Saturday, February 01, 2020

The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker

One of the many joys of theatre is getting to experience how another person's brain and imagination work. Last night at La Mama, the brain and imagination belonged to Theodora Skipitares, who conceived, designed, made puppets for, and directed The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker.

Banneker puppet. 
Photo by Theo Cote.

Banneker puppet.
Photo by Theo Cote.

Who was Benjamin Banneker? According to Skipitares' directors notes,
An 18th century descendent of an enslaved man, [Banneker] was a self-taught astronomer who made historic discoveries at his homestead outside Baltimore. 
Banneker’s role in developing the American scientific enterprise has been largely passed over since his death... Banneker’s position in 18th century American culture marked the first time that white society had to openly acknowledge an African American’s discoveries. Yet Banneker’s correspondence with a sympathetic but fundamentally indifferent Thomas Jefferson showed the limits of the recognition that African Americans could expect from official society. 
Skipitares chooses to explore--no, celebrate--this story through drumming (by the incredible Soul Tigers), music (by LaFrae Sci), dancing (choreography by Edisa Weeks), narration, and fabulous puppetry. (As with many good things, it takes a village; see credits below.) The result is sometimes sad, often joyous, frequently funny, fascinatingly informative, and generally entertaining.

Frank Borman puppet.
Photo by Jane Catherine Shaw.

Banneker head with Soul Tigers.
 Photo by Theo Cote.
As I watched the show, I was reminded of a jazz musician's quote I read years ago. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to track it down, but to the best of my memory, he said that jazz wasn't just about the song--it was about how he felt about the song. Similarly, while The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker is indeed about Banneker, it is also about how Skipitares and the rest of the people involved with the show feel about Banneker, and also about science, TV, the role of race in the United States, space travel, and other themes.

Eclipse scene with dancers.
Photo by Theo Cote.
I had some complaints here and there. The narration sometimes jumps confusingly around in time; the visuals don't always match the words (eg, at one point someone was reading a letter written by Banneker but the visual was a letter written by Thomas Jefferson), and I personally would have enjoyed more story and less drumming. But overall, The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker provides a concentrated hour of excellent performance, as well as an introduction to a man we all should have learned about in school.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, first row)

The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker 

  • Conceived, Designed. and Directed by Theodora Skipitares
  • Composer, Musician LaFrae Sci
  • Choreography by Edisa Weeks in collaboration with Jasmine Oton and the performers
  • Puppetry Direction by Jane Catherine Shaw
  • Cast: Timothy Atkinson, Reginald L. Barnes, Eleni Daferera, Nishan Ganimian, Chris Ignacio, Alexandria Joesica Smalls, Jane Catherine Shaw, Tom Walker, 
  • Banneker Dancers: Adeoba Awosika, AnnJeane Cato, Isabel Elliott, Halle Gillett, Janee Jeanbaptiste, Kimori Zinnerman
  • Soul Tigers Marching Band, Inc.: Alora Brooks, Ava DeLeon, Arron Jones, Alex Patterson, Nathalya Pericles, Ionie Pumarejo, Dennis Usher
  • Recorded Voices: Tom Walker, Karen Oughtred, Jane Catherine Shaw, Alexandria Joesica Smalls, Chris Ignacio, Reginald L. Barnes
  • Set Design by Donald Eastman and Theodora Skipitares
  • Lighting by Jeffrey Nash
  • Video Design and Voice Recording by Kay Hines
  • Dramaturgy by Andrea Balis
  • Stage Manager Karen Oughtred
  • Animation Film #1 by Holly Adams
  • Animation Film #2 by Trevor Legeret & Klara Vertes
  • Special Projects by Jim Freeman
  • Scenic Painting by DeAndre Craigman, Taylor Clayton Brooks, Gabe Garcia, Brooke van Hensbergen, Lizzy Duquette
  • Chaperone Andy Safford
  • Banneker Dancers’ Co-Ordinator Francie Johnson-Sealey
  • Executive Director, Soul Tigers Music & Arts Program, Kenyatte L. Hughes
  • Percussion Director, Soul Tigers Marching Band, Osei K. Smith
  • Press Rep, Jonathan Slaff 

1 comment:

jim oberg said...

Minor problem with historical research -- the alleged astronaut Borman quote corroborating Ed Dwight's complaint about Chuck Yeager is spurious. The speaker of those lines in the PBS Apollo-11 show last July wasn't Borman, but Dwight himself. No other source of the accusation has ever been found.