The circus is a mystifying experience when you’re a kid chomping on popcorn, with wide eyes glued to the trapeze. But the parade of acrobats, daredevils, clowns, elephants and tigers can lose some of its mystique as you get older.
So in 1994, after seeing audiences segregated by age at his hip-hop concerts and gospel plays, concert and theater promoter Cedric Walker decided to create a variety show that could still captivate the most jaded of teenagers while inspiring awe in small children, parents and grandparents – a true family event.
Almost 20 years later, his Atlanta-based UniverSoul Circus is a globe-trotting sensation that combines traditional circus acts with dance, comedy and music. UniverSoul’s “hip-hop under the big top” show ends its 2013 tour with a Charlotte run next week at Freedom Shopping Mart Center.
The diverse lineup of acts include contortionists from Ethiopia, acrobats and illusionists from South Africa and Trinidad and Tobago, aerialists from Paris and Brazil, a Colombian high-wire act, and Vietnam’s daring Giang Brothers Head Balancing Act.
The latter is co-host DeAndrea Crawford’s favorite, hands-down.
“They do these amazing tricks and stress techniques that I could never imagine anybody being able to do. I still don’t know how they do it,” she said, calling from a three-week tour stop in Philadelphia on Monday.
Aside from having a contemporary soundtrack, dance and comedy that give it a modern, urban flair, Crawford says UniverSoul’s strength is that it’s more interactive than a typical show.
“I think what people walk away from it with is they’ll feel like they’re part of this experience,” she says. “They will feel like they were a part of the show. They danced and clapped and had songs to sing along to – just feeling like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Walker, who produced tours for the Commodores and Jackson 5 before moving into theater, created UniverSoul Circus with an urban audience in mind and populated its cast with performers of various ethnicities long before Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey hired its first African-American ringmaster in 1999.
Today, UniverSoul’s cast is still incredibly diverse, which Crawford – whose job includes going to schools and recreational centers and talking to children about the circus – says allows children to see themselves in the performers.
“It really is important for kids to see different representations of themselves,” she said. “I can’t stress that enough. … I feel like there are little girls who look at me and make an identification, and think ‘I can do that.’
“I love knowing when kids in the audience look at us they see the many possibilities that they can do with their life. You have light skin, dark skin, African, Vietnamese. The kids are looking, and they’re taking notes. I hope they walk away feeling that, ‘I can do whatever I want in life.’”
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