THE CIRCUS IS IN TOWN, and this time around, the big top has gone hip-hop.

Universoul Circus, founded by Cedric Walker in 1994, is the first to be wholly owned by African-Americans. It also focuses on audience members as participants rather than solely as spectators.

Aided by a hip-hop and gospel soundtrack (none of those old-school calliopes here), Universoul Circus is also embellished with the ringmastering prowess of Tony Tone, who has opened for Chris Rock and toured with Def Comedy Jam.

“Being the ringmaster is like being an MC to the 10th power,” he said. “It’s big, it’s animated; the more color we can bring to it, we bring the house down.”

The show incorporates international acts, including Chinese acrobats, contortionists from Guinea and Russian swings.

“We present a cultural gumbo,” said Tone. “This isn’t your average circus. The theme of the tour is from the Zulu word jabulani — which means joy, laughter and happiness — and it’s all-inclusive.”

Universoul’s approach also requires that there not be a bad seat in the house; the farthest is a mere 50 feet from the action.

“Ours is an interactive circus,” said Tone. “Not like interaction with the tigers, which would be pretty dangerous, but we invite people down between acts and make them a part of the show. There’s dancing and even a competition between an old-school pair and a new-school pair where they serenade each other.”

Also on hand are anything but your average pachyderms.

“Oh, no. Our elephants are sassy,” he said.

» Capital Plaza Mall, 6900 Annapolis Road., Landover Hills, Md., through June 6; $15-26.

Written by Express contributor Christopher Correa

Photo by Hannibal Matthews