As gaudy ambitions go, starting a circus ranks pretty high. Clowns, wild animals tamed to perform tricks, high-wire acts, the odd contortionist, all running on the road from town to town, recreating their warped little world every night -- creating an entire universe, God-style, might be the only undertaking that is more outrageous.
So it makes sense that Cal DuPree named his circus "UniverSoul." And it is understandable that he credits God as having something to do with it. The pun on "soul" should suggest that God and DuPree initially intended this to be a black circus for black people.
When what he calls the "divine intervention" of UniverSoul Circus came over DuPree, he had already pulled off a feat that would test most mortals: With his partner, Cedric Walker, he had promoted worldwide rap tours, the first of their kind, starring the likes of Run-D.M.C. (He and Walker had also been the first African-American promoters of New Kids on the Block -- a different test of mortal patience.) From the first, music also figured big in their circus concept, though closer to Run-D.M.C. than to the New Kids. "We wanted black music, black performers and a tent that we pitched in black communities," says DuPree, describing the initial vision (circa 1992), and that pretty well describes their show, titled "New Soul 2000," which pitches its tent Wednesday, Aug. 30, at Northland Shopping Center -- though nobody is checking skin tone at the tent flap: "You can be funky and Russian," DuPree observes.
From the beginning, DuPree knew promoting and performance. He did not know circus, nor did he like it. DuPree remembers sitting in "the 99th row" at a circus in the late '60s, when he was a Harlem kid, and being bored silly. As he threw himself into researching circuses in the early '90s to put flesh on his vision, he was bored again. "I knew we had to be different," he says. "I wanted to bring energy to the circus. Audience participation. Spirit." Blackness, you might say, if you think of It's Showtime at the Apollo compared with a Seinfeld standup gig.
It's Showtime at the Apollo even provided UniverSoul with some talent after DuPree saw some street dancers from New Orleans on the televised show and tracked them down for his circus. He prides himself in his openness to anyone with "our vision" and scans every street performance and stage act looking for anyone with "a certain walk, smell, feel" whom he can "sandpaper a bit and throw in the ring." Once the show got on the road in 1994 and word began to spread in the insular world of circus performers, talent also came to him -- from all over. "They were all used to corny circuses," he says of his internationals, "and when they heard of us, they flipped. They literally flipped to America. They didn't need to take any boats or trains."
In his ranks, DuPree now counts performers from (to name a few places) Colombia, Gabon, the Virgin Islands, Great Britain (its first female clown), South Africa (two preteen contortionists), Tanzania and Brazil, "and don't forget the good old brothers from the U.S. of A.," including a clown named Onionhead who "grew up doing birthday parties in the 'hood." None of them performs music; unfortunately, the show relies on recorded music that ranges throughout the African-American idioms from hip-hop to gospel.
Though DuPree may be bored by other circuses, he has only been fascinated and impressed by circus people. "They are very much for real and want no gimmicks," he says. "They have such integrity as workers, and not just performing -- building props, sewing costumes, everything. They observe law and order. And I am blessed by all these cultures and languages." Prodded for an anecdote, DuPree laughs: "Last year we had this guy from France. I introduced him to grits. And after that, he didn't want to go to breakfast without me!" Grits with the ringmaster: You can see why they call him "Casual Cal."
The folks from these far-flung places (at the moment, 52 in all) are joined by some performers from other species: dogs, chimps and elephants. Despite the elephants, there is no UniverSoul train. The elephants, DuPree says, get their own "truck or, you could say, Winnebago," and the rest of the troupe travels by "bus and convoy." Elephants riding in a truck or Winnebago will be a gloomy image to many people, but DuPree says that UniverSoul is scrutinized by animal-rights advocates and has "a clean slate."
Together they put on a show that is at once "highly composed" and "ad- libbed." DuPree explains, "When you are dealing with soul, it has to be improvised, in part. When the audience gets so high, there is a soul edge where anything can happen." Comparisons from the black community leap readily to mind. "It's like in church, where you can't stop the preacher if the preaching's right," he says. "You can't stop the choir if they are rocking the house." UniverSoul also strives for audience response akin to what you find in a rocking black church: "We want them to cry and clap and shout, all in a spiritual vein."
DuPree falls back on his rap roots a bit when asked to convey the feel of this experience: "It's house-bumpin', tent-thumpin', people-jumpin', and" -- his pause is highly dramatic; you wonder which rhyme he is reaching for -- "we start on time."