Cirque du Soul

On October 1st, the eastern edge of Washington Park is coming alive as families make their way into the blue and yellow tents of the UniverSoul Circus. The classic circus imagery is all here: brightly dressed clowns, animals pacing outside the tents, food everywhere, and appreciative kids. But there’s a significant difference from a typical circus scene: the audience is almost entirely African-American, and the circus itself draws on themes of black culture. Inside the tents, the expected smells of popcorn and funnel cakes that fill the air have a twist; vendors sell foods such as “soulhot wings” to inspire the mood in the circus audience.

The circus is popular now, but it took a long time to reach this level of success. The project was born in 1994 out of the idea of showcasing a wide variety of black talent to spectators, besides just singing and dancing. Before the vision could come to fruition, it was necessary to reach deep into the African-American past and search for historic examples of innovative black entertainment. The circus’s founders conducted research in libraries, and discovered a black circus operating in 1893, which became the launching point of UniverSoul.  The past that the circus is built on is often uncomfortable. In that same year of 1893, on the same grounds that the UniverSoul Circus occupies today, Washington Park hosted a cultural exhibition of a different kind. The Chicago World’s Fair brought representatives from countries across the world onto the same stage, stretching across miles of what is now Hyde Park and Woodlawn. While many countries had pavilions that presented their proudest accomplishments, the representation of many cultures, and especially black Africans, was often exploitative entertainment under a thin veil of anthropological curiosity.

Along with his fellow schemers, current CEO Cedric Walker searched for positive examples of black entertainment, and decided that for the new show, they would fuse hip-hop and musical theater, with a nod to vaudeville. Coming up with the concept of a new kind of big top circus was easy. Finding black circus performers would prove to be harder. After a long search, Cedric Walker found Prince BoJino, one of the first black lion tamers. It was a lucky break for the young entrepreneur. BoJino introduced him to legendary black performers and helped organize training for all the animal acts.

The first show opened in 1994 to a low showing and no profit. But even with the slow start, rave reviews and encouragement spurred Walker to continue pursuing his dream. Little by little, his circus started to gain recognition, and by 1997 the circus tour had expanded to ten cities. In 2001, the circus hit its first international destination with a trip to South Africa. This year, the show is touring 32 cities, and while the cast is predominately African-American, the circus includes performers from countries all around the world, including China, Russia, and Brazil.

The founders of UniverSoul have built a successful commercial circus around themes of black heritage. “We market to all audiences, but the general public stereotypes ‘soul’ with a black quality,” says Shone Tribble, the media coordinator, as she walks among the crowds Friday night. “But it’s definitely a human characteristic.” The evening promises to be lively, though, as Tribble boasts about a sold out show. Soon, the tent’s 2,500 seats are filled.

The lights dim and glow sticks beam in the dark. A clown wearing a black suit, giant shoes, and the archetypal red nose steps out to greet the crowd. Right away, he begins to clap his hands and dance to the syncopated rhythm of the music. He walks toward the audience and begins to stomp his feet and blow his whistle. Within seconds, the arena is filled with stomps and claps, which meld in unison. An old woman in a wheelchair beats her cane on the ground in order to join in on the rhythms around her. After a few minutes, the clown calls upon a few young men in the audience and brings them onstage, where they all dance to the hip-hop beats blaring from the speakers. The audience goes wild and stands up to dance along with them. The clown soon bids farewell and a group of African drummers gracefully take their places on stage. Drums beat and a man begins to sing a melody that recalls African roots. Their attire consists of ripped leopard tops and capris with colorful socks. Inspiring an image of cheerleaders, the performers climb atop each other and rouse the audience to yell and shout. Minutes later, two basketball players burst out from backstage and start twirling basketballs around. Upping the ante significantly, a circle of fire appears and more basketball players descend on the scene. One courageous player jumps through the ring of fire and dunks his basketball into the hoop. The ringmaster’s voice starts to speak from overhead. A chant of “Chi-ca-go” comes up in the audience.

After a few fast-paced acts that keep the audience enthralled, seven poodles come onstage with their caretaker. Unanimous awe fills the room as they walk around and flirt with the audience. Two more poodles come out wearing a tuxedo and a dress and begin playing jump rope with the caretaker. As the poodles make their exit, Pit Bull’s “You Know You Want Me” starts to play over the speakers as acrobats appear many feet off the ground. The audience looks up to witness a series of dangerous feats. One by one, each man walks across the tight rope while holding a vertical beam. Even more courageous, one man climbs atop the shoulders of another. The man on the bottom slowly starts to walk across the tightrope. Sweat glistens from the face of each man. The arena is dead silent as the crowd awaits their fate. Applause and cheers erupt as they make it across the plank. Straight out of a classic Soul Train episode, the ringmaster Tony Tone calls upon ten audience members to “ride the soul train.” Five people sweep onto the stage, ready to show off their moves. As the song plays, the audience members dance like no one is watching. After the soul train has left the station, the circus takes an unexpected turn to the East. The stage makes way to Asian dancers wearing colorful outfits with loose sleeves, lending the appearance of wings. Mystical music starts playing, with plucked strings and airy notes in pentatonic scales. Elaborately designed ropes appear in the middle of the stage and each dancer takes flight in the air. Kids’ mouths form Os as the dancers fly across the space, catching one another in mid flight.

After a short intermission, the second half of the show begins with an animalistic bang. Fences surround the stage. Cages roll out and tigers are let loose. At a commanding fortissimo, the music emphasizes the wild power of the tigers. A background of plants and red skies rises up behind the scene, making it feel like the set of “The Lion King.” Lightening the mood, ushers appear in the audience with several, huge bouncy balls. Almost immediately the balls are bouncing all over the arena and audience members are immersed in a giant game of volleyball.

If you take a step back, it’s a complicated kind of entertainment. But it’s hard to step back. The circus is enthralling, and it’s so much fun that even as you are surrounded by history, it pulls you into a spectacle that is all about the present. After a few more acts, the show comes to a close with the entire cast coming out to dance to “Thriller,” a classic example of a piece of African-American pop culture that’s appreciated and celebrated by a much wider audience. UniverSoul is a circus built on the history of African-American entertainment, but the kind of fun that it achieves is universal, truly bringing out the human aspects of soul.