Like the stars themselves in "Black Puppets and Puppetry," it's easy to underappreciate the person pulling the strings for the new exhibit at Orlando Public Library. That powerhouse is Beverly J. Robinson, a 22-year veteran professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and the visiting curator of the offbeat showcase that serves as an early kick off for Eatonville's Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities (Jan. 27-30) as well as Black History Month (February).
Robinson has combined delicate antique marionettes -- like the turn-of-the-century, ebony-colored "Brown Face Chinese," which looks Mongolian in influence but came from China -- and contemporary people-sized furry friends, for an effect that's whimsical but powerful: The puppets offer a visual lesson in African-American history and culture.
Under the auspices of the Hurston Festival, organized by N.Y. Nathiri's Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community Inc. (PEC), for which Robinson is a national planner, the collection she's curated showcases more than 30 characters from around the world. Robinson borrowed from private collections, museums, universities and puppeteers, many times calling on personal favors -- like the retired black Sesame Street character Kingston Livingston.
Other puppets came compliments of Michelee Puppets, the 15-year-old nonprofit local troupe that sensitizes kids to youth issues, including violence, drugs and tolerance. The University of South Florida also contributed from its collection.
The puppet subculture is a study itself, starting with the passion of the craftsmen, performers and appreciators, alike. Primarily a teacher of theater criticism, Robinson is an extreme admirer and scholar of the art form; she's well-networked and devoted to the craft.
As Robinson and crew carefully opened the packages for installation, reactions were sheer delight, especially when the characters were put into play and took on a life of their own. It's performance magic and an ancient art.
"But it's not just for children and has probably been one of the most ancient educational forums that we have had in the history of humankind -- all based on oral tradition and performance," says Robinson.
For sure, there's much to learn beyond the playfulness: Look at the African-American stereotypes captured in a World War II-era tap-dancing duo. Think about the debut of "The Little Black Panthers & the Fuzz" hand puppets used to empower children at Huey P. Newton's free breakfast programs in San Francisco during the '60s. These are but a few of the little dark secrets that come to light under Robinson's inspired direction.
For more of Robinson's enrichment, attend the "On Black Puppets and Puppeteers" presentation 10 a.m. Jan. 29 at Orlando Public Library, along with James V. Burks, directory of the Ebony Showcase Theatre and the William Grant Still Art Center.