Circus brings hip-hop to the big top in Jamaica

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If they can wait just a few weeks, borough families can help welcome the circus as it makes its Queens debut in Roy Wilkins Park next month.

"This will be our first time in Queens," said Hank Ernest, spokesman for the Atlanta-based UniverSoul Circus. "We wanted to expand in New York City, and Queens was a natural move for us."

The circus, which takes traditional big top acts and pairs them with hip-hop, R & B, jazz, gospel and other styles of music, opens Friday in Brooklyn, Ernest said. The show is scheduled to open in Roy Wilkins Park in Jamaica on April 23, he said.

"There has been a high demand for the circus to get into every area of the city and into Queens," he said.

Leaders at Roy Wilkins Park have been working for about a year to bring the circus to Queens, said William Nelson, executive director of the Southern Queens Parks Association, which manages the park. Nelson invited the director of operations for UniverSoul Circus to a jazz concert at the park last summer to show him the park's capacity and the crowd's excitement, he said.

"We wanted to bring the highest quality entertainment to southeast Queens that we could possibly bring," Nelson said. "We needed to show them that Queens would welcome this with open arms."

The UniverSoul Circus first wowed crowds in Atlanta in 1994. The show is the first in more than 100 years to be entirely owned and operated by black Americans. The circus also contracts with people in the communities where it performs to do maintenance work on the show, from raising the tent to patrolling the grounds, according to the circus' Web site.

The "Hip-Hop Under the Big Top," as it has come to be known, features a range of traditional and non-traditional acts. Performers from around the globe are recruited to walk the high wire, train lions, tigers, horses and other animals and don clown costumes, Ernest said.

"We give them the Soul Circus feel," he said. "Take the high-wire act. They're from Colombia, so they do a little salsa dancing on the wire."

And the ringmasters set the tone. On the "Soul in the City" show slated for Queens, the circus has two ringmasters - comedians Shuckey Ducky and Patrice Lovely. These ringmasters shun the traditional red and black top hat and tails, opting for a more colorful wardrobe and plenty of audience interaction, Ernest said.

"Our two ringmasters, they don't just stand in the ring," he said. "They go into the audience and give high fives and sign autographs and dance with people while the show is going on."

And the circus has a local performer, Ernest said. The trainer who handles the tigers and elephants hails from Uniondale, L.I., and "Soul in the City" will mark the first time he parades his pussy cats and pachyderms before a New York audience, he said.

All these elements combine for an exciting show, Ernest said.

"It's a boisterous crowd. The crowd is alive," he said. "The main difference is where at one circus you sit back and see the show, at this circus it's like - whoa. It's in your face."

The circus will bring its hip-hop brand of big top entertainment to Roy Wilkins Park in Jamaica from April 23 through May 2, Ernest said. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster retailers and at the circus box office, which will open in the park a few days before the show, he said.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

Updated 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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