When Johnathan Lee Iverson was a boy, he had no dreams of running away and joining the circus. Instead, he had much bigger plans – early on, he performed with the Boys Choir of Harlem (in front of Presidents George H.W. Bush, Carter, Reagan and Clinton, as well as Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela), and went on the share the stage with superstars including Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett and Luciano Pavarotti, all before turning 18. He aspired to be an opera star, and was right on track after graduating from the esteemed Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford.
But sometimes life has a funny way of leading you to your true calling.
“I grew up with dreams of being a star, and being rich,” said Iverson, now 36. “But maybe five months after graduation I happened into this audition for a dinner theater. My goal was to raise some money so I could study in Europe, and it so happened that the director of the dinner theater was directing Ringling Bros., and he thought I should try it out. And the rest is history.”
Iverson’s words stretch beyond cliché, as he ended up truly making history by becoming at age 22 not only the youngest Ringmaster in the fabled circus’ then-130-year run, but also the first black person to lead the show. His groundbreaking accomplishment – and striking talent – inspired Barbara Walters to name him one of her 10 Most Fascinating People of 1999.
“Symbolically, it does mean a great deal, especially when I meet much older African-Americans who dealt with the brutalities of racism,” he said of becoming Ringmaster. “Some of us still deal with the brutality of it, but it’s more subliminal today. It’s still just as dangerous, and it is getting nasty again, but it is more subtle now. When my grandparents came to the show, it was their first circus, and that’s when it hit home to me that this really matters. I take great pride in the fact that when they saw it, my Granddad told me, “There was a time I couldn’t sit anywhere, and now I come to see this and you’re in the center of it all.” It’s wonderful, strange, poetic justice.”
Naturally, Iverson’s achievement is influential far beyond family ties.
“It means something to the single mother I met in Chicago,” he said. “She humbled the crap out of me, because I was annoyed at the time for some weird, odd reason, something trivial and stupid, and she approached me with tears just gushing, and told me how important it was for her son to see me. And stuff like that, you’re just like, “Goll-ly! Wow!”
“And I got it – I got what she was saying. I grew up in an alternative home, a single-parent home, and I understood that this mother is longing to expose her children, especially if she’s raising a black male, to the best of themselves. Because their world is so inundated with the lie of their inferiority: They turn on the news, they turn on music, they turn on anything, they open a book, they go to school – I mean, depending on their instructor, they’re always taught that they’re “less than.” And so it is very important. I love going to after-school programs, because I have a heart for young people, period – black, white, purple, blue, Martian – and love encouraging them to hang on to that wild abandon we are blessed with when we’re born, when we actually do believe that we can move mountains.”
Since his debut in 1999, Iverson has performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus several times, most recently in 2010’s “FUNundrum.” But he’s just as excited – if not more so – about this year’s theme: Dragons.
“As you may know, 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, according to the Chinese calendar, so we decided to combine Ringling Bros. with the mysticism and mythology of the most revered figure in fiction, the dragon,” he said. “And we’re celebrating what the dragon means – the attributes of courage, strength and wisdom. We assembled the most dynamic artists that you’ll ever see from all over the world, ranging from animal experts to dancers to daredevils to clowns. It’s sort of like an Olympics.”
Iverson gleefully continues to pump up the mystique for the show.
“We in no way – at least I don’t – believe the dragon actually exists,” he said. “But my cohort, my sidekick, who is perhaps one of the greatest athletes you’ll ever meet in your life, Palo, who is from Brazil – he’s a little person but he’s a mammoth talent – he actually claims to have seen a dragon during the course of the show. I, of course, being a cynic, don’t believe him. But basically the show is spent with him proving that this dragon actually exists. He’ll tell everyone within earshot that he sees a dragon, and will do everything he can to summon that dragon. I won’t spoil it for you, but there may be a dragon there, and there may not.”