The Appropriation of Blackness
The continuing appropriation of Black culture in the U.S. is closely tied to the trauma and injustice of the African diaspora and the history of slavery. Black people, Amenii argues, need to re-appropriate themselves, through the “excavating and re-articulating of our intellectual heritage and knowledge systems.” Citing Ahmad Azzahir’s description of African modes of thinking as “based on spirituality, symbol, mythos, and harmonium,” she sees her own work as “creative anthropology” that draws on storytelling and image-making to create self-study. Her production Food for the Gods, “a multi-media performance installation created in response to the killings of Black Men by police and other institutions of authority,” consciously includes a non-Black ensemble, so that its subject can be seen as a global issue.
Living Objects Essays: Prologue
Living Objects: African American Puppetry co-curator John Bell describes the team responsible for the Living Objects exhibition, festival, symposium, and online catalogue.
Brooklyn-based puppeteer Tau Bennett’s shooting script for a television puppet comedy employs dark humor and surreal slapstick to tell the story of a man whose offhand wish to lose his “pesky teeth” becomes unfortunately true, thanks to larger-than-life forces, two bumbling hoodlums, and a boss looking for teeth.
Race and Representation: Creating a Puppet Production for the Smithsonian Institution
The Brewery Puppet Troupe was commissioned by the Smithsonian Museum’s Lemelson Center to undertake new creative challenge: a show featuring African American scientist Lewis Latimer, the nineteenth-century inventor instrumental in creating the electric light bulb. Brad Brewer was committed to showing how Latimer’s life was affected by America’s struggle with slavery and racial inequality, issues he considered equally important to Latimer's scientific achievements. Staff historians read and commented on all the drafts of the script, but the production still included comedic elements typical of a Brewery Troupe production. The project allowed the author to explore some of the hard realities of the black experience in America.
African Puppetry and Brazilian Mamulengo: Possible Links between Symbolic and Material Representations
Although Brazil’s popular Mamulengo hand-puppet tradition is often considered to have primarily European roots, Brochado argues that “the primary source of the Mamulengo lies with African slaves.” Citing sources including puppeteers and folklorists explaining the origins of Mamulengo in northeast Brazil, Brochado argues for the African roots of the form, citing the relation of Mamulengo performance to Afro-Brazilian cult rituals; the commonality of often-comic sexual content in Mamulengo and in Yoruba puppetry of Nigeria and Benin; as well as the similar mechanics of puppets from both traditions which display work activities. She concludes that “even if African puppets were not physically taken to Brazil as material objects, or as a particular form of popular puppetry, they nevertheless were kept alive in slaves’ memories.”
Schroeder Cherry and His Puppets: Playing with Puppets, from Childhood to Adulthood
Schroeder Cherry relates his path into puppetry, from childhood television shows to his exposure to European puppetry in Switzerland; and later an apprenticeship with Chicago puppeteer Gary Jones. After earning a master’s degree in museum education at George Washington University, Cherry began developing puppet performances for the Smithsonian Institution and other museums. Travels in Africa furthered his appreciation of that continent’s puppetry, and influenced his creation of such shows as How the Sun Came to the Sky. Cherry has developed an array of rod-puppet characters (including DiAndre, Ms. Lily, and Tevin) which he incorporates into museum performances and such productions as The Civil Rights Children’s Crusade, Can You Spell Harlem?, and Underground Railroad, Not A Subway.
Black: :Body: :Gesture: From Puppetry to Performance & Design
Gabrielle Civil and Kelly Walters
In this visual document, Gabrielle Civil and Kelly Walters distill and recreate key aspects of their live dialogue on African-American puppetry, black performance art, material and digital design. What are examples of African American living objects in the 21st century? What does it mean to animate objects when, as a people, we were once considered to be living objects ourselves? Drawing on their own practice, these artists engaged these questions, activated audience discussion, and transformed the results into a new source text for further activation.
Black and Blackface in the Performing Object: Bullock, Chessé, Paris, the Jubilee Singers, and the Burdens of … Everything
The representation of Black identity through puppetry ranges from “grotesque exaggeration to near pictorial realism,” and engagement not only with racial stereotyping, but also the possibility of positive racial representation. Fisler details the extensive degree to which puppeteers in the early 20th century depended upon Black and blackface characters for their livelihood, and points out the complexities of such representations involving Black puppeteers of Federal Theater Project puppet companies, and the work of Creole puppet artist Ralph Chessé. Fisler argues that some white puppeteers, including Frank Paris, sought to portray such Black characters as Josephine Baker in a “potentially more positive” way, and suggests that any puppet performance of racial identity involves complex relationships between puppet and puppeteer that deserve deeper examination.
Storytelling and Puppetry
Librarian Susan Fulcher recounts the creation of a storytelling with puppets program she developed with puppeteer Dave Herzog, in which kids create their own puppet characters to be incorporated into existing stories such as Stone Soup.
Five-Star Review and Other Responses
Sheila Gaskins, Tau Bennett, Nate Puppets, and Akbar Imhotep
Living Objects Festival and Symposium attendees Sheila Gaskins, Tau Bennett, Nate Puppets, and Akbar Imhotep offer their appreciation of the events, illustrated with photographs by Gaskins.
Tar Baby: The Performance of Object
Ra Malika Imhotep
This essay engages the figure of the “Tar Baby” as a guide through the theoretical terrain of Afro-Diasporic storytelling culture. Thinking about the role of gesture and voice in the repertoire of global Black performance, this presentation sets out to offer a nuanced Black feminist analysis of the sticky character and the impact of her diasporic flight. Calling in both theoretical work on Black performance and personal reflections on an engagement with the Tar Baby through storyteller and puppeteer Akbar Imhotep’s rendition of the story performed at the Wren’s Nest in Atlanta Georgia, the essay explores the ways Afro-Diasporic storytelling traditions open up pathways to personal, communal, and universal identification and resistance.
The famed Itsy Bitsy Spider realizes that climbing up the spout only leads to a rain gutter, and so goes off on a sidewalk journey to find a better life. After encountering two men arguing about money, a fraudulent salesman, and a girl afraid of spiders, Itsy finds a tree in a meadow where it can build a web and catch flies.
Tarish Pipkins’s early experiences with the “shape-shifting beast” of racism as he grew up near Pittsburgh, and later his growing awareness of African American history, have influenced his poetry, visual art, and puppetry: a “weapon of mass destruction to fight the beast.” His work with puppets and special-needs children led him to create larger puppet productions such as Just Another Lynching and 5P1N0K10: The Android Who Wants to be Real b boy, which allow him to “[fight] back using puppets as my swords.”
Embracing Complexity in Performing the Other
Valeska Maria Populoh
"Embracing Complexity in Performing the Other" is a personal essay by a white, Baltimore-based cultural organizer, puppeteer and educator, reflecting on three scenarios that have catalyzed her thinking about white people performing Black puppets. The author shares her own experience of navigating the complex, and at times highly combustible, issues about representation, appropriation and racial identity in the realm of puppetry, and concludes with a few questions to stimulate further dialogue in the puppetry community about these issues.
An Email Interview with Alva Rogers
Actor, writer, and puppeteer Alva Rogers recounts her long-standing interests in theater, and her early performances combining dolls with texts by Zora Neale Hurston and others. Her work as a performance artist led to her role as Eula in the film Daughters of the Dust. She then studied playwriting, musical theater, and history at Brown University, NYU, and Bard College respectively. Rogers’s influences include surrealist painters, magic realism, such writers as Adrienne Kennedy, Ralph Ellison, and Federico Garcia Lorca, and the Gullah/Geechee culture of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. She uses both dolls and puppets in her non-linear plays, because they “make surreal stories magical and real in ways the human form cannot.” Her co-founding of the Rodeo Caldonia Hi Fidelity Performance Theater, a Black feminist artists’ collective in Brooklyn, has helped create a supportive community for her work.
“It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green”: Greenface and the Jazzy Frog Trope
One element of blackface minstrelsy was the representation of Black people as swamp characters, especially frogs. In her examination of the development of the “jazzy frog” as a transposition of greenface onto blackface, Richards traces the growth of the trope in popular film and cartoons of the early 20th century. She then considers Jim Henson’s creation of the popular puppet character Kermit as a variation on this trope, but with a different purpose: to represent Henson’s “vision of tolerance for difference and creative collaboration.” The “re-humanization” of the jazzy frog includes the 1967 hit song “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog,” and Kermit’s 1970 performance of “Bein’ Green”; and leads to Henson’s 1978 Muppet Show collaboration with Harry Belafonte, and later his recruitment of Black puppeteer Kevin Clash for Sesame Street.
Living Objects: Introduction
In her introduction to this collection of Living Objects: African American Puppetry online texts, co-curator Paulette Richards gives an overview of “the power of performing objects to disrupt dehumanizing views of blackness,” and the continuing history of African American object performance in relation to other aspects of popular culture and writing, despite the suppression of African figurative sculpture and object performance, and the persistence of racist stereotypes born of blackface minstrelsy. Relating W. E. B. DuBois’s sense of African American “double consciousness” to the inherent “double vision” of puppet and object performance, Richards proposes a “distinct lineage of African American puppetry” and articulates crucial questions that new studies in this field should consider.
How many African American folk artists have created performing objects outside the purview of formal theater? Master woodcarver George Servance is one such 20th-century artist who used his skills to counter minstrel stereotypes and present African Americans as elegant and accomplished entertainers.
Wear the Story Like a Jacket: Akbar Imhotep
This profile of Akbar Imhotep’s work as a puppeteer and storyteller in Atlanta in the late 20th century describes his connections to the Center for Puppetry Arts, the folk-art roots of his approach to puppetry, the unique puppet stage he made from old suitcases, and the process he uses to prepare for performances.
Egg Whites: A Short Puppet Film Script
Alva Rogers’ script for a short puppet film is a magical realist treatment of a mother’s efforts to help her young daughter, an unnamed African American girl, fall asleep in their New York apartment. The mother explains straightforwardly how she will make muffins for the girl’s breakfast, but the film then shifts into a surreal territory where the girl travels on a moonbeam to the sun, and then appears in a rowboat in a vast ocean, where she wants to plant a flower—all while the mother is baking in the kitchen. The sea explains that the girl’s flower will not grow there, but the girl’s journey turns into a flowery path leading to the front of her apartment building, where her flower can be planted; then she can fall asleep.
Power Puppets in Portable Pulpits: A Personal Account of Puppet Ministry in the African American Community
Yolanda Sampson relates the history of her path into puppet ministry and her PuppeTainment Productions company, which presents Christian stories in a “hip, entertaining way,” bringing “biblical principles to life for twenty-first century children.” She recounts her initiation in puppet ministry at the age of twelve, and her development of stories about the dangers of drug culture in the Washington, D.C. area, as well as her use of puppetry in beauty pageant competitions, and her ventures into puppet video productions such as What Time is It? and Tell It Like It Is. Sampson took a three-year hiatus to earn her Master of Divinity degree, after which she returned to creating “fun products that educate and empower elementary-aged children to live out their Christian faith,” and created GO Y.O. Worldwide, LLC as a global platform for her puppet productions.
Pura Belpré’s Puppetry at the NYPL Children’s Rooms: 1921-1982
Lisa Sánchez González
An extraordinary public intellectual of the Puerto Rican diaspora, Pura Belpré was born in Cidra, Puerto Rico in 1899 and died in New York City in 1982 after a prolific career as a children’s author, librarian, advocate, and puppeteer. Among other firsts, Belpré wrote the first mainstream Latino storybook in U.S. publishing history: Perez and Martina (House of Warne, 1932). The American Library Association has named a major children’s literature (now including Young Adult fiction) medal in her honor. In many ways, Belpré is the Zora Neale Hurston of Afro-Caribbean American literary history—with a flamboyant, polyglot twist.
This essay discusses Belpré’s work in the children’s rooms of the New York Public Library system, including how and why she eventually created a mobile puppet theater. In her essay “Bilingual Storytelling” – which was recently republished in a recovery project based on her archival papers – Belpré offers some information about her introduction to puppetry at the 115th Street branch of the NYPL, and her study of puppetry at Columbia University. She mentions that she started her first puppet theater in the 1930s at the Public Library’s Aguilar branch in an effort to recruit boys to participate in the children’s reading room activities. Belpré’s obvious talent and success as a puppeteer merits more research, and this presentation offers some paths of investigation.
Puppetry and Inside Change
Al Tony Simon and Tychist Baker
Al Tony Simon and Tychist Baker describe their experiences as formerly incarcerated individuals, and their work with puppetry through the group Inside Change. Simon became involved in theater in prison, and then with prison activism through RAPP (Release Aging People from Prison), and Milk Not Jails’ efforts to reform New York State parole boards. Great Small Works theater company introduced Simon to puppetry, which he has used in his work with young people in youth detention centers, schools, and at-risk communities through the One Foot In and One Foot Out program, and later the creation of Inside Change. During his incarceration Tychist Baker started studying, reading “hundreds of books,” and when he was released began collaborating with Milk Not Jails, with whom he worked on prison reform, and teaching martial arts and anti-rape training to kids through the One Foot In and One Foot Out program. With a combination of sock puppets, humanettes, and marionettes, Baker shows, the program teaches kids Identity, Purpose, and Direction.
Alma W. Thomas: “The Marionette Show as a Correlating Activity in the Public Schools”
Jonathan Frederick Walz
The wider world primarily knows Alma W. Thomas as an African American visual artist who, despite the challenges of race, gender, and age, produced a coherent body of brightly colored nature-based abstractions that made her world famous in the late 1970s. What remains virtually unknown, however, is the artist’s involvement with puppet theater and related professional activities. During the summers of 1925, 1930, and 1934, Thomas studied at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she earned an M.A. in arts education; post-graduate coursework with acknowledged marionette expert Tony Sarg followed. The pedagogical theories of John Dewey, who taught at Columbia 1905–1930, clearly manifest in Thomas’s thesis. Incorporating ideas about student-guided and cooperative learning in her approach, Thomas astutely employed a puppet performance of Alice in Wonderland as the framework for her “whole school” method of instruction. This essay presents a critical overview and brief analysis of Alma Thomas’ almost completely unexamined marionettes and the productions in which they played a part.
Raceless Racism: Blackface Minstrelsy in American Puppetry
Blackface minstrelsy has long been recognized as one of the major elements of 19th and early 20th-century popular performance in the U.S., but its central role in U.S. puppetry has not been explored. West debunks the idea that puppets are “raceless”, examining the origins of blackface minstrelsy in American puppetry, including traditional Punch and Judy performances, William John Bullock’s 19th-century puppet minstrel shows, the creation of “realistic” Black puppets by white puppeteers in the early 20th century, and contemporary examples of exaggerated Black puppet characters, for example in a music video directed by Black artist Boots Riley. West points out existing studies of race and racism in American puppetry, and concludes that more investigation of the subject is needed.
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