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The Voice of the Black Community

Arts and Entertainment

Q&A with Ringling's Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson
Iverson talks life on the road and what it means to be Ringling's first African-American ringmaster
Published Wednesday, January 30, 2013 1:00 pm
by Michaela L. Duckett

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Johnathan Lee Iverson was named Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey ringmaster in 1998. He is the first Black person to lead the circus.

Tigers, lions, Shaolin Warriors, Asian elephants, acrobatics on horseback, hair-hanging heroines and more will all be part of the show when the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to town Jan. 30–Feb. 3 at Time Warner Cable Arena.

In the following Q&A, Johnathan Lee Iverson talks about life on the road, fascinating people and what it’s like to be the first African-American ringmaster of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Charlotte Post: How does it feel to be Ringling’s first black ringmaster?

Johnathan Lee Iverson: “It’s always been a wonderful thing that I’ve enjoyed. I’ve always been unapologetic about the African-American experience. One of the great experiences that I’ve had was a few years ago my grandparents came to the show… As my grandfather was sitting there, he was like, ‘There was a time when I couldn’t come and sit where I wanted to, and here you are in the middle of all this.’ It was really an amazing feeling for me to give them that gift. I understood what it meant to them.”

CP: You’ve performed your whole life – everything from singing with the Harlem Boys Choir to performing on Broadway. At what point did you decide joining the circus was something you wanted to do?

JLI: “It’s not something I ever really had in mind or something I always wanted to do… I was studying to be an opera singer and maybe go into theater… I met the director for Ringling Bros., and he was looking for ringmasters. He thought I would possibly fit the bill. He put my name in the pool of other potential candidates for the job, and history played out. I joined the show in ’98.”

CP: What is something most people would be surprised to learn about your job as a ringmaster?

JLI: “I think most people aren’t really sure what that is anyway. I get all kinds of inquiries about what the ringmaster does. Usually people ask me about the whip and things of that nature. It’s understandable. Actually, the ringmaster was an equestrian director. He was an animal trainer. That’s why he wears riding boots and a top hat and things of that nature.

So, I guess people would be surprised by how intricate the ringmaster is to the actual production of the show. He’s a showman now. He’s not just a presenter. He’s literally part of the show by singing and the presenting of the acts.”

CP: What do you like most about your job?

JLI: “I love that I get to present the greatest acts on the face of the planet. What they do, day in and day out is the closest thing to miraculous that I know. It’s also really great that I have the opportunity to share this with my family. We have a school and a nursery, so my children and my wife go with me. My wife actually works on the production end of the show. We work, travel and play together.”

CP: You made Barbara Walters’ list of top 10 fascinating people in 1999. If you were to create your own list of fascinating people, name your top three people (dead or alive).

JLI: “I’ve always been fascinated by Paul Robeson, considering the day and age that he was in, for him to be that brilliant and dynamic. He was an athlete, a singer, a lawyer and so many other things. I think I would have enjoyed speaking with him.

I would also really enjoy talking with Nelson Mandela, considering the trials and tribulations he went through. He’s a symbol of unyielding dynamic strength.

I would also say Katy Perry. I’m fascinated by her story and her ability to build her career. I just saw a documentary on her, and it was interesting to see how she stuck with it. I can’t pinpoint the specifics; I just find her fascinating.”

CP: Ringling Bros. will be presenting “Dragons” in Charlotte this week. What can audiences expect?

JLI: “They know they are getting the greatest show and a lot of bang for their buck. It’s a dynamic show. It really began last year in celebration of the year of the dragon but has been extended into 2013. We have performers that do acrobats on the back of these horses that are going top speed. It’s amazing. There’s also the amazing Alexander Lacy, who really displays extraordinary courage in a cage filled with lions and tigers. He’s making his American debut. We also have martial artists [Shaolin Warriors] from China. What they do with their bodies, really just blows your mind… We also have Paulo all the way from Brazil… He can do anything. He’s only 4 feet tall, but he can pick me up at 240 pounds over his shoulders and send me. He’s powerful and one of the greatest athletes you’ll probably ever see.”


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