by Cesca Janece Waterfield
UniverSoul will bring its spectacular sensation to Richmond May 25-28. But this unique African American owned and operated circus reaches through black culture and tradition to 1893, when the first black circus entertained American audiences. A few years ago, the spectacle was just the latest dream of Cedric Walker.
Tradition of Talent
“The vision was to explore the various talents other than singing and dancing that black performers had to offer,” he said in an earlier interview. “We wanted to apply our gathered years of experience in the live appearance industry, to make a difference, to change the industry we lived in, creating growth and opportunity.”
He envisioned hip-hop musicals and even a return to vaudeville and animal acts. So he paid a visit to – where else? – his local library. With the idea of creating a showcase for a myriad of African American acts underneath a big top, Cedric researched black entertainment beginning at the turn of the century. He was excited to learn of a black circus operating a few years shy of 1900.
He might not have considered it then, but Cedric was already part of a tradition of great black performers. He’d been in entertainment since the early 70s, when he teamed up with a young musical group called the Commodores. He worked as their production and stage manager on world tours and then was a promoter for the Jackson Five. In the 1980s, he’d organized the world’s first Rap music tour featuring the likes of Run DMC, Salt n Pepa and The Fat Boys. In the early 1990s, he’d helped produce highly successful gospel plays.
But now he was ready to join the circus.
Meeting with History
While walking through a Black Expo soon after, he met a vendor with artifacts, pictures, videos and knowledge of African American contributions to the circus industry. Cedric asked him for contacts and reached out to black circus performers. They were enthusiastic, and in turn, sent an international call to other black circus performers. Training began in 1993. When the first animal trainer was clearly unqualified, Cedric thought his dream might be over. But then he remembered a cousin who lived with three 14 feet boa constrictors in his bedroom. By the next morning, his cousin was ready to join the circus too.
He financed the majority of the million-dollar production, and in 1994, “UniverSoul” turned into reality in the parking lot of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. Despite going into debt the first season, enthusiastic crowds and rave reviews were encouraging. Five years later, the UniverSoul tour had grown to 19 cities. In 2001, they toured South Africa. And in 2005, UniverSoul visited 32 cities.
Since 2006, at the center of it all has been Ringmaster Tony Tone, from Memphis, TN, actor, comedian and impersonator. Tony has shared the stage with Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx and he even appeared in Tyler Perry’s movie, I Can Do Bad All By Myself. “You’re not going to find a more unique style of family entertainment than UniverSoul,” Tony says. “We have acts not just the United States but from all around the world.” Tony’s charisma is needed to master all that goes on: Aerialists perform a synchronized dance. Pampered Pooches from perform a high energy routine that will warm any heart. Eight tigers perform tricks and African elephants perform dance routines. Nine acrobatic Chinese drummers perform multiple maneuvers in mid-air over. Tony’s personal favorite is the African Teeterboard act in which a board similar to a see-saw is used by acrobats and tumblers that propel a person into the air when another person jumps onto the opposite end landing on another acrobat or on a mat or chair. High Wire performers from Columbia, Dominican Republic and Gabon maintain balance while walking along a tensioned wire. South African trampoline performers stun the crowd and there’s a basketball show similar to the Harlem Globetrotters. Caribbean entertainers from Trinidad and Tobago perform festive choreographed dance performance by Caribbean showgirls, stilt walkers and drummers. Tony sums up the tradition and show: “If you haven’t experienced UniverSoul, we’re the ultimate in family entertainment.”