Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! What It’s Like to Be Ringling Bros. First Black Ringmaster

Photo by Ringling Bros.
Jonathan Lee Iverson, Ringling Bros. first Black ringmaster, and his family have—quite literally—run away and joined the circus.

For Jonathan Lee Iverson and family, the circus isn’t just a good time—it’s a lifestyle.

In a somewhat serendipitous move in 1999, Iverson was tapped as Ringling Bros. first Black ringmaster and embarked on a journey that would quite literally take he and his family to new heights.

Now, 20 years later, Iverson is a seasoned circus pro. His wife, Priscilla, who first joined the circus in 2000 as a dancer is now the show’s production manager. The couple’s two kids have even gotten in on the circus action—their 11-year-old son is one of the current show’s newest stars! 

Jonathan and Priscilla took a break from their busy on-the-go lifestyles to give us an insider’s look at what really goes on under the big top and what makes their jobs so dang rewarding.

This is an extremely unique career path! How did you both get involved?
Jonathan Lee Iverson: Well, I began in 1998, and it was just a happy accident of being in the right place at the right time. I was fresh out of the University of Hartford Hartt School of Music, and on track for an opera career. I auditioned for a dinner theater, and it so happened that the director for the dinner theater was also directing Ringling Bros and was looking for a ringmaster who could sing. I was put in a pool of about 30 applicants, and the rest is history.

Priscilla Iverson: I was in Rio de Janeiro, and I saw an ad for an American entertainment company that wanted ballet and jazz dancers. I auditioned and eventually signed a contract as the dancers’ captain and translator. Eighteen of us came to the States in 2000. I didn’t know Ringling then and I had to learn everything, but, of course, I fell in love with it, dancing at the side of elephants and zebras and clowns and all these acrobats from around the world.

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Everyone always jokes about running away to join the circus, but what is life with Ringling really like?
Jonathan: It’s an experience like no other. In many respects, it’s the ideal way of life. Think about it: You have all these different types of people with all these unique abilities who come together to create something very beautiful. We live together, we work together; there’s no hierarchy here. “Circus” comes from the Latin root for “circle,” and we operate that way. The working person is just as iconic as the performer and is just as necessary.

It’s a really fascinating thing—especially being Black. If you’re good, your talent literally transcends everything here. When you’re 40 feet in the air attempting to triple somersault, the last thing you’re thinking about is what color that person is, what god they worship, what country their from, if they speak English, if they’re gay or straight. You just want them to catch you.

You have two children, and they’re both on the road with you. How have you all adapted?
Jonathan: This is an industry run by families and presented by families to families. Most of these crafts you’re seeing are learned from generations past. There are some circus schools, but most people learned it while living on the road with their families. I’m able to work, play and travel with my family, which I think enhances our relationship.

And this is the first year that your son is in the show. That’s exciting!
Jonathan: My 11-year-old son actually playing a younger version of myself. Originally, I actually had no idea that he was interested in joining the circus, but he jumped at the opportunity. He wasn’t supposed to be this good, but he’s actually really, really good [laughs]. It’s really a testament to the fact that children definitely will listen—I had no idea he was watching me so closely. But he’s confident, and he and his partner—who is actually the daughter of our star clown—are just really wonderful to watch out there.

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What has working with Ringling Bros. taught you?
Priscilla: One thing that fascinates me is just how much love these performers have for the craft and how much work they put into it every single day. This is a great lesson for our kids because when the show finishes and we go to the floor, the trapeze mat will be out because the trapeze artists need to keep practicing. They’re constantly getting better and better at what they do.

Jonathan: As a performer, I didn’t expect the thousands of reactions that people have to the circus. Each person’s reaction is very unique, and in most cases, it’s heartwarming and touching. I met a family in Jacksonville, Florida, where the mother told me that her 4-year-old autistic son didn’t speak a word until he came to his first circus. I once received a letter from a young man who said he was coming to see the elephants one last time before he committed suicide. However, while watching our premier animal trainer, he said somewhere in his mind, he realized that he could actually face his problems. There are a variety of reactions, but what I know we’re doing is we’re taking them away from the trials and tribulations of life and giving them something pure.

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