Hip-Hop Big Top

UPDATED 10/06/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/06/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

ONE PEEK INSIDE THE UNIVERSOUL Circus tent pitched in a park on Chicago's South Side tells you this is not Barnum and Bailey's big top. Not when the elephants prance around to the 1971 R&B anthem "Mr. Big Stuff," black clowns (in greasepaint) reenact the Tyson-Holyfield fight and ringmaster Cal Dupree leads the audience in a sing-along of the theme song from The Jeffersons.

"Oh, we're movin' on up!" the crowd roars. And how. Midway through its first national tour, the UniverSoul extravaganza—the first circus in a century to be owned and operated by African Americans—is winning rave reviews and packing tents from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Coproducers Dupree, 39, and Cedric "Ricky" Walker, 44, showcase a 60-member performing troupe (all but two of whom are black) that includes world-class performers like the Ayak Brothers, South African aerialists who catch each other with their feet, and the jump-roping King Charles Unicycle Troupe. "Black people need to feel the circus is one of their events," says Walker, a former music promoter, of the show, which has been dubbed the Cirque du Soul.

But UniverSoul's success owes as much to showbiz sizzle as it does to the color of skin. Russell Skelton, 39, an assistant school principal in Chicago who has seen the show four times, says he first "came because it was a black circus. But then I fell in love." Adds Walker: "Our performances are not black or white—they're from the bottom of our souls."

Walker and Dupree are also savvy entrepreneurs who know their customers: the troupe bypasses suburban arenas for the nation's poorest neighborhoods, including Harlem and L.A.'s South Central, and hires local people to help with construction, concessions and security. Corporate sponsors like Burger King and General Mills help keep ticket prices, which run from $8 to $30, affordable. Walker estimates that by tour's end in December, the circus will have given back more than $5 million in jobs to the neighborhoods they visited. "Money needs to circulate in these communities," says Walker, "money that doesn't come from a handout."

At show time in Chicago, ringmaster Dupree sprinkles his banter with tidbits of black history and encourages the children in the audience to take the "ringmaster's pledge" to love their families and say no to drugs. The concept of family is particularly important to Dupree, who grew up in Harlem never knowing who his father was. "Mom dropped hints here and there, but I never pressed the issue," says Dupree, whose mother, Rose, supported him and his sister by caring for elderly people in their homes. Still, he says, "the longing just doesn't go away." To fill the void, young Cal turned to his uncle, Albert Germany, a radio station program director, who introduced him to the business. "I breathed, slept and ate radio," Dupree says. After high school, he moved to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College but quit to pursue a career as a deejay. He met Walker in 1975, when both were promoting local music acts. "We hit it off from day one," says Dupree.

They also had similar backgrounds. One of four children born to the late Frank Walker, an Air Force master sergeant, and his homemaker wife, Alma, Walker had come to music as a way out of a troubled adolescence. As a high school student in Baltimore, he had fallen in with a tough crowd, drinking, taking drugs and stealing. His father sent him, at 18, to Tuskegee, Ala., to live with his uncle William Carr, a nightclub owner. "It was the best thing that ever happened in my life," says Walker, who estimates that 80 percent of his old friends are dead from violence, drugs or AIDS.

At his uncle's club, Walker met the Commodores, who were just starting out, and joined their road crew. By 1980 he had parlayed that experience into his own music promotion firm.

Walker and Dupree enjoyed their first success together with the 1984 Fresh Festival, featuring rap artists like Run-DMC and Whodini. But as both became fathers—Walker has a 10-year-old son with wife Cynthia, now the circus's comptroller and vice president, and Dupree, who is engaged to Merian Randall, an accountant, has a 13-year-old daughter from a previous relationship—they were turned off by rap music's increasing raunchiness and looked for more family-oriented entertainment.

With the UniverSoul Circus tour now nearing break-even (total grosses are expected to approach $15 million) and an overseas trip on the drawing boards, Walker and Dupree, both of whom live in Atlanta, are already dreaming about their next innovation. "I want to create more family attractions that present our culture," says Walker. Such as? He glances around the big top and says, "We're not that far from a black theme park."

CYNTHIA SANZ
LUCHINA FISHER in Chicago and BILL CARPENTER in Washington

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