An exhilarating brief performance by the high school Soul Tigers Marching Band greets the audience of The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker as they enter La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre. This euphoric fantasia was inspired by its creator Theodora Skipitares’ hearing and enjoying the group perform a year and a half ago. They’re from Brooklyn’s Benjamin Banneker Academy and Ms. Skipitares was unfamiliar with the school’s namesake and did research. Through an hour of puppetry, dance and spoken word we learn about this relatively obscure, near mythological figure.
Benjamin Banneker (1731 –1806) was a free African-American born in Baltimore, Maryland. After his death, a fire destroyed much of the written documentation of his existence. His father was confirmed to have been a former slave and according to differing biographers his mother was either a free black woman or the daughter of a white indentured servant. Benjamin would grow up to run his family’s farm. He relocated to Pennsylvania, and with little education became an astronomer, an author of notable almanacs, a correspondent of Thomas Jefferson, and a surveyor assisting in drawing the boundaries of Washington, D.C., before dying in a log cabin.
The show was conceived, directed and designed by Skipitares. Her treatment of these biographical details is that of a fanciful saga with the awestruck tone of a children’s book. There’s a neat bit involving Lt. Uhura from the original Star Trek in her red uniform on a miniature Enterprise starship, recounting meeting Dr. Martin Luther King. Skipitares’ thrilling staging is in concert with the witty elements of presentation. Many whimsical scenery pieces are suspended from the ceiling and are lowered and raised.
Puppetry director Jane Catherine Shaw often has performers wearing large striking puppet heads as they perform Edisa Weeks and Jasmine Oton’s wild choreography set to composer LaFrae Sci’s frenetic score. Neon hula hoops get a lot of use. Beaming actor Reginald L. Barnes is off to the side and with his ingratiating warm voice enacts the role of Banneker and narrates.
Donald Eastman and Skipitares’ crafty scenic design has integral pieces as well as cutouts of people and accommodates Holly Adams, Trevor Legeret and Klara Vertes’ animations and Jim Freeman’s special projects. Lighting designer Jeffrey Nash’s arresting and varying efforts perfectly accompany the actions. Video designer and voice recordist Kay Hines contributes to the high-tech artistry on display.
The bright ensemble consists of puppeteers Eleni Daferera, Nishan Ganimian, Chris Ignacio, Alexandria Joesica Smalls, Ms. Shaw, Tom Walker and Timothy Atkinson, and dancers Adeoba Awosika, AnnJeane Cato, Isabel Elliott, Halle Gillett, Janee Jeanbaptiste and Kimori Zinnerman. Soul Tigers Marching Band is comprised of Alora Brooks, Ava DeLeon, Arron Jones, Alex Patterson, Nathalya Pericles, Ionie Pumarejo and Dennis Usher, under percussion director Osei K. Smith.
Through Skipitares’ visionary talents and cunning command of narrative, The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker is a stimulating, informative and entertaining exploration.
The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker (January 23 – February 2, 2020)
La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East Fourth Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.lama.org
Running time: one hour without an intermission