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America’s only black-owned big top rolls into Boston

Instead of the usual cars belonging to students and faculty, Northeastern University’s Columbus Avenue Parking Lot is hosting a more colorful fleet this week.
Dozens of trailers and trucks unloaded elephants, tigers, horses, camels, llamas, zebras and ponies there earlier this week when the UniverSoul Circus rolled into town, with contortionists, acrobats, tamers, clowns and tons of equipment in tow.

UniverSoul, America’s only African American-owned and operated circus, is in town performing its new show, “Jabulani: Joy, Happiness and Laughter” (pronounced “ja-boo-lani”), until July 6. The circus came to Boston in 2002 and 2003, performing in Brockton in 2004. This is its only New England stop in UniverSoul’s 29-city 2008 tour; after its Boston run, the circus hits the road to Cleveland.

“Our show has an African American urban flavor,” says Ben Johnson, the circus’s director of operations, who came to Boston before the caravan to organize the circus’ arrival. “But it’s for everybody. Everyone who comes to the show enjoys it.”

In its 15th season, the circus features 60 artists in a multicultural line-up of acts from Brazil, China, Colombia, Gabon, Guinea, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Russia and the United States, performed to a soundtrack that ranges from hip-hop and rhythm and blues to gospel and funk.

Ringmaster Cecil “Shuckey Duckey” Armstrong says he enjoys the thrill of performing in such a diverse show every time he enters the circus ring.

“The excitement and crowd participation that we have is just so phenomenal,” says Armstrong, who abandoned a career in standup comedy seven years ago to work with the circus. “It’s like being a kid all over again.”

According to UniverSoul Circus owner Cedric Walker, the success of his circus is the result of his vision — to explore the various talents that black performers have to offer.

“We had the idea to present something different … To reach deep into our culture and search for what talent and skills lie asleep in the black entertainment experience,” he wrote on the circus’ Web site. “The UniverSoul Circus is an expression of our experience set under the big top and is the ideal opportunity for families of all ethnicities to participate in a cultural exchange that they can all enjoy.”

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