The cardboard pickup truck drives through the audience, blinding people with its headlights, in Tarish “Jeghetto” Pipkins’s puppet show “Just Another Lynching,” which will be performed at Brookline’s Puppet Showplace Theater this Thursday and Friday, Nov. 8 and 9, at 7 p.m.
A hooded Klansman is at the wheel, and two others ride with their victim in the back. “One in the back has a rifle and he hits the guy with the rifle a couple times,” Pipkins says. “I wanted to depict it like it was entertainment to them.”
The show, Pipkins says, is “a story about a black man being lynched in 1921. It’s told through his childhood friend, who happens to be white, and whose brother was part of the lynching. It’s told at his funeral.”
Based on a handful of historical murders, the show tells the African American man’s life story in flashbacks. It aims to prompt the question: What could the man’s white friend done about the situation? “For people who see the show, are they for justice or do they just let things happen?” Pipkins says. “And why do they let things happen?”
While Pipkins is in Boston, he’s an artist-in-residence at Boston University. So he’ll also be participating in an “Afrofuturism Panel Discussion” with Barrington Edwards of Studio Vexer and Joel Gill, a professtor at New Hampshire Institute of Art and creator of “Strange Fruit Comics,” on Wednesday, Nov. 7, from 7 to 9 p.m., at Boston University’s College of Arts & Sciences, 685 Commonwealth Ave., room B12. He’ll lead puppet making workshops on Saturday, Nov. 10, at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., at Boston University’s GSU Alley, 775 Commonwealth Ave., lower level. And he’ll perform in the Boston University Puppet Slam on Saturday, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m., at BU Central, 775 Commonwealth Ave., lower level. These Boston University events are free and open to the public, but registration is required.
Pipkins, who is based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, grew up in a small steel mill town called Clairton, located south of Pittsburgh, and then Pittsburgh. In the late ‘90s, he performed poetry and did live paintings with the BridgeSpotters Collective. After moving to North Carolina in 2005, he got into puppetry, and performed his shows in the streets. He began working with Paperhand Puppet Intervention in 2008. For rapper Missy Elliott’s 2015 music video, “WTF ( Where They From),” he helped with building puppets and performed the Pharell marionette. His work has been presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, and at Blackspace, an Afrofuturism arts collective and makerspace in Durham, North Carolina.
The theater world in the United States tends to be very white, and with puppetry that’s even more so. African American puppeteers are relatively rare. “You have to be used to being the only black person in the room,” Pipkins says. “Black culture doesn’t embrace puppetry. … Especially in the South, it’s more like superstition, moving objects, just the fear of voodoo dolls. Seriously, people just see that.”
“I heard this quote a few years back: Take what you love and do it for your people,” Pipkins says. “What am I going to do about this injustice? I’m seeing all these videos of people being gunned down. And they’re demonized after the fact even though they’re the victims. … So I’m taking what I love and doing it for my people.”
Pipkins performs “Just Another Lynching” with puppets that are 3- to 4-feet-tall, made of cardboard and PVC pipe and wood, dressed in children’s clothing. They are operated Bunraku style, with two performers controlling the acting of each puppet.
“If you define lynching, it’s a person being murdered without any justice served,” he says. “I relate lynching to these shootings of unarmed black people today. I don’t see any difference between the two.”
“We literally do an actual lynching with little puppets, 12-inches-tall,” Pipkins says. “When you hoist the puppet up in the tree, it’s breathtaking. It really is. … The first time I performed it, I got choked up because I felt like I was watching the experience. I felt like I was witnessing a murder.”
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