It was a full on rock ’n’ roll concert, the guitarist tearing up a riff enthusiastically, tossing off his bandana to reveal spiky tufts of hair as he wailed into the microphone.
The audience cheered, “Yeah,” and whistled and hooted—except the concert grounds were a small section of Busboys and Poets, in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown, on a dim, small stage scarcely big enough for someone to pace about. And the guitarist? A puppet, his soulful music provided by a DJ rather than of his own making.
When one thinks about D.C., even after getting through the politics, it’s probably a safe wager that the first thing that comes to mind isn’t puppetry.
However, the D.C. region boosts a thriving puppetry community, which was celebrated last weekend through the Washington Performing Arts’ Mars Urban Arts Initiative, which seeks to foster relationships between the WPA and community arts-makers, local businesses, arts institutions and local residents.
And Schroeder Cherry knows that he is filling a need as much as he is fulfilling a passion.
“I’m addressing a void. There are not a lot of [black puppeteers using black puppets]. There are some but there are not a whole bunch of them running around the country so I think I’m addressing a need,” he says.
Cherry, 60, was just one of the puppeteers featured during the weekend of events, more specifically at Monday’s puppetry slam with one of his handmade masterpieces, Maya O’Pinion. For Cherry, puppetry grew from being mere childhood toys to a lifelong passion. He shared details of his childhood playing with hand puppets, before he graduated to string puppets, and then ultimately going on to college and officially getting “hooked.” The puppeteer’s presence in the scene to him represents more than just fun, chance and passion.
“There’s [an] issue of imagery, and I think a lot of our kids don’t see themselves enough in positive roles in the media. We don’t have any major television shows where all the characters are black, and living in a black community is just normal,” he says.
Cherry believes that he can impact change just by being present and making a point to make and use black puppets that represent people of African descent from throughout the Diaspora.
“In terms of the Diaspora, I enjoy sound. So I listen to people’s voice patterns, I’m really excited by different speech patterns. So the puppetry, for me, allows me to put some of that into play,” he says (somewhere around here he demonstrates a rather top-notch British accent). “Not all black folks talk alike. They’re very different. In fact, the puppets that I have that are from America also have different accents. I have a couple of them who have a Southern accent, another who’s [more Northeastern].”
The series, which took place Nov. 8-11, strove to highlight the importance and the legacy of puppetry in the region. Fact: Renowned puppeteer Jim Henson was a D.C. native who contributed greatly to the community. A Nov. 8 event was a “puppet community build,” which gave kids of all ages the chance to build their own puppets. On Tuesday, virtuoso pianist Orion Weiss performed at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, accompanied by the famous Salzburg Marionettes.
Cherry’s role, or, rather, Maya O’Pinion’s role, in the more adult-themed puppetry slam was as a facilitator who joked and teased with other organizers in between different acts and offered commentary—her own opinion, as it were.
In the sectioned-off area at the Chinatown restaurant, various puppetry groups, with members of varying ages, told the stories of their puppets, some happy, some funny, some incredibly sad and dark. There was a pouncing cat, a dancing life-size attorney, a dancing skeleton, and an existential horror skit about a tortured man.
It is this creative capacity in puppetry, as well as the ability to draw an audience in with the quirks of each puppet to tell a unique story, that appeals to Cherry. His own individual performances are always educational, telling stories about black people, ranging from the time of the slave trade to the Harlem Renaissance.
“I think that some of our kids don’t realize what they miss, and I’m not just talking about African-American kids, but I think white kids also need to see some diversity,” he says. “They need to know that there are other people in the world, just so that it becomes normal for them. We still have pockets in this country where folks have no interaction with someone who’s not their same color. And it causes this wow factor. It shouldn’t be like that in this day and age.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.