Message from Montie

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Chicago celebrates the UniverSoul Circus coming to Chitown

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Message from Montie

Shamontiel is the author of two novels: "Change for a Twenty" and "Round Trip." Check her out at shamontiel.com.

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I used to say I didn't like the circus. Clowns freak me out. The threatening sound of whips make me think of animal cruelty. And circus music reminds me of horror flicks. My family has dragged me to quite a few circuses in my younger years (specifically my mother who has a bit of an obsession with elephants, and no, she's not a Delta Sigma Theta member). But I'd never been to the UniverSoul Circus before, and after leaving there tonight during opening night, Sept. 23, I can never say I don't like circuses again. The term "soul" is an understatement. UniverSoul Circus brings the funk, the rhythm, the heart and the love of music to the most outstanding circus I've ever seen in my life.

 

UniverSoul Circus was founded by Baltimore, Maryland native Cedric Walker. According to UniverSoulCircus.com, Walker and his brother Frank enjoyed circuses since they were little. Walker had an obvious love for the music industry considering he became a producer and stage manager for R&B group the Commodores, a promoter for the Jackson 5, organized a rap music tour called the Fresh Festival with rappers Run DMC, Salt n' Pepa and the Fat Boys, and he helped produce gospel plays "Wicked Ways" and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."

 

And in 1994, Walker blended his love for music and the circus to create the family friendly UniverSoul Circus. Sixteen years later and it's still a hit.

 

Hundreds of people lined Chicago's Washington Park, ages ranging from single digits to senior citizens. The show started promptly at 7:30 p.m., and the audience immediately started cheering. The trick to any good show is no matter how great the performers are, the audience has to be enthused too. And with the cheers, screams, clapping and singing coming out of Wednesday night's Chicago audience, it was hard to tell who was trying to energize who onstage or in the crowd. Of course there were tigers, elephants, horses and even a cute little puppy to entertain the crowd with animal tricks. The audience also saw flipping, magic tricks, contortionists, performers defying gravity through a two-way wheel and a swing, fire tricks, elephant rides, bouncing balls flying overhead and stilt walkers, and those acts definitely got the crowd riled up and cheering.    

 

And a few jugglers twirled real tables and vases on their feet like they weighed the same amount as a postcard. But it was the "soul" part of UniverSoul Circus that separated this circus from other mainstream ones, revving up the entire crowd up and keeping them laughing, cheering, talking and poking their neighbors, and raising their hands like children with the pop quiz answer to volunteer for anything possible.

 

UniverSoul Circus does not discriminate on the type of family music they'll play, and no matter what generation you belong to, the deejay made sure to touch on every generation to chairdance (although many people stood up to dance in front of their seats): gospel spiritual "This Little Light of Mine," Souljah Boy's "Turn My Swag On," and "Kiss Me Through the Phone," Parliament's "Flashlight," Hurricane Chris' "Halle Berry," Maze featuring Frankie Beverly's "Before I Let Go," Eric B. and Rakim's "Pump Up the Volume," Kanye West's "Good Life," Rick James "Give It To Me Baby" and Lil' Wayne and T-Pain's "Got Money" were just a few among many hits that were audience favorites during UniverSoul Circus' opening night. At one point the deejay sporadically stopped playing music because the audience knew all the words and sang them a capella.

 

And with the animals, the magic, the fire and the music came more entertainment. The host of the evening was an old lady named "Auntie" (think Madea but with an attractive woman dressed as an old lady instead) who could easily sell a comedy club out. She had her sidekick "nephew" with her, who was just as "cool" and oftentimes they had their own entertaining arguments and dance contests. All I could do was crack up laughing with their rendition of Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)."

 

But the real dance contests came from the audience. There were three different contests: one for three children competing (and "Auntie" joked about one of them needing to get to church soon because of the way she danced); a Soul Train line; and then there was the New School vs. Old School battle.

 

And that last battle was the highlight of the audience participation for me--new school was a little stiff but old school "shut the club down," as Auntie would say. The point of the contest was to re-enact the words to different songs, and the crazy part is that the Old School male contestant named Zion tried to weasel his way offstage. But when the music came on and Auntie wouldn't let him leave, he put the audience on their feet performing Lenny Williams "Cause I Love You." But not to be short-stopped, his lady friend Cleo performed Jennifer Holliday's "You're Gonna Love Me" and left the audience in tears or without words. Instant standing ovation. I learned a little secret about that contest the second time I attended (on Sept. 25), but that contest never ever gets old.

 

And with the entertainment came education. UniverSoul Circus paid homage to President Barack Obama and there were three performances about getting flu shots, eating intelligently to stop diabetes and practicing safe sex with an HIV/AIDS awareness dance skit. The Illinois Department of Public Health's Director Damon Arnold came to the center ring to say a few words about being healthy and encouraged the audience to exercise as much as possible, including "dancing like Auntie," who was getting low every chance she got.

 

The UniverSoul Circus performance ended around 10:30 p.m., and the performers came out to take a bow. The diversity in this group was also impressive--some were from the United States in places like Florida and Georgia while others were around the world in different parts of South America, China and the Virgin Islands. 

 

The animated audience quickly filed out to chat about their favorite parts of the night. After meeting CEO Cedric Walker and talking with his very helpful tour promoter, Lisa Ladson, about how much I loved the performance, I left for the night.  But the circus runs for four weeks, and trust me, I'll be back before the last day on Oct. 18. For all those who are interested, the circus will stay on Chicago's South Side in Washington Park. Click here for tickets and more information.

 

Click here to see more UniverSoul Circus photos.

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