The New York Times. ‘The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker’ Review: An Unwieldy Ride By Elisabeth Vincentelli
January 26, 2020
A tale about the 18th-century African-American mathematician includes actors, a vibrant marching band and wackadoo puppetry.
Planets hang from the ceiling. Actors in oversize bobbleheads dance a quadrille. Puppets come in varying shapes and sizes. Then there are projections, a percolating marching band, a pulsing electronic beat: “The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker” is pretty trippy.
Which is appropriate since the show is partly about the exploration of the cosmos as an instrument of self-assertion and liberation.
Conceived, designed and directed by Theodora Skipitares, who has been active Off Off Broadway since the late 1970s, “Transfiguration” is theatrical time travel: to the 18th century of Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught African-American mathematician and astronomer, but also to the days — more recent but rapidly receding from memory — of a bohemian, avant-garde scene from the East Village that combined earnestness, engaged politics and wackadoo papier-mâché aesthetics.
Skipitares’s singular approach — let’s call it docu-activist puppet theater, a term as unwieldy as her shows — may frustrate audiences who prefer a bit more polish. Yet it is also ambitious, concerned with political engagement and community-building, and even endearing. (This particular style of art-making has become rather rare outside of La MaMa in Manhattan, where “Transfiguration” is running.)
Like Skipitares’s loose takes on Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and Lorca’s “Blood Wedding,” the new production deploys various storytelling devices and draws on a wide range of sources, using as a starting point the achievements of Banneker, a free black man who grew up on a Maryland farm and became a polymathic autodidact. His life is woven into a story about Ed Dwight, the first African-American pilot selected to be an astronaut trainee.
Both men are represented by puppets, voiced by the narrator Reginald L. Barnes, standing at a lectern. Tom Walker, who voices the puppet of the astronaut Frank Borman, quotes the NASA instructor Chuck Yeager: “Kennedy is using this to make racial equality, so do not speak to Ed Dwight, do not socialize with him, do not drink with him, do not invite him over to your house, and in six months he’ll be gone.”
Dwight, who never made it to the moon, ended up resigning from the Air Force.
On a lighter note, Alexandria Joesica Smalls portrays the actress Nichelle Nichols, best known for playing Lieutenant Uhura on “Star Trek.” She relays an anecdote about Martin Luther King Jr. confiding in her that he was as a Trekkie.
It’s obvious that the show establishes a connection, for these African-Americans, between the study of astronomy and the exploration of space on one hand, and civil rights on the other — just don’t expect much in the way of linear plotting. At their best, the scenes have an appealing D.I.Y. inventivity, as when actors silhouetted behind a scrim interact with brief animated films (the first by Holly Adams, the second by Trevor Legeret and Klara Vertes).
This being a Skipitares project, there are plenty of puppets, too. The Banneker figure is especially beautiful, a candle resting in its hollow torso, head and arms attached to a simple frame (Jane Catherine Shaw is credited with puppetry direction).
The seven representatives of Soul Tigers Marching Band (which is based at Benjamin Banneker Academy in Brooklyn) considerably punch up LaFrae Sci’s score and often directly participate in the action: At one point, two of them engage in a drum battle while we hear excerpts from letters between Banneker and Thomas Jefferson, in which the first pointedly reminds the second that he once claimed all men are created equal, only to keep some in captivity.
The show concludes with the musicians’ building to a cosmic trance. You can’t blame Skipitares for making the most of the Soul Tigers. Shakespeare’s stage directions probably didn’t include, “When in doubt, get a marching band,” but they should have.
The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker
Through Feb. 2 at La MaMa, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, lamama.org. Running time: 1 hour.