Elephants and tigers and . . . oh my . . . soul, jazz and hip-hop -- plus shimmying tightrope-walkers, acrobatics and body contortion with a cultural flair.
Welcome to the tent in the Capital Plaza Mall parking lot. And welcome to UniverSoul Circus, the nation's only African American-owned circus, which has made Landover Hills one of its stops for the last six years. The family show runs there two and three times a day through June 20.
In its 11th year, the Atlanta-based circus combines big entertainment under the big top with a big message. It's a message that goes beyond the circus's mere existence. Between comedic riffs and spirited audience-goading, ringmasters remind circus-goers of love, understanding, tolerance, perseverance and social responsibility.
Their words, even when encouraging the crowd to mimic popular music lyrics -- including Nas's "I Can": "I know I can/ Be what I wanna be/ If I work hard at it/ I'll be where I wanna be" -- seem to call up everything Cedric Walker, president and chief executive, believes in. The Baltimore native did not always realize he could do anything he wanted, though.
After going to the Ringling Bros. circus as children, Walker and his brother pretended to tame lions with whips and brainstormed ways to shoot themselves out of a cannon. He was so taken by the magic of the circus, in fact, that years later, he was tempted to take a job as a circus maintenance man well after he had begun a professional career in the entertainment industry.
"I was limited by what I saw blacks do and their participation in the circus," Walker said. "I had a scope of limited possibility. Now kids have a different scope of possibility," said Walker, who bypassed maintenance man and went straight to the big time when he started the UniverSoul Circus.
When he was in college at Tuskegee University in Alabama, Walker was hired to travel the world with the rhythm and blues group the Commodores as a production, sound stage and lighting director. He learned about the entertainment business firsthand through Motown and the "chitlin circuit" of black entertainment venues, and that work eventually led him to family entertainment and an idea to create something that would encompass African American culture in a way that went beyond singing, dancing and theater.
In the late 1980s, Walker and associate "Casual Cal" Dupree researched black and white entertainment from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and began to think about creating a vaudeville-style variety show. When their library search revealed that a black circus operated in 1893, the idea to create a new black circus took hold.
It was an idea, Walker said, that had "a way of electrifying your soul, your spirit." The concept also electrified many of the black circus performers around the world, who finally had a place to pool their talents and express themselves as a unit.
Jean-Claude Belmat, an aerial acrobatic dancer, responded with the same gusto that many other performers did upon hearing about the circus. Belmat, a Parisian who performs a romantic routine with Veronica Williams on ribbon-like straps suspended 20 feet above the ring to the sound of Stevie Wonder's "Ribbon in the Sky," said he was ready to go when his agent told him a black circus in the United States was looking for talent.
"In Europe, I was most of the time the only black person in the circus," said Belmat, who has spent six years with UniverSoul. "Here, there is something about the ambiance. It's like a marriage every day. I feel at home," he said.
Belmat says the audience response is overwhelming. After his first performance, he said, 100 people waited for him to sign his autograph, something that rarely, if at all, happened in European cities, where he found crowds a lot more reserved.
"Here the audience is screaming. They dance. They clap. They give you back a lot," Belmat said.
The fact that the audiences have been that way from the beginning is why Walker kept the circus going after the first few financially difficult years, when the shows lost money.
Relying on word of mouth, UniverSoul eventually garnered sponsorship that allowed it to expand from Atlanta to several other cities. More than a decade later, the circus visits 55 cities during its 10-month season.
Many families have made the two-and-a-half-hour show an annual outing.
For her third circus visit, Katie Daniels drove from her home in Cottage City to Goldsboro, N.C., to pick up her 5-year-old grandson and bring him to Maryland to see the circus.
"I just love to hear my grandson say, 'I saw a black circus,' " Daniels said after the show. "It really makes a statement for our kids."
And while that statement has a lot to do with African American pride, Daniels said, its larger message was just as meaningful.
"You have all nationalities in this circus. It's just inspirational. It shows that everybody can get along," she said.
During the show, ringmaster Cecil "Shucky Ducky" Armstrong robustly announces Tyrone Taylor as the first African American elephant trainer and Patrice "Maybelle" Lovely as the first African American female ringmaster. With the same tone, he introduces circus artists who hail from South Africa, China, Russia, France and other parts of the world.
Armstrong, who went from stand-up comedy to ringmaster three years ago, embodies the way audience members respond to the production.
"I love seeing the reaction of children and older people. African Americans feel pride about something that's professional and in a positive light," he said.
Denise Ali-Williams was overflowing with that pride after watching the show.
"As a kid I went every year to the Barnum & Bailey circus, but it doesn't touch this," the Glenn Dale resident said. The music and audience participation took hold of Ali-Williams, whose 10-year-old daughter, Imani Ali, was most entranced by contortionist acts and tigers jumping through a ring of fire.
"It's not just for the kids," Ali-Williams said.
Indeed it's not. By design, Walker hoped to produce something that would hark back to the days when multiple generations sat together on the same arena bench and enjoyed clean entertainment.
With a little Marvin Gaye, a touch of "Soul Train," some Wild West roughriders and grandparents, parents, teachers and children sitting side by side, the UniverSoul Circus manages to make Walker's goal a reality while giving circus-goers plenty of tangible proof that they can do whatever they want to do, as long as they work hard at it.
UniverSoul Circus runs through June 20 in the parking lot of Capital Plaza Mall, 6200 Annapolis Rd., Landover Hills. Showtimes are 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; noon, 4:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or through Ticketmaster (800-277-1700; www.ticketmaster.com) Admission is $10 for 10:30 a.m. shows and $17.50-$29 for other performances.