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by Dorothy Chansky
by Beate Hein Bennett

“The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker”

Benajmin Banneker puppet. Photo by Chris Ignacio.

LaMama E.T.C. (Ellen Stewart Theatre)
66 East 4th Street, NYC
Jan. 23-Feb. 2, 2020
Th.-Sat. at 7:00 p.m.; Sun. at 3:00
Box office 212-352-3101, www.lamama.org
Reviewed by Dorothy Chansky January 24, 2020

These days, “arts and sciences” sounds like about as likely a pairing as, oh, maybe snowshoes and spaghetti, what with STEM and humanities understood by so many as antitheses with no hope of appeal across the aisle.

The eighteenth-century Benjamin Banneker felt and acted otherwise, and in Theodora Skipitares’s inventive theatrical investigation of this extraordinary man’s life, science inspires poetry and sculpture, while painting is the realm of farmers and astronauts.

Banneker Puppet. Photo by Theo Cote.

Banneker, the son and grandson of African slaves, lived his life as a free man on a farm in Maryland, from his birth in 1731 until his death in 1806. He taught himself astronomy; he borrowed a pocket watch and, after taking it apart, used it as a model to build himself a clock that ran for fifty years without losing a second. He wrote to Thomas Jefferson about racial inequity, decorously noting that all humans belong to the same family and holding TJ’s feet to the fire about that pesky “we hold these truths to be self-evident” bit. He wrote several almanacs, using spherical trigonometry; he predicted (accurately) four eclipses; he was a surveyor of the new city of Washington, D.C.

His house and books were burned the day of his funeral. So much for accomplishment and model citizenry on the wrong side of the color line.

Banneker head with Soul Tigers in finale. Photo by Theo Cote.

As in many of Skipitares’s earlier works, a particular person or event or category of experience provides the nodal point from which this master puppet-maker and thinker makes cross-cultural, transhistorical connections. Previous projects include pieces about the history of medicine (“Under the Knife,” 1994) and food as the stuff of myth, profit, and power-brokering (“Empires and Appetites,” 1989). Her 2014 “Chairs” took on Ionesco’s play by creating individual chairs “hosting” twenty-nine (important, if not yet fully famous) guests, contra the source text’s silent pieces of furniture to sit on which no one ever arrived.

Reginald L. Barnes, the narrator who plays Banneker and Edward Dwight, Jr. Photo by Kristina Loggia.

Banneker’s fascination with the galaxy and the racism he encountered provide a jumping-off place for Skipitares to make connections with twentieth-century astronauts who have also gone on record about the wonder—and the racism—they experience in relation to space. Early in “Transfiguration” we hear Banneker wax eloquent about his fascination with the universe: “The moon is within me and so is the sun. Suppose we really are made from the stars.” The Banneker puppet—in the Bunraku family—has moveable arms and legs, but his torso is a hollow, heart-shaped, metal frame with a bright light representing his actual heart. Puppeteers who manipulate Banneker remain mostly in the shadows, but occasionally they dance along with his utterances, a deft in/out relationship between effigy and human as co-builders of what we perceive as a character. (Puppetry Direction is by Jane Catherine Shaw.)

Miniature toy theater, scene of story of would-be astronaut Edward Dwight, Jr. Photo by Theo Cote.

Fast forward a couple of centuries. Consider the case of African American space program trainee Edward Dwight, an 85-year-old sculptor and astronaut manqué (yes, he’s still alive) who makes a major appearance in “Transfiguration.” A Kansas native interested in art, he walked away from an art school scholarship when his father persuaded him to study engineering. His success yielded an invitation from the Kennedy administration to join the astronauts’ training program. Dwight was awed by the peacefulness he experienced flying an F-104 Starfighter. Seeing our planet without territorial borders and encased in what he describes as a magical blue layer changed his life. He tells us that Russian astronauts are nearly all also artists—the experience is that inspiring. But NASA needed popular backing if it was to be profitable, and Dwight realized that it is heroes who inspire followers. If heroic work could be performed by women or blacks, however, it ceased to be heroic to the American man in the street. Borman and Armstrong, yes. Dwight? Not so much.

Borman also makes an appearance during a toy theatre sequence featuring two-dimensional cut-out figures within a tiny proscenium ringed by lights. He succinctly disses legendary instructor Chuck Yaeger for the latter’s orders to the astronauts in training to shun Dwight: “Do not socialize with him, do not drink with him, do not invite him over to your house, and in six months he'll be gone."

Banneker puppet. Photo by Theo Cote.

There is more to this show than skillful and imaginative puppetry and zingy narrative. Students from the (NYC public high school) Benjamin Banneker Academy’s marching band, the Soul Tigers, provide drumming intervals, one of which works as a counterpoint to Banneker’s correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, with explosive snare riffs (Banneker) squaring off against less fireworksy bass sequences (Jefferson). Dancers wielding and wearing strings and rings of lights bring stars to life. (They are Banneker students Adeoba Awosika, AnnJeane Cato, Isabel Elliott, Halle Gillett, Janee Jeanbaptiste, and Kimori Zinnerman. Choreography is by by Edisa Weeks in collaboration with Jasmine Oton and the performers.)

Banneker and Dwight, who have the bulk of the spoken text, are compellingly voiced by Reginald L. Barnes. Tom Walker handles Jefferson and Borman ably. Alexandria Joesica Smalls does a delicious turn as Nichelle Nichols, the African American actress who played Uhura on “Star Trek” and nearly left the show for opportunities on Broadway until Martin Luther King told her she was part of history and needed to stay in her non-gendered, non-raced role as a message to all of America that “can do” in outer space, in Hollywood, and on our streets isn’t confined to white, male “heroes.”

I wish I could conclude by channeling Jiminy Cricket crooning “When you wish upon a star/Makes no difference who you are,” but we all know it still does. Still, as one-liners go, Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” regarding his 1969 moon walk, might not be a bad jumping off place for thinking about Banneker. Just not giant enough in the context of the cultural constraints of his time. And, oh, please. Can we make it humankind?

“A Moon Inside My Body”
The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker

January 23 – February 2, 2020
LaMaMa E.T.C. in association with Skysaver Productions
Presented at Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street, New York, NY
Thurs. – Sat. @ 7 PM, Sun. @ 3 PM
$25 gen. adm.; $20 Stud./sen. + $1 facility fee
(The first 10 tickets for every performance $10)
Box office: 212-352-3101, www.lamama.org
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett on Jan.24, 2020

Banneker Puppet. Photo by Theo Cote.

Theater artist, director and master puppeteer Theodora Skipitares has amazed audiences with her inventive, always socially relevant productions for the past forty years. Her puppet cum actor conceptions have ranged from intimate miniature solo performances to large scale ensemble works that incorporate choreographic movement, video and shadow play constructions, and puppets in shapes of all sizes and styles that expand the theatrical space all around the audience. Her theater is primarily a theater of imagery, soundscapes, interwoven with narrative text of basic information, all of it live with a minimum of electronic enhancement. Handicraft is the dominant aesthetic source—the live human presence is the dominant force of action, inside the puppet.

Soul Tigers. Photo by Theo Cote.

“The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker” is her most recent conception brought to life with drummers from The Soul Tigers Marching Band, Inc. , dance students from the Benjamin Banneker Academy (a public high school in Brooklyn), augmented by professional puppeteer/dancer/actors, and two actors, Reginald L. Barnes and Tom Walker, who provide the narrative. Together with the accomplished artistic team of composer/musician LaFrae Sci, choreographer Edisa Weeks in collaboration with Jasmine Oton, puppetry director Jane Catherine Shaw, set designers Donald Eastman, lighting designer Jeffrey Nash, video design Kay Hines, and film animation artists Holly Adams, Trevor Legeret & Klara Vertes, with Special Projects by Jim Freeman, dramaturg Andrea Balis, Ms. Skipitares achieved a complex performance interweaving all the arts into a contemplative romp about and around Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806). He was a free black man, a mathematical genius, self-taught, who dreamed himself into the planetary realm and thus became an inventor, an astronomer, and a visionary of a time when all men would be truly seen as equal regardless of the color of their skin. And in 1791 he challenged Thomas Jefferson to really live up to his own publicly expressed ideal of human equality—but was courteously rebuffed! This historical correspondence is presented in triplicate form: the writing is projected onto a large screen behind two young black drummers who translate the back and forth between Banneker and Jefferson into a drum duel while Mr. Barnes as Banneker and Mr. Walker as Jefferson read the respective texts.

Funeral of Benjamin Banneker. Photo by Theo Cote.

This segment concludes the first part that presents Benjamin Banneker’s background as the grandson of Bannaka, an enslaved chieftain from Mali and Molly, an English indentured servant— in her own right a warrior woman who purchased her freedom and a small tobacco farm with two slaves as help, and subsequently married her slave Bannaka whom she freed. Benjamin inherited the title to the tobacco farm and built his success as a tobacco farmer in Maryland. He becomes known as an inventor of a clock, writes a respected almanac, and spends his spare time at night observing the stars and making calculations that are eventually recognized for their astronomical accuracy. In 1790 he leaves the farm, the only time, to help survey the boundaries of the new capital, Washington, D.C. Of course, his fame arouses not only doubt that as a Negro he is capable of such intellectual work but also envy. In the last years of his life, he finds himself under threat, his house is attacked and burglarized, and finally during his funeral his house is burnt down and with it his manuscripts, except for one book kept by a neighbor.

Much of this narrative is presented in a series of visually enchanting and colorful interpretations by the young dancers and puppeteers. The Banneker puppet, handled by three puppeteers, gains an empathetic dimension with its large portrait head and a small light like a soul inside the upper body. The funeral is depicted by a long procession of miniature puppets while above them hover the huge heads of Jefferson, Martha W., Susanna, and Sheppard, the savior of Banneker’s book of memoirs; they comment full of amazement and respect on his accomplishments.

Astronaut puppet. Photo by Jane Catherine Shaw.

Interestingly, Ms. Skipitares is not content with simply presenting Banneker as an 18th century phenomenon of black genius but extends the narrative by including in the second part, the story of Edward Dwight who was trained during the Kennedy administration as the first black astronaut but then excluded by NASA on the instigation of Chuck Yeager—the sardonic commentary in Dwight’s own words is poignant. Another astronaut is included, Frank Borman who was a member of the Apollo team—his words echo Banneker’s perception of the place and dimension of the human being visavis space. Borman, while flying around in outer space, observes that from his vantage point he is able to cover the entire earth with his thumb. In the theater a miniature Dwight and a miniature Borman are flying above the audience as we listen to their words. Another interesting juxtaposition is MLK jr.’s exhortation to the black actress who performs Uhura in “Star Trek”—again a puppet in the starship hovers above the stage—that she must stay with the show; it is the only show MLK and his wife Loretta allow their children to watch—MLK as a “trekkie”? Thus Skipitares reiterates the issue of black exclusion and black accomplishments from the general history of scientific accomplishments as a cultural blight while her inclusive performance celebrates the possibility and potential of art as the place of unlimited collaboration.

A small addendum: The USPS found Benjamin Banneker worthy to put his portrait on a 15 cent stamp.

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