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World Under One Big Top

The 7-year-old UniverSoul Circus was originally devised as entertainment for African Americans, but now features an international group of performers.

October 12, 2000|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The UniverSoul Circus is coming to town--so get ready for some "serious house rockin.' " Ringmaster "Casual" Cal Dupree, co-founder of the 7-year-old Atlanta-based circus, says there's no such thing as a "spectator" under this Big Top. Prepare to step right up for an elephant-size helping of R&B, salsa, gospel and hip-hop when the music-based circus plants its stakes outside Hollywood Park Friday.

Moving hands and feet and raising voices are all part of the UniverSoul experience. Head ringleader, cheerleader and spiritual guru Casual Cal, a former disc jockey, booms motivational messages between the comedy, introductions and dance routines.

One of his favorite missives: "Soul is not a color, it's an experience."

Originally devised as an entertainment event for African American families, the UniverSoul Big Top now has international appeal with a new slate of performers from Brazil, Chile, the Caribbean, Africa, South Africa, Cuba and Mexico. The latest edition, dubbed New Soul 2000, runs through Oct. 29 in a tent outside Hollywood Park, its only California stop.

Among the youngest acts is the brother-sister contortionist team of Lucky, 11, and Lunga Malatsi, 10, originally from South Africa. Billed as the Little Miracles, the duo performs a series of mind-boggling contortions. Lucky also performs acrobatics with his father, Prince Malatsi.

Saiydah Weems, an African American from Cleveland, and Elizabeth Rodriguez of Mexico team up for a hair-hanging act, in which they are suspended 30 feet in the air by nothing more than their own locks.

Among the returning acts is another pair of family members, Claudia and Margo Porter. The mother-daughter team is part of the Caribbean dance troupe Moko Jumbie.

Margo Porter, whose enthusiasm nearly matches Casual Cal's, likens the UniverSoul Circus to attending an African American church. "Black people give you that extra oomph," she says. "If they like you, they let you know."

A member of the UniverSoul cast since 1995, Porter says she never used to look at circuses in terms of black and white. "But I never saw any black performers," she says of her experience working at other circuses. "I was the only African American there."

When she joined UniverSoul, she relished the opportunity to perform while providing a positive image for young people of color.

"You see these little girls and little boys," she says. "To see a black person, it makes it seem real; they can say, 'I can really fly through the air' or 'I can train the animals.' It makes a lot of their dreams reality."

Margo Porter was five months pregnant when she joined UniverSoul Circus, so her mother joined her on the road to baby-sit. It was inevitable, Claudia says, that they would perform together.

"I knew I would weasel my way in somehow," she says, laughing. Though she worked as a professional dancer most of her life, often taking her daughter along with her, these days Claudia is content to allow her daughter to have the spotlight.

Because many of the new acts have come from other parts of the world, Margo notes that now she and her mother are often the only ones speaking English. "We're the minority," she says with a laugh.

"We have a good, colorful peacock here," says Dupree, describing the cast of performers, all of whom are either black or of Latin descent.

When the UniverSoul Circus took its first bow in November 1994 in Atlanta, most of the acts were from the South, and the circus didn't book any out-of-town engagements; Dupree explains that he and co-founder Cedric Walker didn't know what to expect at the beginning. After the second successful year, however, "we started to make plans."

Because of an overwhelming response from African American audiences in the South, Dupree and Walker took the show on the road in 1996, appearing in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. The four-city tour was well received and the run was extended at each stop.

In 1999, the UniverSoul Circus was featured in an HBO special, which was nominated for an Emmy. "That gave us a big boost," Dupree says. "That was a gift."

This year, the circus is nearing the end of a 31-city tour that began in January. In July, the troupe has its first international performance on the schedule, a benefit for Nelson Mandela's children's fund in South Africa.

"The most rewarding thing," Dupree says, "is to see the kids and the mommies and daddies [who come to watch] on a natural high. The parents enjoy it just like the kids."

BE THERE

UniverSoul Circus, Hollywood Park. Friday (opening night) at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays noon, 4:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays noon, 3:30 and 6:30 p.m.; Tuesdays through Fridays 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. through Oct. 29. Dark Mondays. Tickets: 10:30 a.m. shows $10; other shows $10 to $25. Groups of 20 or more call (800) 316-7439.

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