The Rings 

UniverSoul comes to Memphis.

Thirty-year-old drum major Slater Thorpe never intended to run away with the circus. "My family still teases me," the Atlanta native admits. "But the circus seemed specifically designed for me. I saw an opportunity to use all my talents."

Since last February, Slater has led the drum line at the UniverSoul Circus, the world's first such organization to spotlight African Americans.

"I'd finished college at Florida A&M with majors in music and sociology," Thorpe explains. "I was doing everything -- substitute teaching and working odd jobs -- when this came along. I never imagined myself here," he admits, "but I love it."

UniverSoul founder Cedric Walker -- a former concert promoter and theater producer -- subtitles the spectacle "Hip-hop Under the Big Top," while the media lauds it as the "Cirque du Soul."

Whatever you call it, the circus has attracted millions of spectators since its inception in 1994. "We pride ourselves in creating a show that's cultural but also entertaining," says Jackie Davis, a vice president with the circus. "It features a combination of circus arts and music theater, starring entertainers from around the world."

Davis emphasizes that not all of the performers are African American. "Just like the real world, it's a global society. We have Africans, Asians, Latins, and Europeans. They're from different cultures, and sometimes they speak different languages, but they always work together," she says. "As we say around here, soul isn't really a color. It's an experience. It's something everyone can participate in and enjoy."

Thorpe agrees: "We have South Africans, Central Africans, and performers from Europe and Brooklyn, New York. Our audiences are made up of black faces, white faces, and every color in between."

The UniverSoul Circus is currently wrapping up a 55-city, nine-month run. More than 200 people -- including a production crew, talent, and a managerial staff -- travel with the company from February through November, spending just a few frenzied days in each town.

During the week, the circus has two performances a day. "On a typical day," says Thorpe, "I get up by 8 a.m. to be on a van that shuttles performers to the tent by 9. We have to be in place an hour before the first show, which starts at 10:30. A few hours later, we're back at the hotel.

"We're there long enough to chill out for a couple of seconds," he says. "I try to practice my horn and take a little catnap. Other folks like to surf on the Internet or download some music."

By 5 p.m., it's back to the big top to prepare for the evening performance.

"It's like a big concert, with circus acts," Thorpe says of the two-hour show. "A lot of the performances revolve around music." His big moment comes just after intermission, when Casual Cal, the ringmaster, calls the drum line into the ring.

"After the Chinese bungee performers, Cal says, 'Hey, everybody, I've got a surprise.' He blows a whistle, and we march in. I'm used to leading the Marching 100 [Florida A&M's drum line] into huge venues like the Georgia Dome, but the crowd response and the intensity at the circus is incredible," Thorpe raves.

Davis credits success to Cedric Walker's vision.

"I worked with him to put the circus together," says Davis. "When we did the first show in Atlanta back in '94, I thought it was a great concept, but I wasn't sure what other people were going to think. Now Cedric travels the world seeking out talent."

Thorpe says being away from home is the only difficult part of his job. "Even though I love traveling," he says, "I miss my family. But now I've developed my own family within the circus."

"A lot of people are making money," he adds, "but they loathe going to work every day. I found something I love, and that is satisfaction." ß

The UniverSoul Circus October 20th-October 23rd at the Southland Mall parking lot. Showtimes at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.

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