Monday, March 19, 2012

UniverSoul Circus

In 1994 the UniverSoul Circus was born. I had a vision to explore the various talents other than singing and dancing that performers from around the world had to offer. We had the idea to present something different, to create a show that presented a wide spectrum of talent to a wide demographic. Our goal was to reach deep into our culture and search for what talent and skills lie asleep in the entertainment experience of urban America.

Our journey began in libraries, first researching African American entertainment from the turn of the century until today. We came across a single African American owned circus operating in 1893. I envisioned hip-hop musicals, a return to vaudeville and animal acts. That’s when the decision was made to create a new entertainment complex — a full-blown circus complete with its own big top tent. While walking through a Black Expo, a particular booth immediately caught my attention. The sign read: OF BLACKS AND CIRCUS RINGS. It was so exciting! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This vendor had artifacts, pictures, videos and in-depth knowledge of our contributions to the circus industry — the real contributions of people who looked just like me. He shared a wealth of knowledge and contacts with us. He led us to Prince BoJino, one of the first African American lion tamers. He introduced us to legendary performers of color who helped us pull it all together. We sent out an international call for acts to perform in our new form of live entertainment. Recruiting, training and production for UniverSoul Circus began in 1993.

Not everything went exactly as planned. Three weeks before the opening, I paid a visit to the training facility. It was clear that the person we chose as tiger trainer wasn’t working out as we had hoped. I had to let him go. I was three weeks away from advertising this historic lion tamer and I’m sitting in my office at 11 p.m. saying to myself, ‘Okay Cedric, you’ve really done it this time. Now I’m going to have to get in the tiger’s cage and tame a tiger.’ I had almost — key word, “almost” — convinced myself that I could do it, when, thank you Jesus, I recalled my “wild and crazy” cousin who lived with three 14 feet boa constrictors in his bedroom. I called his home that night. By six the next morning, he’d quit his job and was ready to run away with the circus.

Our first show lost everything. But the idea was a critical success. If I wanted to realize my dream, I knew I had to use my own money to finance the majority of this incredible million-dollar endeavor. Since then, there’s been no looking back. Despite going deep into the red during the first season, enthusiastic crowds and rave reviews encouraged us to continue our journey. By 1997 the circus tour had grown to a 10 city tour; to 19 cities in 1999; a South Africa tour 2001, an Emmy nominated HBO special in 1998, and 32 cities in 2011. It has been a hard and difficult slog during our incredible 18 years, but I would not change it for the world. Seeing smiling faces, watching our fans dance, sing and laugh — makes it all worthwhile.


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