by Cesca Janece Waterfield
It’s no conundrum why there’s a buzz about FUNundrum! What’s that, you ask? It’s a dazzling show presented by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey that features 130 performers from six continents, almost 100,000 pounds of lumbering elephants, amazing acrobats, trick motorcyclists, mermaids, exotic animals, high-wire daredevils, ponies, pirates, cowboys, and more. A show of astounding proportions is in order when you’re celebrating the 200th birthday of P.T. Barnum, known as the Greatest Showman on Earth. And who better to lead the spectacle than a man who grew up where Barnum’s imagination took flight? New York native Jonathan Lee Iverson, who became both the youngest and the first African-American Ringmaster with RBBB 12 years ago, has returned as Ringmaster of FUNundrum.
“Believe me, it wasn’t something I dreamed of or planned,” Jonathan admits. “It was opportunity meeting preparation through the access of great education that I ran into this wonderful gig. The key is the education. One thing I do when I speak to kids, I let them know that really, when you have education, that’s all the planning you need.”
When he was a teen, he dreamed about a career in film. “I had Oscar gold in my mind,” he says. The prestigious statuette wasn’t a far-fetched ambition. Growing up in Harlem, Jonathan was part of the since-dismantled Harlem Boys Choir and a student at LaGuardia Arts, the school made famous in the movie “Fame.”
“I would be in Spanish class one week, and then I would be in Seville, Spain the next week,” he remembers. “I went to Japan when I was 13, I went to Europe. During my teen years, I would be reading Malcolm X one week, and the next week,
we were in the studio with Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard laying down tracks for the biopic he did with Denzel Washington.
I always tell people, I wish my childhood on every child.” Yet Jonathan believes that any community can offer a nurturing environment to its youth. “It’s a communal effort,” he says. “Hilary Clinton wrote it takes a village. I was listening to the Michael Baisden show the other day. He’s doing this wonderful project that I just applaud so much, the Million Mentors. That was my life. I came from a wonderful home where my mother was a benevolent dictator. I used to have teachers call my home just to check on me to let my mother know about my progress, whether good or bad. I had access, and that was the key. I didn’t have time to sit in front of the TV and become diabetic. I had Central Park across the street. The library was like two blocks away from me. The way my childhood was, it made success inevitable.”
Come One, Come All!
As Ringmaster, Jonathan exemplifies the qualities of a great entertainer. His charisma emanates across crowds. He wears breathtaking suits, a large sequined hat and sings several numbers during the show. The physical demands are great. He’ll appear in 48 cities this year alone, so his family travels with him, including wife Priscilla and their young son and infant daughter. “One of the wonderful things for my son is he gets to see women in positions of influence, some of whom are my supervisors,” Jonathan says. For the first time in 140 years, FUNundrum is produced by two women, Nicole and Alana Feld.
Jonathan’s excitement is evident when talking about his job. Suddenly he interjects, “The honest answer is, I’m an overpaid fan. I get up close and personal view of these really God-like artists. The way I feel about the circus performer is the way I feel about the black female voice. There is no artist on earth that is more dynamic than the circus performer.”