Living Objects Essays

These essays have been authored by participants in the Ballard Institute's Living Objects: African American Puppetry Festival and Symposium that took place at the University of Connecticut from February 7-10, 2019.

Paulette Richards

Living Objects: Introduction

Paulette Richards

Co-curator Paulette Richards overviews “the power of performing objects to disrupt dehumanizing views of blackness,” and the continuing history of African American object performance despite suppression and the persistence of racist stereotypes.

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John Bell

Living Objects Essays: Note from the Director

John Bell

Living Objects: African American Puppetry co-curator John Bell describes the team responsible for the Living Objects exhibition, festival, symposium, and online catalogue.

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Minstrel Performance and the History of the African American Puppet


Amber West
Amber West

Debunking the idea that puppets are “raceless”, West explores the role of Blackface minstrelsy in 19th and 20th-century U.S. puppetry through Punch and Judy performances, puppet minstrel shows, and “realistic” and exaggerated Black puppets created by white puppeteers.

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Ben Fisler
Ben Fisler 

Fisler examines early-20th century representations of Black identity in U.S. puppetry via the work of Black puppeteers of Federal Theater Project, and Creole puppet artist Ralph Chessé, as well as the possibility of positive racial representation by Frank Paris and others.

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Richards examines the development of the “jazzy frog” trope in film and cartoons of the early 20th century as a transposition of greenface onto blackface, seeing Jim Henson’s creation of his puppet Kermit as a “vision of tolerance for difference.”

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Puppetry and Community


Schroeder Cherry

Cherry's path in puppetry includes childhood television shows, exposure to European puppetry in Switzerland, his Chicago apprenticeship with Gary Jones, a master’s degree in museum education, work with the Smithsonian Institution, and the experience of puppetry in Africa.

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Yolanda Sampson

Sampson has brought “biblical principles to life for 21st-century children" by creating stories about the dangers of drug culture, bringing puppetry to beauty pageants, and developing her production company as a global platform.

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Jonathan Walz
Jonathan Frederick Walz

World-famous for her visual art, Alma W. Thomas was also involved with puppetry in the 1920s and 30s. Influenced by John Dewey at Columbia University to incorporate student-guided and cooperative learning in arts education, she also studied with famed puppeteer Tony Sarg.

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Lisa Sánchez González
Lisa Sánchez González

Born in Puerto Rico in 1899, author, librarian, and puppeteer Pura Belpré studied puppetry at Columbia University and began her first puppet theater at the New York Public Library to promote reading room activities. Sanchez Gonzalez suggests paths for further research into her puppetry.

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Afro-Diasporic Storytelling and Culture


Izabela Brochado
Izabela Brochado

Arguing that the primary source of Brazil's Mamulengo hand-puppet tradition “lies with African slaves," not European roots, Brochado explores the relationship of Mamulengo to Afro-Brazilian cult rituals, and to the themes and mechanics of Yoruba puppetry of Nigeria and Benin.

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Susan Fulcher

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.

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Master woodcarver George Servance, one of many 20th-century African American artists who created performing objects outside the purview of formal theater, used his skills to counter minstrel stereotypes and present African Americans as elegant and accomplished entertainers.

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Atlanta puppeteer and storyteller Akbar Imhotep describes the folk-art roots of his puppetry, connections to the Center for Puppetry Arts, his suitcase puppet stage, and his performance preparation processes.

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Representations and Appropriations of Blackness


Brad Brewer

Brad Brewer explains how the Brewery Puppet Troupe created a production for the Smithsonian Institution about the work of inventor Lewis Latimer, and how the scientist's life was affected by America’s struggle with slavery and racial inequality.

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Tarish Pipkins

Tarish Pipkins explains how life-long experiences with the “shape-shifting beast” of racism and his growing awareness of African American history have influenced his poetry, visual art, and puppetry, his “weapon of mass destruction to fight the beast.”

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Valeska Populoh
Valeska Maria Populoh

Cultural organizer, puppeteer, and educator Valeska Populoh reflects on three scenarios involving white people performing Black puppets, and her experience as a white puppeteer navigating issues about representation, appropriation, and racial identity in puppetry.

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Nehprii Amenii

Amenii argues that Black people, faced with the continuing appropriation of Black culture, the trauma and injustice of the African diaspora, and the history of slavery, need to re-appropriate themselves by “excavating and re-articulating our intellectual heritage and knowledge systems.”

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Rogers recounts the development of her work, from early doll performances with texts by Zora Neale Hurston, to performance art, film, university studies, her co-founding of a Black feminist artists’ collective, and her non-linear, surrealist plays featuring dolls and puppets.

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Gabrielle Civil and Kelly Walters

Black: :Body: :Gesture: From Puppetry to Performance & Design

Gabrielle Civil and Kelly Walters

Civil and Walters distill and recreate key aspects of their live dialogue on African-American puppetry, Black performance art, and material and digital design, asking what it means to animate objects when, "as a people, we were once considered to be living objects ourselves"?

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Next Steps


Ra Malika Imhotep
Ra Malika Imhotep

Imhotep engages the figure of the “Tar Baby” as a guide through the theoretical terrain of Afro-Diasporic storytelling culture, considering the role of gesture and voice in the repertoire of global Black performance.

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Al Tony Simon and Tychist Baker 

Simon and Baker describe their experiences as formerly incarcerated individuals, puppetry work with Milk Not Jails and Inside Change, Simon's efforts to reform parole boards, and Baker's post-incarceration work with One Foot In and One Foot Out.

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Puppet Plays


Tau Bennett

Bennett’s television script employs dark humor and surreal puppet  slapstick in a story about a man whose wish to lose his “pesky teeth” becomes true, thanks to larger-than-life forces and two bumbling hoodlums whose boss is looking for teeth.

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Alva Rogers. Photo by Dawoud Bey
Alva Rogers

Rogers’ surreal puppet film script shows an African American mother’s efforts to help her young daughter fall asleep, following the girl's travels from their apartment to a moonbeam, a rowboat on a vast ocean, and a flowery path leading to her apartment building and slumber.

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Dirk Joseph
Itsy Bitsy Spider, realizing that climbing up the spout only leads to a rain gutter, looks for a better life, encountering two men arguing about money, a fraudulent salesman, a girl afraid of spiders, and finally a tree where it can build a web.

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Postscript


Sheila Gaskins
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.

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