Big Top Hip-Hop

Word to your ringmaster: Casual Cal Dupree gets the circus started

Reparations have to begin somewhere, so while circuses are generally thought of as one of those shows you have to take your children to lest they be forever traumatized by the denial, this gilly provides something more than guilt prevention for indulgent moms and dads and hay for its imprisoned elephants.

UniverSoul Circus offers a hippodrome of mixed ethnicity (performers from Gabon, Australia, China), but there remains a decidedly African-American pole holding up this big top. Casual Cal Dupree claims title to being the first black ringmaster, and show owner Cedric Walker points out that his lions-and-chair festivities move along to the pace of driving rhythmic music and fabulous lighting effects -- something more in line with a hip-hop show than with Ringling Bros.'s barbershop-quartet style: "the pomp-and-circumstance" approach Walker ascribes to traditional circuses.

Walker reinvented an American (but mostly white-oriented) tradition in Atlanta during 1993. A play promoter, Walker had the brilliant notion to combine hip-hop concert effects with touches of vaudeville and, duh, animals, to create a circus. Only a few backers shared his dream/scheme and Walker had to dig deep (i.e., get into debt) to make the show go on for its first few years. A major sponsorship deal with Burger King in 1997 provided funding for Walker to realize his "million-dollar" spectacular. Considering that imperialists snatched elephants and lions and chimps from Africa to create the original sawdust-and-peanuts circuses, Walker's Afrocentric version of the big top (which he righteously and brotherly calls the nation's "soul inspiration") completes a circle, or, if you prefer, a ring.

Just one ring, but within it gawkers get "Poppin' Soul," a presentation by Dupree, and a humorous segment known as "Soul in the City," featuring Shuckey Duckey on the whip. While some might see the show as two rings short of a circus, Walker portrays all aspects of it as positives: The single tent provides intimacy, he says, and every seat is like "front row center. We're in your face." In your face with the antics, pyrotechnics, music -- enough stimuli to justify a 48-city "Poppin' Soul 2004 Tour" that includes several days of shows at Pro Player Stadium.

From its debut in the parking lot of Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium a decade ago, UniverSoul has jumped through the hoops of a 10-city tour in 1997 to 31 cities in 2000 (with a trip to South Africa the following year), to 45 cities in 2002. Parade magazine, that hippest of hoppin' reads, wrote that Walker's bazaar "rocks, amazes. The tent almost rocked from the swaying, dancing, and clapping of the audience. At UniverSoul Circus, everybody gets down." Funky, cool cats, funky.


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