Circus life is a wild ride, and Johnathan Lee Iverson, the first African American and the youngest ringmaster in the history of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “greatest show on earth” is right in the middle of the madness. Iverson was in the center spotlight when the circus began its run at Verizon Center yesterday.
Arts Post caught up with him about his role and dizzyingly chaotic career.
Arts Post: It seems like everybody has had dreams about running away and joining the circus. How do you define circus life?
Iverson: It’s like the sawdust mafia-you never really get out! The biggest lie is that we’re the biggest show on earth, because it’s not a show. It’s an event. I love the generational quality to the circus, and that we are one of the few major family shows left. I call what we do “the science of miracles.” All of the artists live together. We become friends, lovers, and enemies, but we love and respect each other. You have to because we operate on a different level of artistry. Unlike a movie actor who gets several takes, if we make a mistake, someone could die.
Arts Post: What is the basic role of the ringmaster, in your mind?
Iverson: It all boils down to words. I’m like John the Baptist. I’m the proselytizer. I’m the bridge between fantasy and reality. It’s all about my voice and the vocalization. I think of trying to represent our artists and their energy. They are god-like to me. My role is not magic, but it is hard work.
Arts Post: Anything special you do to get your voice ready?
Iverson: I do a lot of vocalization exercises leading up to the show. I like to read Shakespeare monologues and read from the Bible. Of course, I have to stay hydrated and drink a lot of water, and I have to exercise and stretch my body.
Arts Post: Anything eccentric or special you do before a show to get prepared?
Iverson: It depends on my mood, but I always have this thing where I keep my door open because there are so many people coming to see me with various things to tell me, update me on, etc., so I feel I have to make myself available to everyone.
Arts Post: How does your costume help or hinder your performance?
Iverson: It’s fabulous. I feel like a cross between Little Richard and Don King’s love child. I think I’m the only straight man besides Prince who could get away wearing my top hat and outfits they make for me. I have to admit that I get conceited when I get into that costume. I take on a whole new persona.
Arts Post: Who would you say is your artistic inspiration?
Iverson: P.T. Barnum is one of them, certainly. His spirit is all around here. I love how he turned freaks and rejects and made them stars, and how he was one of the first businessmen to integrate the workplace with diversity. That’s his greatest legacy.
Arts Post: After a show, you must be on such a high. How do you come down from it?
Iverson: I used to be on a high when I was young and selfish. Now I’ve realized that it’s all about other people. And at the end of the night, I’m grateful that people got to enjoy themselves. Someone said, “The noblest art of all is making people happy.” And that’s true for me.