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The Ballard Institute Presents Breakthrough Online Catalogue: LIVING OBJECTS: African American Puppetry Essays Edited By Dr. Paulette Richards

The Ballard Institute Presents Breakthrough Online Catalogue: LIVING OBJECTS: African American Puppetry Essays Edited By Dr. Paulette Richards

The events of the year 2020 have brought to light the degree to which African American culture has been misrepresented, distorted, or simply overlooked in the United States. This has been particularly true regarding African American puppet and object theater, which has rarely been the focus of sustained attention.

The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry's new online catalogue, Living Objects: African American Puppetry Essays, edited by Dr. Paulette Richards, is the first-ever collection of scholarly essays, artist statements, interviews, scripts, and symposium presentations by puppeteers, academics, artists, and filmmakers about the history and current situation of Black puppetry. As Dr. Richards states in her introduction to the collection, "gathering together these complex, prismatic, and exultant perspectives opens a space for reflection on how object performance nurtures the human spirit."

Living Objects: African American Puppetry Essays begins essays by scholars Amber West, Ben Fisler, and Richards examining "Minstrel Performance and the History of the African American Puppet" and the persistent influence of racist Blackface minstrelsy in 19th century puppetry, as well as more positive alternatives offered by 20th-century puppeteers. The next section, "Puppetry and Community," includes historical accounts of the educational puppet work of Pura Belpré and Alma Thomas in 1920s New York City, by Lisa Sánchez González and Jonathan Walz respectively, and first-person stories of community building through puppetry by Schroeder Cherry and Rev. Yolanda Sampson. "Afro-Diasporic Storytelling and Culture" examines ways that African storytelling traditions have persisted via puppetry in the Americas, with Izabela Brochado's analysis of Brazilian Mamulengo hand puppets, Paulette Richards' twin examinations of George Servance and Akbar Imhotep, and Susan Fulcher's account of contemporary storytelling with puppets in library contexts. "Representations and Appropriations of Blackness'' features accounts--by artists and puppeteers Brad Brewer, Tarish Pipkins, Valeska Populoh, Nehprii Amenii, Alva Rogers, Gabrielle Civil, and Kelly Walters--of the persistent challenges Black puppeteers face as they navigate an American cultural scene marked by both vibrant Black creativity and deeply set prejudice. "Next Steps'' includes Ra Malika Imhotep's look at the possibilities of critical theory based on Afro-Diasporic storytelling, gesture, and voice; and Al Tony Simon and Tychist Baker's descriptions of their experience as formerly incarcerated individuals working with puppetry and social activism.

Finally, "Puppet Plays'' features three new scripts--for television, film, and live performance--by puppeteers Tau Bennett, Alva Rogers, and Dirk Joseph.
Living Objects: African American Puppetry Essays are available for download at, as part of the Ballard Institute's online records of Living Objects: African American Puppetry at

The site also includes a digital tour of the Living Objects exhibition, featuring the work of over 25 African American puppeteers; biographies of the artists; and, forthcoming, a selection of video documents of Living Objects symposium and festival events.

Dr. Paulette Richards is an independent researcher and teaching artist who uses animatronic puppetry to introduce K-12 students to basic robotics concepts. She has taught animatronic puppetry workshops at Decatur Makers, the Dekalb County Public Library, the Center for Puppetry Arts, and the Puppeteers of America 2017 National Festival. She served as co-curator with Dr. John Bell of the Ballard Institute and Museum's Living Objects: African American Puppetry exhibit and was recently elected to the board of UNIMA-USA, the U.S. chapter of the Union International de la Marionnette.

"The Black Lives Matter movement," she writes, "has made my research feel urgent and relevant for the first time in my life because I see puppet theater and object performance as a powerful mode of resistance to the objectification of Black bodies." She is currently planning an exhibition of African American puppetry that should open at the Center for Puppetry Arts in the fall of 2021, and researching a book on object performance in the Black Atlantic.

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