Hip-Hop under the Big Top

The Soul Circus Divas circled around the ring, grooving along to Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” as their roaring audience’s applause swelled with frenetic excitement. Accenting their performance with impressive headstands and choreographed dances, the Divas amazed the crowd with unmatched talent and gargantuan presence to a soundtrack of hip-hop favorites. Then one of the Divas stopped to defecate on stage. Children giggled and parents held their noses as the elephant keepers threw sawdust onto the Diva’s inopportune bathroom break. The ringmaster casually restored the audience’s interrupted energy by reminding everyone, “Hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go!”

And with this final performance of the day, the crowd filed outside the “Big Top” tent into the crisp, fall afternoon on Chicago’s South Side. The Universoul Circus, in its fifteenth touring season, brought to Washington Park an impressive, albeit unconventional, collection of circus acts produced and performed by a majority of black entertainers and circus performers. Founded in 1993 by Cedric Walker, the Universoul Circus began as an idea inspired by late-19th-century black circuses and, as Walker recalls, a vision of “hip-hop musicals, a return to vaudeville and animal acts”–a reborn spirit of “Hip Hop under the Big Top.” The Universoul Circus, with its headquarters in Atlanta and thirty-two cities on its regular tour circuit, has a diasporic quality to it, conjuring up a pan-cultural program inclusive of many people and acts from around the world.

Including “The Brotherhood,” a three-man trapeze act from South Africa, “China Soul,” a troupe of fourteen Chinese acrobats from Beijing, and “El Niché and the Tigers of Soul” from Colombia and India, respectively, the Universoul Circus brings an array of acts, representative of sites of wonder and spectacle unknown to most. And yet, the Universoul Circus “universoulizes” some shared feelings. In light of the recent economic crises and escalating gas prices, the ringmaster evangelized at one point during the show: “Faith is the substance to hope for. And with faith, this too will pass.” Here, he consoled the audience with an optimistic reminder, much like the one following the Diva’s unexpected presentation. Because, after all, when excremental moments arise, the Universoul Circus assures us that the best thing to do is to “feel the love under the Big Top.”