The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker: Theodora Skipitares’ puppetry collage about an 18th Century African-American astronomer, a 20th Century black astronaut, and Lieutenant Uhura of Star Trek, with the Soul Tigers high school marching band.

In this gorgeous, enlightening and ambitious —  if over-stuffed — hour-long theatrical collage, Theodora Skipitares uses the eerie visual splendor of puppetry to illuminate a serious subject, as she’s done in some 30 plays over the past 40 years. But “The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker” stands out, in two ways. First, it tells the fascinating and surprisingly little-known story of Benjamin Banneker, an 18th century free black man, independent farmer, self-taught astronomer, mathematician and civil rights advocate, who corresponded with Thomas Jefferson in 1791 arguing for racial equality.

And then, there’s the use of the teenage drummers from the Soul Tigers marching band of the Benjamin Banneker Academy, a public high school in Brooklyn.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged. All photos by Theo Cote, except when indicated in caption.

As with most of her works, Skipitares doesn’t stick to one subject or to one mode of expression. Through dozens of inventive puppets, giant masks, animation, toy theater, a narrator/actor, recorded voices,  puppeteer/actors, a marching band full of drummers and a troupe of dancers, “The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker,” which is running at La Mama through February 2, offers a somewhat kaleidoscopic look at the subject of African-Americans and space exploration. It focuses in the second half on the story of Ed Dwight, now 86, an Air Force test pilot who trained to become the first African-American astronaut but was scrapped from NASA. He resigned from the Air Force, and went on to become a sculptor of African-American historical figures….including Benjamin Banneker. There is even a scene with Lieutenant Uhura – as both a person (Alexandria Joesica Smalls) and a near life-size puppet head inside a miniature Starship Enterprise – who tells the story of how the original actress (Nichelle Nichols) had planned to quit her job, but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a self-confessed Trekkie, convinced her not to: “You can’t. You’re part of history. “

The story of how “The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker” came about is nearly as captivating as the stories in the play.  I detail it in my article for TDF Stages, A Downtown Puppet Master Returns With Her Latest Epic

Theodora Skipitares in her home, with Banneker heads and the astronaut Frank Borman puppet

The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker
digital program
Conceived, Designed and Directed by Theodora Skipitares
Music by LaFrae Sci
Choreography by Edisa Weeks
in collaboration with Jasmine Oton and the performers
Puppetry Direction by Jane Catherine Shaw
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
Reginald L. Barnes Narrator/Benjamin Banneker/Ed
Eleni Daferera Puppeteer/Crew
Nishan Ganimian Puppeteer/Crew
Chris Ignacio Puppeteer/Dancer
Alexandria Joesica Smalls Puppeteer/Uhura
Jane Catherine Shaw Lead Puppeteer
Tom Walker Thomas Jefferson/Frank Borman/
Timothy Atkinson Puppeteer/Crew
Banneker Dancers:
Adeoba Awosika, AnnJeane Cato, Isabel Elliott, Halle Gillett, Janee
Jeanbaptiste, Kimori Zinnerman
Soul Tigers Marching Band, Inc.
Alora Brooks, Ava DeLeon, Aaron Jones, Alex Patterson, Nathalya
Pericles, Ionie Pumarejo, Dennis Usher
Recorded Voices:
Tom Walker (Thomas Jefferson), Karen Oughtred (Charles Dorsey),
Jane Catherine Shaw (Susanna), Alexandria Joesica Smalls (Martha),
Chris Ignacio (Sheppard), Reginald L. Barnes (Rittenhouse)
Running time: One hour, no intermission
Tickets: $26, $21 Students/Seniors
“The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker” is on stage through February 2.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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