The circus is our culture's most popular embodiment of human spectacle. Freaks, fools and awe-inspiring animals commingle to elicit the oohs and aahs of children and force preternatural smiles from the lips of adults. The UniverSoul Circus, America's first all-black circus in nearly a century, provides elation to its audience in servings sweeter and more airily inflated than the cotton candy roaming its aisles. While its ticket prices are, on average, higher than those at other independent circuses like Canada's Cirque du Soleil or The Big Apple Circus, the Circus' performances are routinely sell-outs. So to speak.
The entertainment is standard circus fare - animals, clowns and stunts - but the difference is in the audience and the way in which the entertainment is geared towards them. One is struck, of course, by the fact that over 90 percent of the performers and presenters are black. The first we see is Casual Cal Dupree, ringmaster, founder and part owner of the circus, who walks on stage not to the traditional blaring organ music, but to the pop-hop of Kriss Kross' Jump. The call and response session that follows recalls the traditional black church service, and each performer has their own particular racial reference. The Trinidadian accents of the stilt walkers, for instance, enhance the circus atmosphere while retaining a faintly Afrocentric aura. The unicyclists are replete in basketball jerseys, and the animal trainers wear slightly more casual garb than the usual, colonial style.
With pride and reverence one can look at the bleachers and see hundreds of smiling black children laughing, pointing and singing along with the dozens of black performers before them. Yet eliciting joy from a black audience is a precarious effort, since any sort of no gathering laws in America basically apply to us first and foremost. For despite the amount of popular culture produced by the African-American community, our access to that culture is often restricted: rap concerts, for example, are rarely allowed in many parts of the country. While most often focused on the young urban male, eventually this intensive scrutiny hits everyone, and one of its cumulative effects is the general invisibility of the black family. Almost every black child is brought up with a handed-down paranoia in relation to white folks - you can't be acting that way in front of them, etc. - and most black public spectacle is a reaction to that in one way or another. So when black folk do congregate it is indeed a luminous event. The UniverSoul Circus is the epitome of the better mousetrap: it was built and they came.
The African-American community is supposedly the eighth largest economy in the world, and it could be argued that the struggle in the post-civil rights era has been about asserting this economic prowess. Indeed, the media coverage of the UniverSoul Circus (CNN, Black Enterprise, The Village Voice) has focused on the fact that this is not merely a cultural phenomenon (which it isn't, really) but an economic spectacle - reports of the enterprise's profits have varied between four and six million dollars. The circus' commercial success is on full display in the arena, with banners representing major corporate sponsors such as Burger King, AT&T, Ford Motors and, most interestingly, Texaco, the company that has just settled the largest racial discrimination suit in history. But in an age of global economics it seems impossible to separate the ambitions of the black economy from the realities of the prevailing power structure. Corporate America is wooing this audience as it spends more of its disposable income on entertainment than its white counterparts, and as a result a cosy relationship has developed wherein unthreatening black cultural mediocrity is elevated by white America.
The chasm between black popular and high culture is wide and apparently irreconcilable. While Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson has often championed the 'chitlin' circuit' of all-black theatres around the US, the fact of the matter is that, generally, the audience for chitlin' hits Barber Shop and A Good Man is Hard to Find or even the UniverSoul Circus, won't be attending Wilson's Fences, clamouring to see Leontyne Price at the Met or filling the seats of Wynton Marsalis' Blood on the Fields at Kennedy Center. (Significantly Cal Dupree was one of the producers of A Good Man is Hard to Find.) Black high culture is always dependent on the criticism, consumption and therefore approval of white high culture and its practitioners are usually disdainful of this fact, if rarely openly so. To make matters worse, white culture will often elevate black popular culture even while it refuses to do so for its own mass-market entertainment. Such elevation has a downside; seen as inevitably linked to complicity, success gets a bad name. Texaco's sponsorship of the UniverSoul circus is an obvious case in point. Do black clowns look sadder in white face?