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From Frederick Douglass to Michael Jackson: African-American puppetry and the tradition of storytelling at the Ballard

Puppetry has a long tradition in Africa, with puppets and masks used in sacred and secular ceremonies and as entertainment for centuries. But when kidnapped Africans were trafficked across the ocean to work as slaves in America, they were cut off from the art and customs of their homelands.

“Puppetry, masks and performing objects were used in important annual events, community rituals, but with slavery and the diaspora and the Middle Passage that disappeared,” says John Bell.

“Slave owners would not let their slaves spend time making puppets or masks or engaging in ritual performances.”

Bell is director of Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at UConn in Storrs. He is co-curator of “Living Objects,” an exhibit that focuses on the post-slavery-era evolution of African-American puppetry. The tradition of oral narrative survived and morphed over the decades into new types of storytelling, blending African traditions with the American experience to create a distinct niche in performative art.

Bell’s co-curator is Paulette Richards, a puppet artist and docent at Worlds of Puppetry Museum in Atlanta. Artworks by Richards are in the exhibit, as well as marionettes, hand puppets, mascots, rod puppets, automatons, jig puppets, bunraku dolls, shadow puppets, ventriloquist dummies and gospel puppets from 23 other artists.

The evolution of storytelling

During the slave era, Richards says, the strongest link between African- and African-American storytelling wasn’t the forbidden objects themselves but the manner in which stories were told. Puppets were added into the mix much later, in the post-slavery era.

“Storytelling occurred in the evening after the day’s work was done. Elders would gather young people and tell them stories as a mode of moral education. This happened in Africa and all through the Americas. You’d find some of the same stories,” she says. “The stories themselves, the performance style, the call-and-response that involves audience in the story itself, the music and dance, they were all part of the storytelling.”

The exhibit’s overview begins in Africa. A Malian “sogo” camel puppet – a symbolic animal – is ridden by a human figure. Another puppet from Mali is brightly colored and fearsome looking.

Those puppets share a case with examples of early 20th-century puppetry: two “minstrel” dolls, whose imagery is grounded in racial stereotypes.

“In the late 19th century, you started to see African Americans represented by puppeteers in the minstrel-show stereotype, in overalls, with large lips. This caricature was the dominant form of puppetry in the United States in that era, but it was not by African Americans,” Bell says.

Later African Americans began telling their own stories and representing themselves. Two elegant Ralph Chessé marionettes made for a 1928 production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones” – a play about a black train porter who becomes an emperor – are in the exhibit.

Some stories are a bit weirder. Pandora Gastelum recalls an odd incident in 1919 in which a New Orleans newspaper published a letter from a serial killer that ordered all people to dance to jazz music or be murdered. Gastelum’s jazz-cat marionettes – the woman in blood-red – reenacts that citywide, nightlong jazz-dancing frenzy.

Gastelum re-creates another lurid New Orleans legend with her bunraku-style puppet “Lulu White, Queen of Mirrors,” depicting the famed half-Creole madam of the Octoroon Parlour brothel.

More wholesome are the gospel puppets. Edna Bland’s delightful “Sister Edwina” is a Muppet-like black woman in her Sunday best, a pink satin coat and a lovely hat. In Yolanda Sampson’s portable puppet stage, two preachers lean out. The piece is used to give Sunday-school puppet shows for children.

“Using puppets in a church setting mirrors the function of African puppetry and mask performance, which perform religious rituals,” Bell says.

Two historical figures depicted by Pope.L are Rev. William Mack Lee – the favorite slave of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee – and Lee’s horse, Traveler. The two were used in a play, in which the general was described as “a hero, sandwiched between the lettuce of what we know and what we can never know.”

The Puerto Rican artist collective Papel Machete had fun with its historical figures. A marionette of Frederick Douglass sits in a train, the “Obama Express,” which speeds him toward his mission: to rescue jailed political activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. During the rescue, they meet ’70s radical activist Assata Shakur.

Bruce Cannon depicts modern pop-culture figures in his work. Two Michael Jackson marionettes – one as an Afroed child, one as a white-gloved adult – boogie down next to Lady Love Power, a tall, glamorous chanteuse reminiscent of Diana Ross. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater choreographer Judith Jamison is represented by puppeteer Nehprii Amenii with a massive white-robed bunraku puppet.

Brad Brewer turned his pop-culture figures into birds. He created the Crowtations, a quartet of R&B singing crows who entertain crowds in New York City. All four of the Crowtations are in the gallery, beside a screen showing videos of the puppets’ performing their greatest Motown sounds.

The African influence can be seen in Faith Ringgold’s “Nigerian Face Mask,” an elaborate re-imagining, in fabric, of a traditional ritual face-covering.

Other puppets in the show don’t depict African Americans but instead illustrate the wide range of puppets being made by African-American artists. A few pieces don’t even look like puppets, but like small sculptures.

“If you combine visual arts and performance, that’s the world of puppetry,” Bell says. “If you take a sculpture and move it, that’s the definition of puppetry.”

Richards said that the lack of scholarship on puppet arts could be from the lingering effects of the Colonial-era disdain for stage performance.

“Puritans abolished theater altogether. There was definitely no puppetry tradition, people busking on the streets, no Punch and Judy shows,” she says, referring to the traditional street puppet shows dating back to 17th-century Britain.

“In plantation societies, some enslaved people had skills as musicians and they would be made to entertain, but there was no such thing as a puppet show that slaveholders would have a servant put on for company.”

Puppet shows later became popular, she says, but the younger tradition of puppetry in the United States has led many to think of the art form as something for children.

Other artists in the show are Tau Bennett, Pierre Bennu, Willie Brown, Ashley Bryan, Raymond Carr, Schroeder Cherry, Garland Farwell, Susan Fulcher, Cedwan Hooks, Akbar Imhotep, Dirk Joseph, Jayden Libran, John McDonough, Tarish Pipkins and Nate Puppets.

‘Living Objects’ is part of UConn’s semesterlong “Celebrate the African Diaspora” series of events, which is being held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the university’s African American Cultural Center. Details about events remaining in the series at sfa.uconn.edu.

LIVING OBJECTS: AFRICAN AMERICAN PUPPETRY is at Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, 1 Royce Circle, Suite 101B, at University of Connecticut in Storrs, until April 7, 2019. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is a suggested donation of $5. bimp.uconn.edu.

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