step further. Ringmaster Dupree, aka Casual Cal, a former DJ who grew up in Harlem, actively engages the audience, inviting "sisters" and "brothers" to come onstage to sing and dance.
"When I say, ’big top,’ you say, ’circus,’" Dupree chants. In one sequence that’s both funny and moving, he has couples serenade each other, then exhorts everyone in the audience to go home and do the same.
If UniverSoul Circus has a mission to express African and African-American culture, it also has a message: With discipline and hard work black children can realize their dreams; with love, black families can stay whole; with pride and compassion for each other, black men can stand tall.
In the finale, Dupree introduces a scene that shows black men first scorning, then embracing each other.
Although no one knows when and where the first circus acts were performed, as far back as Roman times people thrilled to displays of skill and bravery in chariot races, horsemanship, wrestling and acrobatics.
The modern circus dates back to the 18th century English shows of horsemanship, which were later embellished with music, acrobats, tumblers, rope walkers and clowns - all performing in a single ring. In the 19th century, American circuses began adding their own touches to the entertainment - the canvas-topped touring circus with its main tent or "big top" (previously circuses had been resident, or non-traveling), a musical instrument called the calliope, another two rings - for a three-ring circus, and the parade when the circus came to town.
Indeed, circuses, in all their rowdy, raucous excitement, are as American as apple pie and ice cream. And as America changes and transforms itself, it is entirely appropriate that our circuses reflect those changes.
American circuses have always drawn talent from around the world - tumblers, wire walkers and acrobats from China and Japan; and horse trainers, equilibrists and acrobats from the former Soviet Union, Belgium, Italy, France and Arab states.
UniverSoul Circus walks exuberantly down this same liberating road.
The UniverSoul Circus performs through
April 21 at the Wollman Rink in Prospect Park. Show times are
Monday through Friday, 10:30 am and 7:30 pm; Saturdays, noon,
4:30 pm and 8 pm; and Sundays, 3:30 pm and 7 pm.
To get there by car, enter at Parkside Avenue and Ocean Avenue and follow road to Wollman parking lot. By foot, enter at Lincoln Road and Ocean Avenue. For a map of the park, go to www.prospe