A photograph of the Universoul Circus's big top and welcom sign.
Wendell Williams

A while ago I was asked by a longtime special friend to accompany their 5-year-old granddaughter, who affectionately calls me “Uncle Wendell,” to the UniverSoul Circus. I may not have taken the commitment seriously until I got the reminder text message.

“Oh boy,” I thought. “Do I really want to go to a circus with thousands of screaming and over-excited kids?” I very softly tried to weasel my way out of it, but couldn’t find a loophole to escape from the dreaded thought of a loud afternoon with pumped-up elementary-school-age children.

Comedian W.C. Fields always said he hated working with kids and joked he would rather work with animals. Because my normal contact with kids lasts a brief few moments, my views are not that extreme. And being a big kid, I do well.

However, I was somewhat terrified at the thought of a whole afternoon under the big top and all the adult decisions I may have to make. Do I buy her popcorn? What about cotton candy? Merchandising? Should I encourage her to take a picture with the clowns? When and where do I say no? And on and on.

Needless to say, I thought I was about to be overwhelmed.

I’ve had very little practice with these parenting phenomena. My own daughter grew up more than 600 miles away, and I spent very little time with her. I was a Santa Claus dad, you know, Christmas, birthdays and a short visit during the summer. A visit typically meant going to the movies, getting food and to the mall for shopping. In a day or so, I’d be gone.

I didn’t want to screw this up. But thank God I couldn’t, because it turned out I was the biggest kid of all. The UniverSoul Circus is a very different type of big top than anything you have ever seen in person, on television or in the movies. It’s not the typical Barnum and Bailey or Ringling Brothers circus. It takes place in one ring, and the audience members are so close they can reach out and touch the performers. It’s fast-paced and full of action, happening at a clip that keeps kids engaged and excited. There was never a dull moment, and the show never stopped!

Photo of a man and a little girl in a crowd.

Wendell and Taj under the big top. Photo by Wendell Williams

The audience was full of kids from summer camps, church groups and school groups. Many were decked out in various colored t-shirts with the name of their school or program on them. Even the staff members had t-shirts on; the only difference was the big block letters that said “STAFF.”

Throughout the afternoon, the circus performers got the kids and adults involved by constantly picking several from the audience and bringing them to the center of the ring to have dance-offs or help them perform tricks. Isn’t the circus for kids of all ages? Everyone, from the support staff to the performers and hype crew, was just excellent with the kids.

This circus featured everything from motocross riders to high-wire acts, several animal acts featuring everything from dogs to camels, even vertical ballet at the top of a pole. There were mostly people of color, but people of all colors from all over the world performed. That’s what makes it a universal circus.

But I think the play on the word “Soul” gives some people the wrong impression. As I scanned the tent and found almost no one there that didn’t look like me, I thought about why.

Do they think it’s a Black thing?

Were they worried about safety or parking?

Well, the show was at 10:30 a.m. and at the visitor-friendly National Harbor. So, what was it?

Kids don’t do race or fear. They do fun, which is universal. Throw a bunch of them in a playground together and watch them play. So the parents that made the assumption and stayed away denied their children a once-in-a-lifetime experience at an affordable price.

To say the hype crews kept the young people dancing in the aisles and pumped up throughout the show between the various acts is an understatement. They had everybody — kids, moms, grandmas and even me — up on their feet moving to the beat. Throw in the giant balls tossed around in between acts for what seemed like hours at a time, and the real circus was in the seats.

The DJ played old school classics and music right up to today’s kids’ hits. To my surprise, the youngsters sang along with passion, even knowing most of the words to the old songs, which blew my mind. “How did they learn that?” I thought to myself.

I was having so much fun watching little 5-year-old, wide-eyed Taj react to her first circus that I unconsciously got into it so much that I heard a woman right behind me laughingly say, “He’s into it more than the kids!”

That made me stop and think.

“Wait a minute,” I said. And suddenly it occurred to me that I was at my first circus, too, at almost 68 years old. “How did I go more than 67 years without experiencing the joy and the thrill of a circus?”

I had the time of my life, and so did Taj. Even after not getting her the promised cotton candy, I was able to negotiate a deal with her for lunch after the show instead, to keep my word and credibility with her intact.

I am very grateful to the Jordan family for trusting me with their precious gift. I can honestly say that my life has been a three-ring circus, with many ups, downs and sideways detours. Some of the craziest nice things have happened out of nowhere, and this was one of them. The Jordan family’s random act of kindness under the big top won’t be forgotten by this kid at heart.