Entertainment

UniverSoul’s circus tent is big enough for all

If you’ve ever wanted to run away and join the circus, how much better does it get than a show where the performers invite you right into the spotlight of center ring?

And then

You play “Simon Says.”

Or wiggle your way down a “Soul Train” dance line.

It happens at every UniverSoul performance. The 80-strong troupe — clowns, contortionists, acrobats, aerialists, elephants, tigers and horses, no bears — has set up a 2,500-seat (air-conditioned) tent next to Starlight Theatre in Swope Park.

“We just took the traditional-style circus and added audience participation to it. You’re not only sitting there watching the show, you’re actually a part of the show,” says Zanda “Zeke” Charles.

He’s the show’s co-host, smartly dressed in snazzy Kangol berets and colorful vests. It’s his job to keep the energy high for 2 1/2 hours. (And to make sure the clowns give wide berth to audience members who look afraid.)

“People snapping their fingers, tapping their toes,” Charles says. “We like to take you to church.”

Can he get an

amen

?

When he says big top, you say circus.

Big top.

Circus!

Big top.

Circus!

UniverSoul began pitching its tents 19 years ago in urban neighborhoods across the country. Founder Cedric Walker, a concert and theater promoter, showcased black talent from the United States, Africa and the Caribbean. The audiences were predominately black, too.

But this year’s show, called “Us,” reflects a recent move to diversify the lineup as well as the audiences.

The stilt walkers are from Trinidad and Tobago, the horsemen doing tricks hail from West Africa. The crowd-pleasing Bonebreakers — a group of young men who “twist their bodies into things you’d never think a body would do,” Charles says — live in Guinea, West Africa.

But the aerial acrobats are Mongolian, and the Shaolin Kung Fu Warriors, who taunt death by flinging swords at one another, live in the off-season at a monastery in central China.

That last act comes with a do-not-try-this-at-home warning.

Another trick of UniverSoul is how it marries soul-filled R, Latin, jazz and gospel music, old-school and new, with all this circus fun.

The show’s production designer, Tom Marzullo, has worked with Prince, Kiss, Jay-Z and Ne-Yo and recently designed and produced Justin Bieber’s “My World Tour.”

If the big tent itself weren’t a dead giveway, you could find the show going on in Swope Park by listening for “The Jeffersons” theme song, “Movin’ on Up.”

“What I always say, soul is not a color. Soul is an experience,” Charles says. “Once you come in there and experience the high energy that these performances have, the color thing goes out the window.”

Charles never went to a circus when he was young but seems to be gleefully making up for it now, at 54.

“If my bills were paid,” the ringmaster says, “I would do this for free.”

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