A circus with soul


Spectacle: African-American owners and a music and laser show give the UniverSoul Circus its unique flavor.

July 15, 1999|By Melody Holmes | Melody Holmes,Sun Staff

Under a huge blue tent -- where the air conditioner is no match for the heat of the summer sun -- the audience is restless, waiting for the clowns, lions, tigers and elephants that make a circus worthy of its name. But the UniverSoul Circus is not your average big top.

The circus, founded in 1994 by Baltimore native Cedric Walker, is the first one in nearly a hundred years to be owned and operated completely by African-Americans. The two-hour show includes performers representing almost every continent on the globe, from countries including Colombia, France, Ghana and Kenya. Many of the performers got their starts in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Besides traditional circus acts, the show features contemporary tunes from an array of artists in various musical styles. The music is accompanied by computerized special effects and a laser show. It takes 10 trucks to haul all the necessary equipment for the light show to every town on the itinerary. The show is at Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall through Sunday.

At a matinee last week in Washington, popcorn, candy and souvenirs are seen bobbing up and down over the crowd as purple-T-shirt-clad vendors yell their sales pitches. Many of these vendors are local residents, employed just until the circus moves to the next town.

Armies of pint-sized children, enrolled in community center summer camps, march into the tent under the direction of their counselors.

Then a light show begins, absorbing the once-screaming audience, which instantly becomes quiet and still. The eyes of the spectators, almost in unison, are directed toward the ceiling, where lights dance off the walls, and music begins to play. The combination of lights and music gives the effect of being in outer space.

The silent concentration of the audience is suddenly disturbed by a loud voice asking, "Can you feel it?"

"Yes!" the audience replies.

The one ring that the UniverSoul Circus uses is now illuminated by a spotlight. "Can you feel it?" the voice yells again.

Into the spotlight comes the body belonging to the commanding voice -- and it's only about 3 feet tall. His name is Zander Charles, known as "Zeke," the sidekick to the ringmaster.

Audience participation

A native of South Carolina, Zeke is literally one of the shortest acts in the show. Alongside ringmaster Calvin "Casual Cal" Dupree Jr., Zeke helps to warm up the audience before each performance.

As part of the 5-year-old UniverSoul Circus, Zeke helps to put a new face on an old form of entertainment. Zeke says the UniverSoul Circus is "a chance to show the world that people of color have many talents."

These talents range from tightrope-walking and unicycling to stilt dancing and doing the limbo under a flaming stick.

No matter which act takes the ring, there is no such thing as a bad seat at the UniverSoul Circus. Seats are arranged so that no one is more than about 20 feet from the action. A front-row seat means feeling the heat from the breath of a roaring tiger, or catching the unpleasant stench of an elephant parading around the ring. Proximity to the action adds an element of excitement to the show, as well as the chance to be pulled out of your seat and into the center of the ring to perform on the spot.

This circus seems to thrive on audience participation. Zeke and Casual Cal make frequent trips into the audience -- during and between acts -- for conversation, dancing and sing-alongs. They also use call-and-response games to keep the crowd's energy up during the gaps between acts. The crowd of mostly school-age children makes the blue tent vibrate with screams of enthusiasm, clapping and singing.

And after the performance of stilt walkers, just when the crowd's dancing has climaxed in a conga line around the tent's interior, it's time for the next act. There's never a dull moment under this big top.

The show includes such acts as the Olate (pronounced O-la-tay) performing dogs, who dance around the ring on two legs in sequined dresses, to the muscular Jean Claude from France -- a favorite of the ladies, if their screams are any indication -- who flaunts his gymnastic skills while entangling himself in straps suspended from the ceiling.

Instant lion tamer

One of the acts, 42-year-old "Lion Master" Ted McRae, was raised in the Lafayette Street area of Baltimore and is Walker's cousin. Before his work in the circus, he says, he was a forklift operator.

According to McRae, one day Walker called him, in need of a fast replacement for the lion-taming act he had booked. McRae quickly consulted his wife, and together with their family, they decided to run away with the circus.

McRae did his first show as lion master just one month after he began working with the three lions and three tigers used in the act.

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