Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became a famous writer, orator and crusader, was reportedly the most photographed man in the 19th century. So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that, more than a century before Susan Sontag, Douglass wrote extensively about photography, contemplating its greater meaning, its unique power, even its potential for promoting justice.
His fascinating musings are presented verbatim as part of “Grand Panorama,” at LaMaMa ETC through March 6th, the latest hour-long theatrical collage by Theodora Skipitares, who has created inventive and illuminating puppetry epics roughly every eighteen months for the past forty years.
Human beings, Douglass observed, are the only animals with a passion for pictures. The birth of photography created a more egalitarian society, “the exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now within reach of all.” And the photograph was the chance to correct the racist caricatures of his people. He never once smiled in any of his portraits, so that nobody “can think of slavery joyously.”
Like much of Skipitares’ work, “Grand Panorama” doesn’t stick to one subject nor to one effect. Besides Douglass’s words, there is also Sojourner Truth’s, as well as that of W.E.B. DuBois, who saw the inherent value of photography, and put it to practical use. Also, presented as a ballad, the show shares the now little-known story of Nathan Biddle, an escaped slave who sold images of himself, and is, somewhat ironically, billed as “the first casualty of the CIvil War” (he was struck by civilians who were outraged that he was wearing the uniform of a Union soldier.) Besides photography, there is also a contemplation of slavery and racism. And besides narrator/actor Jayson Kerr, dancers, puppeteers, and violinist Mazz Swift, who performs his own compositions, “Grand Panorama” reproduces several kinds of visual entertainment that were popular in the 19th century. These include a crankie, a long illustrated scroll that is wound onto two spools, a magic lantern, an early slide projector, and a toy proscenium stage. To put this gently, audiences in the 19th century were probably more entranced than those in 2022 with these particular techniques. Sticking huge sculpted heads of Douglass on the bodies of two dancers also felt much more awkward than was surely intended.
Far more effective is the vivid display of a Frederick Douglass puppet’s arms and legs being stretched while we hear the story of his refusing to leave a railroad car: “..they clutched me, head, neck, and shoulders. But, in anticipation of the stretching to which I was about to be subjected, I had interwoven myself among the seats and the floor bolts gave way. In dragging me out, on this occasion, it must have cost the company twenty- five or thirty dollars, for I tore up seats and all.”
The coup of “Grand Panorama” occurs in the second half, when DuBois is talking about the group photographs he made for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris of American Negroes – teachers, biologists, fashion designers, families – “hundreds of photographs of Negro faces, typical faces, which hardly square with conventional American ideas.” And these photographs come to life — life-size cut-outs carried by the puppeteers, whose own faces occasionally peek through flaps in the photos.
“Grand Panorama” hardly squares with conventional American ideas of theater, which is one reason why it’s worth seeing.
La MaMa through March 6, 2022
Running time: one hour
Created, Designed, and Directed by Theodora Skipitares
Composer & Musician: Mazz Swift
Jayson Kerr as Narrator
Jane Catherine Shaw Lead Puppeteer/Chorus
Jorge Ariel Blanco Muñoz Puppeteer/Chorus
Kimori Zinnerman Puppeteer/Chorus
Alondra Soto Puppeteer/Chorus
Reggie Brown Dancer
Abdoulaye Koita Dancer
Rita Tuitt Dancer
Eleni Daferera Puppeteer/Crew