Recently Picture This Post received a notice of a puppet festival that included a show, I Am The Bear, described by the show’s promoter as, “a contemporary allegory on modern policing techniques; or, the consequences of ‘walking while Black,’ by Jerrell L. Henderson, a director, puppeteer and assistant professor of performance studies at Chicago State University. We wondered why and how puppetry can shine a light on weighty #BLM issues, in the point of view of this show’s creator.
Here, Picture This Post (PTP) talks with Jerrell L. Henderson (JLH), about I Am The Bear and his work in general and how it bears on our time and the Black Lives Matter momentum.
(PTP) Can you tell our readers about the story of I AM THE BEAR and how and why you approached it in the way you did to bring it to diverse audiences?
(JLH) I Am The Bear has been a developing story for the last two- three years. It stemmed from an actual experience with a police officer on the streets of Wilmette, IL one early winter morning as I was walking to work. I was stopped and questioned about a local disturbance, and the phrase the officer used to justify stopping me was, “You fit the description.” That phrase has always gotten under my skin, but ever since that experience the phrase has haunted me.
I Am The Bear has existed in a few forms. I have explored this piece in shadow puppetry (I love this form of puppetry), table top toy theatre and as a performance piece with a hand puppet. It is important to me to state that though I created the shadow and table top performances, the hand puppet I am using now was designed by the brilliant K.T. Shivak.
The latest version of I Am The Bear was presented as part of the Chicago International Puppet Festival: The Living Room Tours. We performed once in Glencoe, IL and twice in Lake Geneva, WI.
The overall goal is to push awareness in order to provoke change. It is harder to ignore an issue when there is a person in front of you proclaiming it as their truth. In this way, the combination of my presence and the presence of the bear creates an opportunity for dual awareness/reception of the message.
…And yes, I do think this impacts Black and White audiences differently.
Why do you think the puppetry style of performance vs. traditional theater is a best match for this particular storytelling and discussion of police violence?
I automatically began to think of my experience with the police officer as a puppetry piece because in puppetry I felt I could really get the most out of the poetic metaphor that lay at the emotional heart of that experience.
Having said that, for me, puppetry and traditional theatre are different versions of a similar experience. Which is not to say that they cannot be separated, but is to say that, especially for the kind of theatre I enjoy making, it is often one and the same. I have leaned into puppetry more lately because of the pandemic. I feel that puppetry more cleanly/clearly transfers into a digital experience.
Who were the audiences for this performance?
My first audience is myself, and then my family. I do not come from a family of acknowledged artists. We are working class folx, so if I can create a story I believe would captivate them, I know I am headed in the right direction.
My parents were incredibly aware politically and socially. They raised my brother, sister and I to be the same. Awareness of what it means to be Black in contemporary America, along with my evolving love of history, and my love for visual storytelling and spectacle pretty much put me on track to create pieces such as I Am The Bear.
I love to dabble in all kinds of approaches to visual storytelling but my favorite is through ensemble work and group collaboration, often through non-verbal physical storytelling. I love it because it gives me life, energy and spiritual clarity.
How has the recent nationwide stirrings of the #BLM movement affected you and your work?
It has been inspiring and frustrating. It’s inspiring to see generations of warriors find their voices in the streets, virtual classrooms and virtual boardrooms. It’s frustrating because I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in early April 2020. Just as the BLM movement was congealing around George Floyd’s murder, besides basic awareness of COVID19, I now had another preexisting condition. This meant that I would have to find other ways to contribute to the movement besides gathering in public spaces with large crowds.
Awareness of the consistent violence, physical trauma, emotional trauma and psychological trauma, Black and Brown people experience at the hands of the police, not to mention just systemic racism in general, always runs through my work in some way. Still, the energy from the response of Black and Brown voices, particularly younger Black and Brown voices, was incredibly inspirational as I sought to find and/or redefine my own voice in creative response to what is happening in American NOW.
…What is happening now? ---It is there. It is always there.
Backtracking- can you please share with our readers where you are from and how you were first exposed to puppetry and theater?
I have been performing since I was seven years old. I’ll be forty this March (2021).
I am an inner city kid who grew up in South Philly, PA. Performing and singing defined most of my life growing up, which led to my pursuit of a life in theatre, along with an interest in teaching. I graduated with a BA in Theatre in 2003, and began working with Walnut Street Theatre in a creative relationship which would last just under a decade. It was at Walnut Street Theatre, specifically my relationship with the education department, that I developed as a teacher, and eventually jettisoned performing and shifted into directing.
I moved to Chicago in 2012 to pursue an MFA in Directing from Northwestern. While I grew up with a deep love for the works of Jim Henson, again, the television programs and films only registered his work as entertainment/education. Not as a possible career choice. It was at Northwestern that I began re-discovering puppetry. I am deeply (deeply) influenced by the work of Larry Reed and Shadowlight Productions, as well as Lookingglass Theatre and The House. A few years ago, I became a part of a cohort of Black and Brown puppeteers in Chicago. That was a spiritual oasis, and I am so grateful for Puppeteers of Color Incubator.
Puppetry came later (…in this way) because, well frankly, though I have always loved puppetry, it never occurred to me that it was something I could do. I did not grow up seeing many Black and Brown puppeteers. I did not clock it until much later in life when I started playing around with shadow puppetry, and it felt like I’d discovered another version of myself. It was freeing in a similar, but different, way. Just as creating theatre is freeing.
I am drawn to puppetry and theater because I can embrace pure metaphor. I love it.
What are some other productions you’ve worked on or are pending that have in part been inspired or informed by recent #BLM Protests?
With the assistance of local artist Tria Smith, I also developed a short pop-up puppetry piece with our puppet group, Art Of Spontaneous Spectacle. Black Butterfly was/is a tribute to the recently late John Lewis and C.T. Vivian.
Editor's Note- see full list of cast and creative team credits for BLACK BUTTERFLY below.
This piece was my ideal memorial or as we say, home going service. It’s a celebration of life. Striking images of the men were created and placed on easels. This allowed space for independent or communal reflection while our musician played and I operated puppet butterflies that floated and spun through the air.
I also collaborated with dance troupe Move Me Soul, who performed a short tribute dance before the butterfly puppets, dancer and musician came together. Finally, I spoke a few words of reflection and hope. Then the piece ended.
What made this piece all the more special to me was that it was intentionally performed on Chicago's West side. Most well-known, financially supported, art organizations in Chicago are on the North side (Steppenwolf, The Goodman, Joffery Ballet, etc.). That is the predominantly White area of the city. The further west and south you go, the more the folx are black and brown. It was so important to me to break that cycle. Everyone deserves magic and a little spontaneous fun.
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Images courtesy of Jerrell L. Henderson
About the Author: Kiah Durham
Kiah Durham is a student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T) pursuing a B.S in Journalism and Mass Communication, with a discipline in Public Relations. Since attending A&T, she has involved herself in a few organizations, such as the Public Relations Student Society of America, the A&T Register, and HER campus. In January 2020, she launched Shea Butta Babies, her growing skincare line (Instagram: @sheabutta_babies). Kiah also enjoys sewing, watching movies and spending quality time with family.