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Troupe tells story of black performers

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by Jackie Loohauis-Bennett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MJS gilbert 2 gilbert.jpgHe called himself “The Black P.T. Barnum,” and he survived performing before the two toughest audiences in the 19th century: opera house fans and lumberjacks.

Milwaukee’s Ephraim Williams was a show-biz legend in the late 1800s when he became the first African-American circus owner in the United States. His horses tromped through forests to bow and twirl in the North Woods, and his acrobats flipped through the air in big-city opera houses.

His name eventually faded into the mists of history, but a Milwaukee troupe is about to revive his story and his heritage. The African-American “Gilbert & Jones” troupe joined by “Ephraim Williams” will appear Sunday in The Great Circus Parade touting its own motto: “The True Colors of the Circus World.” The group is part elegance, part clowning, all fun – with a message.

“Gilbert & Jones” appeared in Great Circus Parades from 1986 to 2003, but its cast of characters goes as far back as ancient African culture and American slave days. The 2009 edition features sweet Little Liza Jane with her patch-quilt skirt (Candra Gilbert); gruff Brer Bear (Sharie Hutchinson); graceful, fashion-conscious Miss Mary Mack (Shirley Gilbert); sly Brer Fox (Chris Gilbert) and tricky Brer Rabbit (Dennis Robinson).

“We’re plucking history and making it come alive,” says Shirley Gilbert, dance instructor, actress, model, and one of the troupe’s founders. “We’re hoping that by reprising our roles, we’re going to have a message, to remind people of the history of African-Americans in American circus.”

Fans of The Great Circus Parade will remember “Gilbert & Jones” for its antics in parades past. In keeping with tradition, “Gilbert & Jones” characters were the only parade participants allowed to get down off their carriage and interact with the crowds.

“You have to be in character in the parade. Everyone else had to just wave from the wagons or the carriages. Our characters were based on entertainers, not clowns, so we were able to entertain,” says Cecilia Gilbert, who came up with the idea for the group in partnership with Judy Jones.

“Gilbert & Jones” members billed themselves as “rootin’, tootin’ and high falutin’.” They danced, blew up balloons and joked with the parade crowd.

It was circus tradition that Cecilia Gilbert, who was an assistant with then-Ald. Paul Henningsen at the time and is now Department of Public Works spokeswoman, worried about when she started organizing city plans for the parade in 1984.

“I thought, ‘There aren’t any black people in it. That’s not the way the circus was,’ ” she says. “So I started doing research and found out about Ephraim Williams. He was a Wisconsin hero. He was so dedicated trying to make his dream come true. When we read about him, we were all on fire.”

Her sister-in-law, Shirley Gilbert, got caught up in the excitement.

“It was overwhelming,” she said. “It was not only historically connected. It became an education piece. The excitement was to have an African-American who was real and could teach and tell a story.”

And what a story it was. Starting out as a shoe-shine boy in Milwaukee, Williams began his show-biz career by training a horse to do “math tricks” in the early 1880s. That performance won him applause in local opera houses. Then, donning a ringmaster’s top hat and tux, Williams took his show on the road, eventually owning three circuses with more than 100 people.

He traveled the state, a hit even in the hickory-tough camps of northern Wisconsin. It was a great shtick that had acrobats and 85 horses, cages of tigers and zebras, and 15 red, white and blue railroad cars in the road show.

Williams became wealthy, but his circuses finally fell victim to bad weather and finances in the early 1900s.

But now Ephraim and characters inspired by his circuses will romp again.

Cecilia and Shirley Gilbert are working with The Circus World Museum to re-create the costumes that made the ’80s troupe so eye-popping: Miss Mary Mack’s frills and big red buttons, Liza Jane’s ribbon-festooned wig. Shirley promises to bring new, wowing dance moves to “Miss Mary Mack.”

Veteran Milwaukee actor, director and producer Andre Lee Ellis will grab top hat and cane and return as Williams, a role he played in previous parades. For Ellis, the costume means more than mere threads.

“In his day, dressing like this gave Williams a powerful feeling. Now we want people to feel this energy again,” says Ellis. “A lot of African-American people don’t know about Williams and these characters. We’ve seen the joy they’ve brought to people’s faces before in parades, and we want to bring the joy back again.”

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Written by Symphony

July 27, 2009 at 12:21 pm

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