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Theodora Skipitares has achieved renown for her large-scale puppetry epics on such topics as physics, genetics and medicine. An early American giant of science is the subject of her latest multi-media spectacle, "The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker." It celebrates the life of the free black man who, living in Maryland from 1731 to 1806, became one of his era's most outstanding engineers and astronomers. La MaMa will present the world premiere of the piece January 23 to February 2 in its Ellen Stewart Theatre, at 66 East Fourth Street.

Benjamin Banneker was a free man whose father and grandfather were formerly enslaved and whose grandmother was an English indentured servant. He taught himself mathematics and astronomy, becoming an outstanding scientist of his time, but he is barely recognized for his groundbreaking discoveries. The play features dance, animated film, live music, puppetry and a multi-generational cast. The cast includes a narrator and four actor/puppeteers. Performers also include the celebrated Soul Tigers marching band and a student dance troupe, both hailing from the Benjamin Banneker Academy in Brooklyn. Six young performers from the Academy sporting giant Banneker head masks serve as a Greek chorus, appearing throughout the play as storytellers and commentators.

In the mid-18th century, clocks were uncommon in the colonies. When he was 22, Banneker borrowed a pocket watch, took it apart, and built a wooden clock based on what he saw. It kept time until the end of his life. He was also part of a team that surveyed the original borders of the District of Columbia. Eventually his knowledge of astronomy helped him write a commercially successful series of almanacs that predicted eclipses and planetary conjunctions. Using a handful of primitive instruments, he determined that there are other solar systems outside our own. This idea was not confirmed until the advent of modern technologies in the 1940s.

In 1791, Banneker corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, urging him to help free his black brethren from slavery. Jefferson's reply, though ultimately noncommittal, was nevertheless historically significant. But not everyone recognized Banneker's accomplishments. A mysterious fire on the day of Banneker's funeral in 1806 destroyed his log cabin where he lived and many of his papers and belongings. Only one of his journals and several of his artifacts survive as sources for his life story.

Skipitares' play is a fresh and joyous look into this long-ignored genius. Her production includes a dance piece inspired by his clock, the letter to Jefferson enacted as a drum battle between two Soul Tigers, and a dance based on Banneker's description of an eclipse. The final scene brings to life his vision of other solar systems with illuminated costumes and performing objects. During Banneker's funeral, five giant masks represent his Quaker neighbors. They speak eloquently of him while below, a long procession of miniature puppets, friends and family, walk to church to pay their respects.

Skipitares imagines that if Banneker were alive today, his passion for astronomy could have driven him into the Space Program. Part Two of the play considers how the development of the American space program interacted with the struggle for civil rights. It is based on Skipitares' interview of Edward Dwight, Jr., a former test pilot and now a sculptor. Dwight was selected by the Kennedy administration to be the first African American astronaut trainee in 1961. He proceeded to Phase II of the training program but was not selected by NASA to fly into space. Dwight resigned from the Air Force in 1966, claiming that racial politics had forced him out of NASA. Now 86 and still fully active, he has achieved fame for a body of work that includes over 100 bronze monuments depicting Black historical figures and civil rights activists. Unfortunately, his 14-year effort to create a Benjamin Banneker memorial in Washington D.C. never reached completion. In the play, Dwight's life story unfolds within a miniature environment. Above it hover two figures: a Frank Borman astronaut puppet and a Star Trek Lieutenant Uhura puppet.

Narration is performed by Reginald Barnes. Puppeteers include Jane Catherine Shaw, Chris Ignacio, Alexandria Smalls and Nishan Ganimian. Music is composed by Le Frae Sci. Choreography is by Edisa Weeks. Set design is by Donald Eastman and Theodora Skipitares. Lighting is by Jeff Nash.

'Theodora Skipitares has created 30 puppetry epics to-date and returns to scientific subjects with "The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker." Trained as a sculptor and theater designer, she achieved notice in the 1980's with works about scientists, surgeons, eugenicists, renaissance artists and women in prison, all created with documentary material and devised texts. Last year, she created "There's Blood at the Wedding," a reflection on the lives and deaths of six victims of police violence. This followed a period devoted primarily to classics, including "Six Characters (A Family Album)" (2017), inspired by Pirandello; "The Chairs" (2014), a response to Ionesco in which the chairs themselves were the principal characters; and a cycle of plays drawn from Greek classics in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They included her trilogy of "Helen Queen of Sparta," "The Odyssey" and "Iphigenia" (2004-2007); "The Traveling Players present The Women of Troy" (2009), "Lysistrata" (2011) and "Promethius Within" (2012). Since the early 1990s, Ms. Skipitares has been a resident director at La MaMa. The American Place Theater presented her breakthrough work, "The Radiant City," a music-theater work about Robert Moses, in 1991.

Her work has been exhibited widely in the U.S., Europe and Asia, most recently at the Whitney Museum. She has worked frequently in India as a Fulbright Fellow, as well as in Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea and Brazil. She is a recipient of the American Theater Wing Design Award and has received many awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, several NEA grants, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a McKnight Fellowship and a Distinguished Playwriting Award from the Helen Merrill Fund. She is Artistic Director of Skysaver Productions, a multimedia theater company based in New York.

Composer LaFrae Sci is an internationally renowned composer, drummer and educator who teaches at Jazz at Lincoln Center and is a founding teaching member of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in N.Y.C. As a Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. State Department, she has taught master classes and performed in more than 30 countries. She launched NGO Groove Diplomacy, which creates youth engagement programs internationally using musical expression to create mutual understanding. She heads a band, Sonic Black, an educational collective that creates interactive presentations globally that focus on Black America's musical contributions.

Choreographer Edisa Weeks is a Brooklyn based choreographer, educator and founder of DELIRIOUS Dances. She creates multi-media interactive works that merge theater with dance. Her work has been seen at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Emory University, Inside/Out at Jacob's Pillow, Works & Process at the Guggenheim, Harlem Stage and The Kennedy Center, among others. She holds a BA from Brown and an MFA in choreography from NYU Tisch. She has performed with Annie-B Parsons, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co., Dance Brazil, Jane Comfort, Jon Kinzel and Muna Tseng, among others. She is an Associate Professor of Dance at Queens College.

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