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A Little Big Top Full of Delight

Review: The African American-owned and -operated circus mixes high-tech with small-town charm in a show for young and old.


Tell a 6-year-old he's going to see the Universal Big Top Circus, the first circus in a century that is completely owned and operated by African Americans, and he will ask whether there will be clowns and elephants and whether he can still have cotton candy after cake and ice cream, a Sno-Kone and some popcorn.

The answers to the above questions are yes and you've got to be kidding, respectively--but, at a Saturday matinee of the Universal Big Top Circus at Exposition Park, any historical significance there might be to this being a "black circus"--dubbed "Cirque du Soul" by an Atlanta newspaper--is largely lost on children, and that's who this circus really is for.

The kids just wanted a good party--and they got one, from the moment Casual Cal the Ringmaster and his sidekick, a "little person" named Zeke, hit the ring in this one-ring circus, dancing up a storm to a backdrop of spinning mirror balls and an overhead laser light show, exhorting the audience to answer the question: "Can you feel it?"

If you couldn't, you weren't there. In this friendly show, even technical glitches were used to fine advantage, as when an unscheduled tech break following a disappointing tiger act (these cats with attitude knew some tricks, apparently, but made it clear early on that there was no way they were going to do them) was used as an excuse to have all the little children in the audience come down into the aisle and dance for a while, which they gleefully did.

Even for adults, who might be somewhat more plugged into the uniqueness of a circus featuring mostly African American performers doing death-defying acts for a predominantly African American audience, it's really hard to think about racial breakthroughs when the amazing Ayak Brothers from Capetown, South Africa, are flying 60 feet above you on a high wire without a net, and it appears that Ayak Brother No. 1 just might drop Ayak Brother No. 2 directly on your head, brother.

Many performers are announced as "one of the first of two African American aerialists with Ringling Bros." or "the descendants of the first African American circus performers ever." Casual Cal explains that the circus, now 3 years old and making its first tour outside its home city of Atlanta, required two years of historical research.

But reenacting history is not what this circus does best. Animal tamer Ted McCrae (the same guy who got ignored by his tigers) reenacted the story of Hannibal the African Warrior crossing the Swiss Alps with three elephants, but, without Casual Cal's explanation, this was just a guy and elephants. Some slapstick clown skits, one reads in news articles about the circus, are supposed to pay homage to the history of blacks in television, but there is no program to read and unless you've seen it before, the significance does not register.

There is also a chimpanzee act that makes you want to run out to form a retirement fund for Tired Old Circus Animals.

What the Universal Big Top Circus does best is update the corny old world of the circus into 1996 for today's kids, with a fast pace and lots of music, lights and dancing of the type they're used to experiencing in current TV shows and music videos. Music blends everything from James Brown to the theme song from the TV series "The Jeffersons" to the early hits of the Jackson 5.

Along with the more traditional circus acts, you have the King Charles Troupe from the Bronx, a bunch of zany young guys in basketball jerseys who engage in a wacky game of basketball and some fancy double-Dutch jump roping--all on unicycles.

A highlight of the circus is Nayakata, a contortionist from Spain, who repeatedly turns herself into a pretzel without losing her extraordinary poise and grace. She received a well-deserved standing ovation. And, instead of those silent and somewhat hostile clowns who you always hope won't come into the audience and embarrass you at a traditional circus, it's a joy to have Casual Cal and Zeke, both as warm, nonjudgmental and eager to share as Barney the Dinosaur, giving out hugs, hanging with the audience during breaks, making sure everyone is having fun and encouraging the audience to show their support for the performers even when an act goes awry.

Cal even asks the kids to stand up and take the "Ringmasters Pledge" to always love their families, learn, pray and promise to work hard to achieve their goals in life. Look up "family values" in your dictionary and there's Cal's picture.

While providing the latest in high-tech sound and lighting, this big top also maintains the charm of being a little top--with its cozy, one-ring tent, portable toilets outside and friendly young staffers hired from the local community to operate the popcorn, hot dog and cotton candy concessions. It makes big Los Angeles feel like a small town where there still, just maybe, exists a magical chance to run away with the circus.

* Universal Big Top Circus, Exposition Park, Vermont and Leighton Avenues. Through Nov. 24. Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, noon, 4:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, noon, 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. $12.50-$30. School shows only, Tuesdays-Fridays, 10:30 a.m. $10. Ticketmaster: (213) 480-3232.

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