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Cedric Walker

Cedric Walker

By Cloe Cabrera | The Tampa Tribune Staff
Published: January 25, 2012

Cedric Walker didn't run away to join the circus; he created one.

He wanted circus mainstays like high-flying acrobats, daring animal trainers and comedic clowns.

But he also envisioned a show that would bring together black families, much the same way as the gospel comedies he produced in the '80s, such as "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

"I wanted to create a clean, family attraction that speaks to the energy, the vibe of the inner-city community," said Walker, 58, who spent most of his career in the entertainment business, promoting groups including The Commodores and the Jackson 5. "I wanted this to be a one-of-a-kind show."

Walker researched vaudeville and other black entertainment acts. He studied the first black traveling circus, founded in 1885 by Ephraim Williams in Milwaukee.

He travelled the globe recruiting predominately black performers – professional and street-corner acts.

When Walker couldn't find a lion tamer, he persuaded a "wild and crazy" cousin who owned a 12-foot boa constrictor for the job.

He mixed the performances with a heavy dose of hip-hop, base-thumping beats like Usher, salsa rhythms; lots of dancing, including a "Soul Train" line, and a soulful ringmaster and sidekick.

The UniverSoul Circus had arrived. Though it wasn't profitable in the early years, he stuck with it.

UniverSoul has remained true its roots, empowering and enlightening black audiences who might have felt underserved by mainstream circuses. But above all, it's a circus that wants to entertain everyone.

"We look for acts that reflect the whole urban experience," he says. "Yes, it's heavily entrenched in black entertainment, but soul is not a color – it's an experience."

Circus enthusiasts will see more than 60 featured performers including the "Bone Crushers," contortionists from Africa who writhe their bodies to hip-hop and R&B, along with Caribbean stilt walkers and motorcycle acts.

The circus also features multicultural acts like a troupe from Russia that performs high-flying summersaults and vaults from one end of the ring to the other. They also perform traditional Russian dances to a hip-hop beat.

The Shoaling Warriors, an acrobatic troop from China, will entertain with acrobatic stunts and maneuvers, and aMongolian aerial act features two female contortionists that bend their bodies like Gumby inside a transparent globe suspended 30-feet above the ground – with no safety net.

And there are a variety of animals including elephants, tigers, zebras and camels comprising a "Noah's Ark" of acts.

UniverSoul is designed to give attendees a more intimate circus experience. No seat is more than 35 feet from the ring.

"We want the audience to be able to focus on that person on the high wire and see their face, the sweat of the muscles," says Walker. "When you get to see the bravery happening right in front of you, up close, it's really amazing."

Ringmaster sidekick, Zanda Charles, known as "Zeke," is thankful he left his DJ job in Atlanta 18 years ago to run away with UniverSoul.

Among his most memorable experiences was meeting the late civil rights leader Rosa Parks at a performance in Detroit, and performing for Nelson Mandela's birthday in South Africa.

"I love being out there keeping the audience entertained," says Zeke, who says he is 25 years old at heart. "The interaction with the audience, the energy, the music and seeing generations of kids having a good time at our show, there's just nothing like this."

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