“Is there an African American puppetry? That’s the question we’re trying to answer with this exhibit,” says John Bell, director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, where the exhibition “Living Objects: African American Puppetry” runs from Oct. 25, 2018, to April 7, 2019. They’ll also be hosting the “Living Objects Festival and Symposium” from Feb. 7 to 10.
The answer is yes, definitely, of course. As part of the exhibition, Bell says, “We’re making a directory of African American puppeteers and there are a lot of them, all over the country. They’re there.”
But the theater world in the United States tends to be very White, and with puppetry that’s even more so. Racism often suppresses or obscures African American arts, which can make Black puppetry feel invisible.
“You have to be used to being the only Black person in the room,” North Carolina puppeteer Tarish “Jeghetto” Pipkins, one of the artists featured in the exhibition and symposium, told me when he performed in Boston in November. “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.”
“Living Objects” is a rare institutional effort to survey African American puppetry—perhaps the first since a 1990s exhibition at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts. It assembles puppets, performing objects and masks by more than 20 puppeteers from the late 19th century to today.
Paulette Richards, an Atlanta-based teaching artist who co-curated “Living Objects” with Bell, writes: “Since their arrival in the Americas, African people have animated objects in a rich variety of forms and contexts. Despite the prohibition by slaveholders on the creation of figurative objects reflecting an African-derived worldview, African Americans nevertheless animated objects to represent their experiences and identity.”
“African American puppetry happens in doll culture and different types of visual art and, for example, the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians make fantastic costumes that really link back to African performance,” Bell says.
“Living Objects” traces a history beginning with 19th century jig dolls (rod puppets with legs that danced upon a board performers bounced up and down) and ventriloquism. John W. Cooper (1873-1966), the exhibition reports, found license to “talk back” and even “put words in the White man’s mouth” by throwing his voice into White dummies. Richard Sanfield and Willie Tyler were among the African American performers who brought Black voices to the style. Bell says, “Ventriloquism became an interesting cross-racial performance technique.”
Featured artist Ralph Chessé suppressed his Creole heritage and African American roots when he left his childhood New Orleans for San Francisco. In the Bay Area in the 1920s and, again, for the Federal Theater Project in the 1930s, he produced a marionette version of Eugene O’Neill’s play “The Emperor Jones.” In the 1950s, he created and performed marionettes for “The Wonderful World of Brother Buzz,” an educational television program that ran for 17 years on KPIX, KTVU, and KGO in the San Francisco Bay area and also appeared nationally on the Cox and Westinghouse broadcasting networks. It was “an educational show about respecting the earth,” Bell says, and “an important early television show with puppets.”
African American puppeteers have performed puppetry about the history of the diaspora, about slavery, about racism and race. Maine artist Ashley Bryan has made puppets to tell African stories. The exhibition includes a Frederick Douglass puppet from the Puerto Rican troupe Papel Machete’s 2009 and 2015 shows about racism in America. The show also features a life-sized puppet of Judith Jamison, the star dancer and later artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, that was build by Nehprii Amenii for a tribute to Jamison when she stepped down.
“There are a lot of African American puppeteers who don’t necessarily take as their subject the Black experience,” Bell says. Their work can be world famous even if the nature of puppetry can obscure their contributions—for example, Mark Ruffin, who helped design and build “Sesame Street”’s Mr. Snuffleupagus, and Kevin Clash, who performed Elmo and helped re-energize the television show (before he left over allegations of sexual impropriety).
Bruce Cannon, artistic director of Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, is African American, but one might not guess it from the New York company’s repertoire of European fairy tales. During the symposium, he’ll perform “Harlem River Drive, Magic of Music,” celebrating the history and diversity of New York’s iconic Black neighborhood.
The festival and symposium will also feature performances of ventriloquism and gospel puppetry, plus talks on “Puppetry and African American History,” “Afro-Diasporic Storytelling and Culture,” and “Representations and Appropriations of Blackness.”
All together, “Living Objects,” as the organizers write, aims to “redefine our sense of American puppet history.”
Pictured at top: Ventriloquist David Liebe Hart will perform at the “Living Objects: African American Puppetry Festival and Symposium.” (Photo: Chad Cooper)
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