Ringling Bros’ First African American Ringmaster — and His Son — Bring It!

Iverson and Paolo

*You may have heard that Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey has removed their trademark elephants, the ones that generations of circus fans have enjoyed, from the show.  Having been thrilled by the elephants for the first time decades ago, I was curious about how they’d fill that void.  When I caught up with ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, he assured me that we’re in for a treat.  He also educated me about a longstanding circus tradition: evolution.

“There was a time when the greatest attraction at the circus was the incandescent lightbulb,” the 40-year-old Iverson told me by phone. “And people came from miles and miles to see it — we filled whole tents full of folks. When the elephants left, it presented an opportunity to do what we’ve always done. We’re always reinventing ourselves — that’s the beauty of the circus.”

“With this new show, we still have the world’s greatest menagerie — lions and tigers, rescue dogs, horses, donkeys, pigs, kangaroos, llamas…and ice! We have ice and ice skaters,” Iverson continued, with an enthusiasm that’s absolutely contagious.”

I was born and raised in Michigan, and I can honestly say I’d never been more excited about ice than I was when Iverson talked about it!

“It’s an intergalactic space odyssey, and there are great projections that reflect off of the ice that literally transport your imagination to the planet we’re going to — it’s stunning,” Iverson continued.  “I’m riding around in this space ship the whole time. It’s hilarious to me, because I’ve always been skeptical about black people going into space! I’ve been with the show for 20 years, and I’ve done everything from being a part of a living carousel to presenting fictional dragons, to now going to outer space! That can only be done at the circus.”

In case you missed that ethnic reference (or the picture at the beginning of this feature!), that’s right! The ringmaster of Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey circus is African American. He’s the first black ringmaster in the circus’ 200 year history.

I think it’s fitting. For the next few months, at least, we have a black man running the greatest country on earth (despite what Donald Trump says). Why shouldn’t a black man run the greatest SHOW on earth?

Iverson insists that the ringmaster is just one of a dynamic team that puts on a phenomenal show each year.

“The ringmaster is just a glorified fan who’s being paid to dress well,” Iverson joked. “There is no star in the greatest show on earth. The SHOW is the star!”

That may well be the case, but I’ve been told that this production does feature a precocious breakout star: Iverson’s own 11 year old son, Matthew, who’s playing a younger version of his dad in the show.

“I’ve always liked being in the circus, and I’ve been in it for my whole life, I think,” Matthew told me. “I get to see my dad every day, and I can really connect with him.”


The elder Iverson couldn’t be more proud that the circus has become the family business.

“When my son was chosen to portray me as a younger person, his excitement was off the charts,” Iverson shared. “I had no idea that that’s what he wanted to do. I haven’t had to give him many pointers — I was utterly shocked about how quickly it came to him. I joke with him that he was supposed to be cute, but he wasn’t supposed to be that good!”

Iverson insists that Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus — and the circus in general — is a very special type of family affair.

“Circus is a tremendous fraternity that you have for the rest of your life,” Iverson said. “It illustrates the glorious gift of interdependence. You have all of these different nationalities. You have all of these different unique and peculiar skill sets — all of these different components that go into making this thing work. ”

“There is no star. There is no hierarchy. The working person who is scooping up poop and rigging the sets is just as iconic as the most decorated performer,” Iverson asserted.  “It literally is a marriage of sorts. If we could just learn from it, learn that lesson, as a human culture, how much could we resolve? The circus is a social template for it.”

The circus is a social template for the improvement of the human race? Before I asked my new friend Iverson for some of what I thought he might be smoking, I asked him to elaborate. After he did, I came to agree with him.

“When you’re 40 feet in the air and about to do a triple somersault, you couldn’t care less about what color somebody is, or whether they speak english, or who they worship, or who they go to bed with. You just want them to catch you! The circus brings things down to earth. It’s an exotic, exhilarating show, and it’s the most prideful yet humbling things I’ve ever done.”


Tickets for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey’s new show are available at ringling.com and ticketmaster.com.

This feature was written by Sacramento based freelancer Michael P Coleman. After speaking with Iverson, he wishes he’d run away to join the circus! Connect with him on Twitter: @ColemanMichaelP.

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