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Emily J. Karam

Soul Circus

The Zany Umbrella troupe works its magic

Ben Sota on a bus near Kabul, Afghanistan, on his way to the next performance. (Rene Rosensteel photo)

Dressed in burlap-sack pants held up by red suspenders, the performer looks like a carefree vagabond. He smiles broadly as he wheels toward the audience on a unicycle while juggling three bulbous bowling pins. He wears a newsboy cap with a kerchief around his neck. The crowd of young onlookers follows his every move, waiting for the next surprise. Soon, he’s off the unicycle and teetering on a slack rope, explaining how the flat and wide soles of his Birkenstock shoes help him balance. Children in the crowd call out questions, comments, and persnickety challenges. Can you ride your wheel on that rope?

The man’s skilled yet cheerful antics keep this group of elementary-school children on the edge of their makeshift seats. They have gathered in their Waveland, Miss., schoolyard to watch this performance, because they no longer have an auditorium or even a school building where they can assemble. Hurricane Katrina took those away—and much more, too.

But today, for a time, these youngsters are immersed in another world, a place of whimsy where everyday happenings are transformed into moments of enchantment. Welcome to the Zany Umbrella Circus.

Ben Sota (CAS ’03) is the school yard performer and founder of the circus, which is far more than happy-go-lucky entertainment. Instead, Sota’s circus aims to help children in distressed communities heal and rebuild through creative learning. The 10-person troupe tells stories using commonplace objects, where everyday people can become heroes. “It’s really at the root of what circus can do,” he says. “We take things that you’re very familiar with and make them the most magical things in the world.”

From school yards on the post-Katrina Gulf Coast to an Afghanistan camp for orphaned children to inner-city parks, the Zany Umbrella Circus has brought its socially responsible brand of wonder to boys and girls—and adults, too. The troupe’s performers typically arrive in a magical school bus that disgorges a flying bicycle with umbrella wings, swinging trapezes, and a live band. The interactive shows serve a community-building function by making art and imagination a part of daily life, accessible to anyone, with stories that inspire hope, dialogue, and empowerment.

Back in the balmy Mississippi school yard, outside the temporary trailers that now house the students’ classrooms, Sota continues his performance of “My Grandfather’s Circus.” The story is set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and honors his grandfather, who, as a young farm boy in Woonsocket, South Dakota, walked on homemade stilts while juggling to lighten the mood of family and friends mired in the Depression. When Sota was 12 years old, his grandfather taught him those tricks, and more. “If he could use circus to get him through a rough time,” Sota tells the audience, “we can, too.”

When the show ends, the children don’t leave. They surround Sota, who spends time teaching them how to walk on a giant globe, juggle tennis balls, balance on a slack rope, and, ultimately, believe in themselves.


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