For almost 20 years, the UniverSoul Circus has been pitching its tent in urban plazas across the country. The circus was founded by a Baltimore native as a showcase for black talent, one that he hoped would inspire black audiences.
In more recent times, the circus has evolved into an eclectic mix of acts from around the world. Now, it’s pushing to diversify its audience, with a show called “Us.”
Strength, Precision And Crowd-Pleasing Nerve
In the beginning, all of the talent was black. They came from Africa, the Caribbean and the U.S.
Today, UniverSoul still opens with black performers: a classically trained ballerina, followed by a trio of West African horsemen in shimmery blue spandex.
They gallop around the ring at top speeds, and then come the gymnastics. One flips himself completely around the horse’s torso while it’s still running. Another stands up on horseback and throws his hands in the air, all at full gallop.
Later there are stilt walkers from Trinidad and Tobago, Mongolian aerial acrobats and the Shaolin Kung Fu Warriors, from Shaolin Monastery in central China.
The warriors’ heads are shaved, their bodies draped in yellow robes.
They bow to the audience. Then they leap into battle, swords flying. They thrill the audience with their strength, precision and crowd-pleasing nerve. They break a wooden dowel over one guy’s head and a second dowel over another vulnerable spot. But don’t worry — he’s OK.
After their set, the warriors retire to the trailer they share with the acrobatic contortionists from Guinea.
Troupe leader Liu Xiaofeng says they had never performed with a circus before. They heard that UniverSoul was one of the best in America.
For most of the Shaolin Warriors, it’s their first time in the U.S., and their first time seeing so many African-Americans in person. Li Dongwei, 20, says before coming here, his impressions of black people were based on violent movies.
Before the first show, they weren’t sure whether black audiences would be into them. But crowds cheered them on at volumes they hadn’t heard back home.
There’s a big difference, says Liu Xiaofeng. A black audience doesn’t suppress its emotions. In China, he says, maybe because of Confucianism, people are more reserved.
‘Soul Is A Flavor’
“To me, soul is not a color. Soul is a flavor,” says UniverSoul’s co-host, Zanda “Zeke” Charles, who is 54 years old and 4 1/2 feet tall.
He has been with this circus since day one.
“Anybody from any country can come in and do what we do,” Charles says. “We put our music to it, their culture to it, and it’s like, voila, we give something to the community that they rarely or barely ever get a chance to see.”
Today, UniverSoul’s community remains predominantly black. But, as he roams the stands giving out hugs, Charles says he is seeing more and more families of other colors.
“When I walk around the audience and see their little kids, the Chinese little kids seeing someone in the ring of their culture, that puts pride to them,” he says.
Back in the ring, Charles is running the “Soul Train Line” — an audience-participation dance-off.
Five men and five women run down the aisles from all corners of the tent — all African-Americans, as usual, except one. She’s Yuling Han, a Chinese-American psychologist and mother of two young children, who watch from the stands.
“I kind of like to embarrass them,” she says.
The crowd approves of her dance moves, and on her way out, Charles gives her a high-five. He hopes she’ll be back.