January 29, 2020
Dramaturg: Andrea Balis
Director: Theodora Skipitares
Reviewer: Alithea Howes
he Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker, currently at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre wildly creative tribute to the life and legacy of Benjamin Banneker, a self taught genius of astronomy, whose obscurity is absolutely criminal.
This is the show that all devised theatre aspires to be, but often falls short of. Largely composed of quotes, letters, and historical documents, the text is threaded together by dramaturge Andrea Balis into a series of 12 vignettes. Each vignette is depicted in a different way; through dance, music, animation, voiceover, and a variety of different puppetry styles. In a lesser show, this would be too chaotic to enjoy. But The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker remains cohesive throughout, tied together by a lovingly handmade aesthetic and the unifying underscore created by LaFrae Sci.
The variety of theatrical craft on display is nothing short of stunning. The puppetry designed by Theodora Skipitares and directed by Jane Catherine Shaw, calls to to mind the work of Julie Taymor, while maintaining its own unique flavor. LaFrae Sci’s music is not only the backdrop of this show — working with Soul Tigers Marching Band, it often steps into the role of a major character. It welcomes the audience into the theatre, it tells parts of the story. The very use of a marching band blurs the line between musical performance and dance.
This blending is one of the most enjoyable things about the show. Music shades into dance which shades into puppetry. Projected animation (by Holly Adams, Trevor Legeret & Klara Vertes) sometimes turns into shadow puppetry. This gives the feeling of a community working closely together and makes already fascinating subject matter into a delightfully entertaining experience.
There were times when this reviewer didn’t know where to look but one can hardly complain about this embarrassment of riches. There were also times when this reviewer had a hard time following the thread of the other characters, some who were related to Banneker, others who were inspired by him, still more were simply people whose experiences were related to space (i.e. an astronaut or the first Black American to be recruited by NASA, or Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on Star Trek.) but this was a minor confusion that could be easily remedied.
Educational but never pedantic, inspiring but honest about the very real obstacle of racism in the US, the tone of The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker threads a very interesting needle. The heartbreaking attempts of his white contemporaries to diminish or destroy his accomplishments are balanced by joyous awe of his expansive genius.
Viewers were left with a thirst to learn more, not just about Banneker, but the other people quoted in the show. Unfortunately, the program did not contain a list of sources or all the names of the people portrayed, something that ones hopes will be added in the future.