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THE WORLD IN THEIR HANDS: The Center for Puppetry Arts’ creative African-American ensemble are sharing art and inclusion with international audiences

ATLANTA VOICE — Their hands morph into talking, singing, dancing mop heads. Using recycled materials, African-American puppeteers Greg Hunter and Jimmica Collins know how to command a performance stage, capturing kids’ and their parents’ hearts with each gesture. It’s literally all in the hands, too.

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Atlanta-based artists Greg Hunter and Jimmica Collins on set for the Center for Puppetry Arts’ 2019 production of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ (Photo: Reginald Duncan / The Atlanta Voice)

By Candace Dantes

Their hands morph into talking, singing, dancing mop heads.

Using recycled materials, African-American puppeteers Greg Hunter and Jimmica Collins know how to command a performance stage, capturing kids’ and their parents’ hearts with each gesture.
It’s literally all in the hands, too.

“The process starts with the puppet,” said Collins, 27, who is starring as Beauty in Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts’ rendition of “Beauty and the Beast.” “I find my voice, which this puppet’s voice is fun with sass. Then, I work on movements.”

Beauty’s groovy Mama is played by Hunter, who naturally draws from everyone’s Southern hairdresser, aunts, cousins and friends, to develop the urban-dwelling character.

The two puppetry artists’ leading presence in this 2019 summertime love tale signifies a cultural shift in who exactly is telling the world of puppetry’s stories.

African-Americans playing prominent roles both on the stage and behind the scenes isn’t taken lightly at the center — America’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to the art of puppetry. It puts diversity and inclusion at the forefront of its productions and museum exhibits yearlong.

“What we do is universal,” said Hunter, also 27. “It’s not about us. It’s about bringing our puppets to life in a way that’s relatable to different cultures and people coming from different places.”

The Actors

The center’s main stage is where the magic happens.

For the past month, Hunter and Collins have given the popular musical a hip-hop spin in a puppetry style known as Czech black theater. The actors are clothed in all-black attire with a tight light only curtaining the puppets.

The two collaborate with a nearly 15-member crew of other puppeteers and stage/ musical/ lighting/ sound/ scenic designers to pull off the cleverly crafted, well-illuminated performance.

A real “quitting time” horn blows in one scene. In another, leaves actually look and sound like they’re rustling in the wind.

“From the sound to light effects, everything we perform is in sync,” said Collins, an experimental theater artist who also shows off her Baptist church singing vocals as Beauty. “Working together, we’re able to bring the puppets’ world to life.”

In fact, Beauty is so in tune with Mama that young audience members instantly laugh, turn to their own mothers and whisper, “That’s you, momma. That’s you!”

While Collins is in her fifth production at the center, this production is Hunter’s debut regarding his acting and singing chops. They both earn standing ovations and often random fist-led jumps from kid viewers.

“I play a character who says everything our moms say,” Hunter said.

Hunter said he learned of the center’s acting opportunities after participating in a Pinewood Atlanta Studios puppet-animated show called “Moon and Me.” Pinewood, located in Fayetteville, Georgia, is the second-largest purpose-built film and entertainment studio in North America and where many of the Marvel films have been filmed.

“I learned so much about how technical puppetry is,” Hunter said, “and that was something I wanted to continue. That’s how I ended up working here with such a great group of creative people.”

(Left to right) Education coordinator Liz Fagbile, teaching artist Paulette Richards and collections manager Yanique Leonard are a few creative staff members helping to tell puppetry stories in Atlanta. (Photo: Reginald Duncan / The Atlanta Voice)

(Left to right) Education coordinator Liz Fagbile, teaching artist Paulette Richards and collections manager Yanique Leonard are a few creative staff members helping to tell puppetry stories in Atlanta. (Photo: Reginald Duncan / The Atlanta Voice)

 

The Architect

While Hunter and Collins headline the main stage, Yanique Leonard ensures Big Bird and Miss Piggy are fluffed and fancy for public showcasing.

The collections manager is responsible for the care of more than 5,000 artifacts — including 500 Jim Henson puppets.

“I’m all about preventative conservation,” said the 27-year-old, afro-wearing museum professional. “I have to make sure the puppets are comfortable in their cases and in the right environment for long-term preservation.”

With a background in public history and museum studies, Leonard also conducts in-depth research to give museum visitors documented stories connected to the puppets’ creation.

She works between the archives and center’s Worlds of Puppetry Museum, which includes Jim Henson and global collections.

Visit the global collection today and view marionettes from American masterpiece and opera, “Porgy and Bess.” The 1935 Broadway production featured classically trained, African-American singers.

“It’s a cool story who we acquired marionettes Sportin’ Life, Mingo and Peter the Honey Man from the New England Marionette Opera (NEMO),” Leonard said. “NEMO was America’s only opera company performed entirely with marionettes and that staged a full puppetry production of ‘Porgy and Bess’ in 1994. Five years later, the opera burned and more than 200 handcrafted marionettes were destroyed. Fortunately, frozen weather preserved these three puppets.”

Their new home: Center for Puppetry Arts.

Sammy Davis Jr. fans will appreciate marionette Sportin’ Life, who is sculpted after the legendary entertainer and star of the 1959 film.

“I get to care for and experience puppets the average person will never see,” said Leonard. “I encourage anyone to come into this field of study if they’re passionate about culture, history and stories we need to share with our communities.”

The Authorities

Three floors up from Leonard’s puppetry archive and library, Liz Fagbile teaches youth how to build their very own puppet.

“Depending on the show style the puppetry artists are performing throughout the year, I help create puppet projects around each theme,” said the 30-year-old education coordinator. “Some of these kids are experiencing a puppet for the first time in their lives. I’m contributing to an important memory in their childhood.”

After kids finish constructing their puppets, Fagbile provides a colorful curtain for family role-playing and photo ops.
What she’s realized in this position: Puppetry has no age limit.

“For 45 minutes to an hour, the kids aren’t the only ones getting into our learning activities,” Fagbile said. “At first, adults are kind of stand-offish. I encourage their curiosity, and that helps them get involved. They instantly get in touch with their creativity — sometimes reconnecting with talents they lost along the way.”

Outside the classroom, Fagbile orchestrates outreach programming, staff scheduling and the inventory for puppetry supplies.

“I started out as a volunteer five years ago,” she said. “I fell in love with this magical place. I’ve been able to expand my knowledge of puppetry, arts and entertainment.”

Education extends further with teaching artist and docent Paulette Richards. She has served as a docent in the Worlds of Puppetry Museum since 2015. Her introduction to Jim Henson’s animatronic puppets inspired the former English professor to create her own rudimentary robots as learning tools.

“It’s funny,” Richards, 56, said. “I’m really engaged in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics — known as STEAM education — in a way I would have never imagined. It’s taken me in so many directions.”
Richards’ work has traveled the nation. She has taught animatronic puppetry workshops at the center, Georgia Tech’s Hollis Innovation Academy and Puppeteers of America’s National Puppetry Festival.

This past year she served as co-curator of the “Living Objects African-American Puppetry” exhibit at the University of Connecticut’s Ballard Institute and Museum. The exhibit analyzed the uncomfortable legacy of blackface minstrelsy in American puppetry.

It also highlighted the work of contemporary African-American artists who use puppetry to reflect a more authentic African-American heritage.

“The research I conduct is crucial to the types of stories we tell or have others tell about our culture,” Richards said. “I want to make sure the stories that came from Africa to our porches and are now part of theater productions are accurate and representative of us.

The Center for Puppetry Arts understands this notion and has put people of color in a position to continue to contribute to puppetry as a whole.”

This article originally appeared in The Atlanta Voice.

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Brittney Griner Sentenced to More than 9 years in Russian Prison

NNPA NEWSWIRE — The lawyers of WNBA star Brittney Griner, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, said in a written statement following the verdict announcement that the court ignored all the evidence they presented and that they will appeal the decision. “We are very disappointed by the verdict. As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone regardless of nationality,” Attorneys Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in a statement.

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By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

WNBA Superstar Brittney Griner has been sentenced to more than 9 years in a Russian prison following her conviction on drug charges.

Her lawyers called the verdict a disappointment and vowed to appeal.

The lawyers of WNBA star Brittney Griner, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, said in a written statement following the verdict announcement that the court ignored all the evidence they presented and that they will appeal the decision.

“We are very disappointed by the verdict. As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone regardless of nationality,” Attorneys Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in a statement.

“The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea. This contradicts the existing legal practice.

“Taking into account the amount of the substance (not to mention the defects of the expertise) and the plea, the verdict is absolutely unreasonable. We will certainly file an appeal,” they added.

Russian officials contended that Griner committed the crime on purpose. They also levied a fine totaling about $16,400 American dollars on the basketball star.

Authorities arrested Griner on Feb. 17 at an airport in Moscow after finding less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage.

She has been detained since then.

Recently, American officials revealed that the Biden-Harris administration had offered notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for the release of Griner and Paul Whelan.

“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” President Biden said.

“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

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Report: Human Rights Violations in Prisons Throughout Southern United States Cause Disparate and Lasting Harm in Black Communities  

NNPA NEWSWIRE — “The U.S. has long failed to live up to its international human rights treaty obligations on eliminating racial discrimination, perhaps more so in the area of mass incarceration and prison conditions than in any other context,” said Lisa Borden, Senior Policy Counsel, International Advocacy at the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

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NNPA Newswire

NEW YORK – The Southern Prisons Coalition, a group of civil and human rights organizations, submitted a new report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination on the devastating consequences of incarceration on Black people throughout the southern United States.

With the long-term goal of eliminating all forms of racial discrimination in the criminal legal system, including the carceral system, the report describes the widespread, disparate harms resulting from the arrests, harsh prison sentences, and incarceration on Black communities.

The report also cites the devastating impacts of solitary confinement, prison labor, the school to prison pipeline, and incarceration of parents on Black families.

On August 8, 2022, the UN will review the United States’ compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination for the first time since 2014.

Among the ongoing stark racial disparities throughout prisons in the southern United States, Black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated in state prisons.

In states like Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas, where Black communities comprise 38% of the total population, Black individuals account for as much as 67% of the total incarcerated population.

While incarcerated, Black people are more than eight times more likely to be placed in solitary confinement, and they are 10 times more likely to be held there for exceedingly long periods of time.

By submitting the report to the United Nations, the Southern Prisons Coalition hopes to solicit concrete recommendations from the UN Committee as well as commitments from the United States delegation about their plans to address systemic issues in the United States prison system, particularly in the South.

According to the report, several states in the United States have also failed to meet several of the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the treatment of incarcerated people, including:

  • Work should help to prepare incarcerated people for their release from prison, including life and job skills;
  • Safety measures and labor protections for incarcerated workers should be the same as those that cover workers who are not incarcerated;
  • Incarcerated workers should receive equitable pay, be able to send money home to their families, and have a portion of their wages set aside to be given to them upon release.

“The U.S. has long failed to live up to its international human rights treaty obligations on eliminating racial discrimination, perhaps more so in the area of mass incarceration and prison conditions than in any other context,” said Lisa Borden, Senior Policy Counsel, International Advocacy at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“We hope the Committee will help to shine a light on these very dark truths and prompt the U.S. to take its obligation to make significant improvements more seriously.”

“The abuses of forced labor are inextricably tied to racial discrimination in our nation,” said Jamila Johnson, Deputy Director at the Promise of Justice Initiative.

“In Louisiana, for instance, people are still sent into the fields to labor by hand in dangerously high heat indexes, for little to no compensation, and with brutal enforcement reminiscent of slavery and the era of ‘convict leasing’.”

“This report reveals the suffering of Black people in southern U.S. prisons, whose stories of marginalization and discrimination echo the racial subjugation of slavery and convict leasing during our country’s most shameful past,” said Antonio L. Ingram II, Assistant Counsel at the Legal Defense Fund.

“Despite widespread knowledge of the longstanding racial inequalities in the criminal legal and carceral systems, the United States continues to allow egregious human rights violations to persist for Black incarcerated people in violation of international law. This report serves as a sobering reminder of how far we need to go.”

Read the full report here.

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Celebrate your birthday with 10 free items

NNPA NEWSWIRE — Is your birthday coming up, and you’re not sure how to celebrate? Beat the summer heat by grabbing free ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery, or a daiquiri at WhoDaq Daquiris “The Daiquiri Shoppe.” Not in the mood for sweets? Head over to Jersey Mike’s or McDonald’s. Check out the rest of these Top 10 places giving out free items on your special day.

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By Angelina Liu, Entertainment Editor of The Trendsetter / Texas Metro News

Is your birthday coming up, and you’re not sure how to celebrate? Beat the summer heat by grabbing free ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery, or a daiquiri at WhoDaq Daquiris “The Daiquiri Shoppe.” Not in the mood for sweets? Head over to Jersey Mike’s or McDonald’s. Check out the rest of these Top 10 places giving out free items on your special day.

1. Chocolate Secrets

At Chocolate Secrets, located at 3926 Oak Lawn Ave, Dallas, TX 75219, you can celebrate your birthday by getting one free piece of candy under their candy cases.

2. WhoDaq Daquiris “The Daiquiri Shoppe”

Head to WhoDaq Daquiris “The Daiquiri Shoppe”, located at 684 W Pioneer Pkwy Suite 100, Grand Prairie, Texas 75051, to claim a free small personal daiquiri on your birthday. Quench your thirst with signature flavors such as “Strawberry Shortcake” or “Bahama Mama.”

3. Sephora

Sign up for a free, Beauty Insider account and receive your choice of 250 bonus points, Laura Mercier, Amika or Tatcha sets on your birthday. The choice of powders, lipsticks and skincare is bound to make you look fabulous for your special day.

4. Starbucks

Need a quick pick-me-up on your birthday? Starbucks has it covered! Join the Starbucks Rewards Program seven days prior to your birthday and make one purchase. Starbucks will then email you a coupon for a free food or beverage item two days before your birthday. The birthday reward qualifies for anything on the menu, including any size handcrafted drink or food item.

5. Jersey Mike’s

In the mood for a sub? Head over to Jersey Mike’s and receive a free sub and drink. Make sure to sign up for the Jersey Mike’s Subs Email Club prior to your birthday to receive this reward. Nothing tastes quite like melted cheese and meat in between a toasted baguette, along with an icy cold drink.

6. The Cheesecake Factory

Celebrating with friends? Tell your server it’s your birthday and receive a free treat as well as a song. It may be mildly embarrassing, but hey, it’s free!

7. Culver’s

Need something cold and sweet to beat the Texas heat? Head to Culver’s for a free sundae when you sign up for their rewards program. The sweet creaminess will surely not disappoint.

8. IHOP

Want to indulge in a sweet breakfast before birthday festivities? Join the International Bank of Pancakes rewards program to receive a free stack of pancakes on your birthday. Pair your pancakes with a choice of chocolate chips, syrup, fresh fruit or a dollop of whipped cream.

9. McDonald’s

Need a snack before embarking on your next birthday adventure? Download the McDonald’s app and join MyMcDonald’s Rewards to receive free large fries. Mmm, the taste and smell of fresh, perfectly salted french fries.

10. Smoothie King

Want to celebrate your birthday with a healthier option? Enjoy a birthday smoothie at Smoothie King. Download the Smoothie King app to receive this offer.

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Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson
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