Cedric Ricky Walker is the founder and CEO of Soul Circus Limited, the parent company of the Universoul Big Top Circus, the first nationally touring Black circus in more than 100 years.
Born Cedric "Ricky" Walker in Baltimore; son of Frank Walker (Air Force master sergeant) and Alma Walker (homemaker); married to Cynthia (comptroller and vice president of UniverSoul Circus); children: one son.
Education: Attended Tuskegee Institute.
Founder and chairman, UniverSoul Circus; Music promoter, Commodores, 1971; Kool Jazz Festivals, 1978; Fresh Festival, 1984. Theater producer, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Mama Don't.
Bedecked in his bright yellow or cherry red Zoot Suit, matching hat, and tennis shoes, Casual Cal, the ring leader, greets the audience with shouts of "Yo, yo, yo!" The stilt-walking acrobats are costumed in the ritual garments of the stilt-walking shamans of West Africa. The elephants re-enact the saga of Hannibals' army crossing the Alps. The clowns retell the history of blacks in American television. The background music is the theme songs from the television sitcoms Good Times and The Jeffersons. Is this a comedy show? No, it is the UniverSoul Big Top Circus, the "Cirque du Soul," and the brainchild of Atlanta-based promoter Cedric "Ricky" Walker.
Ricky Walker came to the arts world through an unfortunate but common path, that of troubled adolescence. One of four children born to Frank Walker, an Air Force master sergeant, and his homemaker wife, Alma, Ricky was part of a tough crowd in his Baltimore high school-- drinking, drugs, and stealing epitomized his lifestyle. At 18, his father sent him to live with his uncle, William Carr, a nightclub owner in Tuskegee, Alabama. "It was the best thing that ever happened in my life," Walker admitted in an interview with People Magazine.
While at his uncle's club and a student at Tuskegee Institute, Walker met the Commodores, who were just beginning their career, and he joined their road crew in 1971. In 1975, he met Cal Dupree, who was also promoting local musical acts. In 1978, they teamed together to promote the Kool Jazz Festivals. They then successfully produced the first national rap tour, the 1984 Fresh Festival, featuring rap artists such as Run-DMC, the Fat Boys, and Whodini. Walker also served as concert promoter for groups, including the O'Jays, the Jackson Five, and Curtis Blow.
Walker eventually grew disenchanted with the raunchiness of rap music, and his career then moved into theater production. In the early 1990s he produced the gospel plays A Good Man is Hard to Find and Mama Don't. The plays dealt primarily with problems afflicting African American urban life: drugs, dysfunctional families, and crime. Walker noticed young children leaving these shows late at night, which led him to ponder the options for daytime entertainment for families. It quickly became clear to him that family-oriented entertainment represented a glaring void in the cultural options for African Americans, and he sought to capitalize on this opportunity. As he explained in a July 1995 article by Joyce Jones in Black Enterprise, "One of our underlying goals as promoters is to be creative and bring new and different things to the public. We have to look for these types of voids and attempt to fill them."
As he considered various options, Walker envisioned a Black variety show, a medley of singing, dancing, and animal acts which would tour the country. When he discussed the idea with longtime friend and partner Cal Dupree, Dupree jokingly responded, "If you're going to have all that, you might as well start a circus." And, after three years of studying circus history, developing the concept for the show, and traveling worldwide to find top Black circus performers, Walker did just that. Walker is now the founder and chairman of the UniverSoul Circus, the first nationally-touring African American circus in more than 100 years.
The UniverSoul Circus is the first Black circus since Ephraim Williams developed Black traveling shows in the late 1880s. Walker intently studied Williams' production, and, in honor of both Williams and the American circus tradition, committed himself to producing a show rich in culture, faith, and history. As a result, his acts pay tribute to such Black figures as the renowned Buffalo Soldier calvarymen and also tell the biblical story of Daniel in the lion's den.
Promoted as "Your Circus of Dreams," the UniverSoul Circus brings together the largest number of African American performers in circus history and showcases everything from aerial and equestrian acts to wild animal and clown skits--all while reshaping the image of the traditional circus. The UniverSoul Circus initially opened in 1994 under a rented tent in the parking lot of Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium. Walker provided the financing from his savings and received some help from Atlanta franchiser La-Van Hawkins. Now, just a few years later, the circus has boasted a 1997 attendance of one million people, it will visit 19 major U.S. cities in 1998, and has 14 acts and 45 performers in the one-ring show--95 percent of whom are African American.
Walker's search for Black talent highlights his commitment to his ideal. It was a quest, in fact, which has taken him all over the world. He ultimately signed such famed circus acts as Nayakata, an African-Spanish contortionist, and the Ayak Brothers from South Africa. Monique, who joined the circus in 1998, is the world's first and only African American female lion tamer. He also tapped into the talent of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. For instance, all of the clowns in the UniverSoul Circus have graduated from Barnum and Bailey Clown College. The King Charles Troupe of unicyclists, moreover, were the first African American performers hired by Ringling Brothers and are the third generation to perform this act, while Pa-Mela Hernandez was the first Black female aerialist with Ringling.
Initially, one of Walker's biggest challenges was finding his first Black lion tamer. At the time, there were only three in the entire United States, and Walker dreamed of presenting a Black tamer as an inspiration for urban youth. He then thought of a solution: his cousin, Ted McRae, a laborer in Baltimore, MD, owned several poisonous snakes and had made the news when his boa constrictor escaped and terrified the local community. Walker convinced McRae to join the show as a personal favor, and in a period of three weeks, McRae went from driving a forklift to prancing in a pen of lions and elephants. He is now consistently one of the show-stopping acts.
The setting for Walker's circus perfectly complements the show. It is produced outdoors under a striped tent. Far from outdated, though, the old-world theater-in-the-round with a single ring and 2,100 seats is state-of-the-art, boasting computerized special effects, a rock-style laser show, and high-tech sound. Gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues accompany the show and further contribute to what Walker terms its "high-energy, hip-hop sound."
Even as his circus has grown both in size and recognition, Walker has not lost sight of his original mission: providing family-based entertainment for African American communities long underserved by the entertainment industry. Thus, the group bypasses suburban areas and heads to the nation's more depressed neighborhoods. Not only does Walker bring his circus into the city, but he also draws the city into his show. The circus hires local people to help with construction, concessions, and security, thereby further contributing to the welfare of these areas. Walker even offers elephant and pony rides before and after the show to give children a taste of circus life. Ticket prices remain affordable thanks to corporate sponsors such as Burger King, General Mills, Ford, and Texaco.
Walker veritably brims with enthusiasm when discussing his "soulful assault" on the traditional circus. "The enthusiasm is inside of me. I feel like the whole world is in front of me," he told Kevin Chappell in a December 1996 interview for Ebony. The passion, moreover, seems in part to stem from his commitment to the vision behind the creation of the circus. Walker not only wants to entertain; he also wants to captivate the children in the audience in a way that allows them to tap into the show's underlying spiritual values.
Thus, not only is the show what Circus Report calls a "masterpiece of production, staging, and promotion," but it is also unique in the emphasis it places on the importance of family. The Ringmaster, Casual Cal Dupree himself, actively includes members of the audience to reinforce the message. For example, he implores adults to turn off the television and actively engage their children in other activities. Children in the audience are called upon to take the "ringmaster's pledge" in which they commit to love their families and to reject drugs. He also reminds children to be thankful when people help them and adds, "Whenever faced with adversity, always have faith in your family." At one point in the show, Casual Cal cries, "Our roots come from the church, right? Are you ready to rock this tent like church?" And then he joins the clowns, ushers, and audience in singing, dancing, and stomping through the aisles.
Walker certainly provides his audiences with a plethora of stimuli: visual, oral, and emotional. Most important in Walker's mind, though, is the heightened self-esteem garnered from watching Black performers excel. As Walker commented in Ebony, "If you can look in a circus ring and see yourself, that's something you can relate to, and you'll come out to witness it, and you'll tell others about it. But Blacks haven't been given the chance to show they are just like everyone else." As Walker admitted, he himself dreamed of running away with the circus when he was a child. At that time, though, the only role models available for Blacks were janitors. He never aspired to be a lion tamer, he said, because he never saw a black tamer. "When you see someone you can relate to doing it," he told Emory Holmes of the Los Angeles Times, "you can aspire to do it. I saw black folks being janitors ... That's how I figured I could be in the circus."
The positive, energy-creating effect of Blacks performing for Blacks is felt on the performers' side of the stage as well. As Walker commented in his discussion with Holmes, "[T]hese guys come from all over the world and have never had the opportunity to stand before their people and do a performance. So their hearts and souls are there." It is this contagious spirit which sets the UniverSoul Circus soaring.
The UniverSoul Circus, then, is a Black circus: about Blacks, by Blacks, and predominantly for Blacks. The show's themes consciously trace black entertainment from slavery until the present time and focus, in Walker's words, on "the expression of a people and a culture." In essence, Walker wants his circus to be different; he wants to make a difference. In his discussion with Holmes, Walker is quick to refute criticism that his show is reminiscent of a twentieth century minstrel show. Rather than a demeaning portrayal of Blacks, Walker sees himself on the opposite end of the spectrum: race conscious but not racist, intent on lovingly and astoundingly conveying positive images of Black life and achievement. As Esther Iverem explained in a New York Times review, Walker promotes "race pride, family values and a worldview that does not make Black the Other, but puts it, literally, in the center ring."
Walker is often asked, "What next?" Laughing, he proclaims, "I want to create a Black Disneyland--a Black theme park." Crazy, maybe. But then again, no one believed a rap festival would sell nor did many initially support the idea of a Black circus. Walker's next effort should not really surprise anyone.
•Black Enterprise, July 1995, p. 20.
•Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 7, 1998.
•Ebony, December 1996, pp. 68-71.
•Jersey Journal, May 3, 1997, pp. E1, E4.
•Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1996, pp. C6, C93.
•New York Times, June 1, 1997.
•Parade Magazine, June 7, 1998, pp. 13-14.
•People, October 6, 1997, pp. 147-148.
•Time for Kids, September 26, 1997.
•Village Voice, reference unknown.
•Washington Post, July 21, 1997, pp. C1, C4.
•Harlem Ontime Features.
•Press Releases, UniverSoul Circus.
— Lisa S. Weitzman