IM this article to a friend!

June 12, 2003

Lending a hand at the circus

From: Baltimore Sun, MD - Jun 12, 2003

Local sign interpreter bringing the Big Top to the hearing impaired

By Amanda Smear
Sun Staff

As the lights go down under the UniverSoul Circus big top and a hush comes over the anxious children in the crowd, a single spotlight breaks through the darkness and all attention is focused on Nichele Mason, clad in a simple black cloak and white gloves.

Long before the Chilean stunt dogs, Brazilian showgirls, Gabonese stuntmen or boxing kangaroo come out to wow the audience, all eyes are on Mason, a Baltimore resident who interprets all spoken aspects of the circus into sign language. Hailed as the "world's only African-American owned and operated circus," UniverSoul is more than just a visual spectacle. Ringmaster Casual Cal spreads humor and a message of hope and inspiration, a message that Mason's interpreting provides for hearing-impaired people in the audience.

Before Nikki Mason came along, UniverSoul - like other major touring circuses - had no interpreter. "About seven years ago, I came to see UniverSoul perform in Baltimore, and I was impressed by how Cal really interacted with the crowd," explains Mason, who was then assisting in sign-language courses while studying psychology at Towson University . "I have a lot of deaf friends, so I told UniverSoul I wanted to volunteer my services as an interpreter."

For the next five years, as she completed her degree at Towson and finished a master's in special education at Coppin State College , Mason performed with the circus when it visited the Baltimore-Washington area.

During Mason's second year as UniverSoul's interpreter, word began to spread throughout the deaf community about her performance. Students from Gallaudet University, the college for the deaf and hearing impaired in Washington, came to the circus in large numbers, prompted to attend primarily because there was an interpreter.

"I started getting e-mails from people who had seen the circus and wanted to thank me," says Mason, who is currently on tour with UniverSoul's Poppin' Soul circus in Richmond, Va. "One group of Gallaudet students even recognized me in a restaurant and wanted their pictures taken with me."

Mason still seems shocked by all the attention, but these few zealous fans were not the only people who had been touched by her interpreting. Calls and requests started pouring in to UniverSoul's Atlanta headquarters from around the country wondering why an interpreter was not available at all performances.

UniverSoul invited Mason to become a salaried member of the tour, so she decided to "run away and join the circus." For 20 of the past 24 months, hearing-impaired fans at more than 800 performances in cities all over North America have been able to enjoy the UniverSoul circus and not miss a beat.

Mason describes her encounter with one mother who was moved to tears after attending the circus with her daughter, who is hearing impaired. "She told me that seeing how her daughter responded to my interpreting of a story within the circus performance inspired her to learn how to 'sign' as well. She wanted to be able to tell her daughter a story that she could enjoy in the same way."

It is in inspiring others that Mason first got to put her interpretive skills to use. She began interpreting gospel concerts at St. John A.M.E. Church near her childhood home on Park Heights Avenue in Pimlico. More recently, she has been an interpreter for Bethel A.M.E. Church in Baltimore as well as the Long Reach Church of God in Columbia.

Besides providing her services to the deaf, Mason is also a certified school teacher. While traveling with UniverSoul, she instructs many of the other performers' pre-kindergarten and elementary school-aged children and tutors the performers who are still in high school.

The eldest of Edward and Sheila Mason's five children, Mason says she has always had a strong desire to learn and communicate with others. It was this desire that led her to sign language in the first place. "When I was 15, I could already speak French and Spanish, but I couldn't really communicate with the people I met who were hearing impaired. I thought, 'I should be able to communicate with all Americans' and I began to study American Sign Language in high school."

Mason, who will not give her age other than to call herself a "young" woman, graduated from Western High School in Baltimore.

UniverSoul allows Mason to communicate with thousands of people in a variety of ways. Not only does she interpret the pre-recorded voiceovers and scripted material spoken by the ringmaster, she also keeps up with his impromptu humor, spontaneous comments from the crowd, song lyrics and call-response directions such as "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands." She sways, dances, mouths lyrics and signs in time with the lively hip-hop music and is showcased in a gospel interpretation of Kirk Franklin's "You Can Lean on Me."

The song offers a message of hope to everyone, promising that all obstacles can be overcome through perseverance and faith. The song's message fits in with Mason's belief that, "being deaf isn't a disability, it's just a difference."

Mason, who is now working on a doctorate in special education administration at Gallaudet, doesn't know how long she'll stay with UniverSoul. "I'm having a great time touring," she says. "There's a lot of caring throughout the group, almost like a family."

For tour dates for UniverSoul's Poppin' Soul and Soul in the City circuses, visit the Web site.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun