Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson Courtesy Photo
The ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ Has a Black Ringmaster
“Legends” is the name of the 144th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and it is coming to the Barclays Center on Feb. 20. The circus stars Harlem-raised African-American Johnathan Lee Iverson as its ringmaster and has had him in this role for over a decade. Although the show is currently on tour in other cities, Iverson took the time to do an interview with the AmNews. The Q&A follows.
Amsterdam News: Mr. Iverson, how does it feel to know that you were the youngest ringmaster and the first Black ringmaster in the history of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey?
Johnathan Lee Iverson: Recently during our engagement in Birmingham, Ala., two grandmothers approached me with grins as wide as the state: “We couldn’t even go to a circus when we were young … seeing you out there just gives me goosebumps.”
I didn’t have to march countless and treacherous miles to gain rights already guaranteed me as a citizen of the United States. I didn’t have to bear the brunt of brutality, indignities and government–endorsed policies designed to oppress me. As James Baldwin would say, “[My] crown has already been bought and paid for. All [I] have to do is wear it.” Well, I wear a top hat, and every time I put it on, I thank my Heavenly Father and my glorious ancestors, and then I get to work.
AmNews: What part of New York are you from?
J.L.I.: I am a native of the Upper West Side by Central Park West, but I was raised in Harlem.
AmNews:When you were a child growing up, what was it about the circus that you enjoyed the most?
J.L.I.: The circus, particularly Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, which was the circus (still is), was otherworldly to me. It was like entering “a living dream,” as Ernest Hemingway once quipped. I loved everything, from the scent of cotton candy to the famous menagerie, to my all –time favorite act, the “Globe of Steel.”
AmNews:When you are performing your duties as a ringmaster, how does it make you feel?
J.L.I.: Responsible! Tens of thousands of strangers have entrusted us with their time, money and imaginations.
AmNews:What are the challenges that you face as a ringmaster?
J.L.I.: Endurance! I perform well over 400 live shows annually, which require me to sing and announce in addition to promoting the show via the press and speaking at schools. The ringmaster is not only a performer—he’s an ambassador.
AmNews:How many years have you been a ringmaster with Ringling Bros.?
J.L.I.: This is my 16th year. I began my career in 1998. I took a hiatus from 2004-2009, but I was still working with the “Greatest Show on Earth” during that time, so I include those years. It’s like the Sawdust Mafia—once you’re in, you’re in.
AmNews: How do you feel about traveling the country, touring with your wife, who is employed by the circus, and your young children?
J.L.I.: I couldn’t ask for anything better. We live, work and play together. The “Greatest Show on Earth” provides both a nursery and school, and as parents, we use our travels as a means of educating our children as well.