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Q&A: Paperhand Puppet Intervention on connecting their audiences to their ancestors

A puppeteer operating a large puppet depicting a Black woman with long braids. The puppet is looking at a woman and touching her shoulder in a performance.
Anna Norwood
Courtesy of Paperhand Puppet Intervention
Paperhand Puppet Intervention and Grammy nominees Pierce and Nnenna Freelon are performing a show Wednesday at DPAC called, “Where Our Spirits Reside.”

Giant puppets are teaming up with a couple of Grammy nominees to connect people to their ancestors and the natural world. Paperhand Puppet Intervention and Pierce and Nnenna Freelon are putting on a show Wednesday at DPAC called, “Where Our Spirits Reside.”

Paperhand's mastermind Donovan Zimmerman and Pierce Freelon joined WUNC recently to talk about what it’s like been like to perform puppet shows for more than two decades.

This is an excerpt of an edited transcript of that conversation. You can hear the full interview by clicking the LISTEN button at the top of this post.

Donovan Zimmerman: "It is our 23rd annual and we've been making these giant puppets, you know, larger—some people say larger than life, though I don't really know how big life is—pretty big. But I would say they're just bigger than human beings, usually, so they're outsized characters, and sometimes up on really tall bamboo poles and stilts. And we also do shadows. So it's a mixed discipline, type of show that we've been doing in the area, trying to become a tradition in people's lives for the past 23 years."

Pierce, how do you and your mom interact with these giant puppet, some of which take many humans to move around stage?

Pierce Freelon: "It is really kind of awe-inspiring to be the hand of a giant, you know, mystical creature, or to be underneath a grieving giant woman who is telling stories and singing songs through my mom's voice. It's kind of surreal, but really beautiful, very powerful. And I feel just honored to be rockin' with the Paperhand squad."

Donovan, can you tell us a little bit about the story that we will see on stage?

Zimmerman: "So it's a combination of multiple stories. It involves honoring our ancestors--we brought in stories from the cast, including Nnenna. And so she gets to interact with some of her ancestors in a form that we've given them. It sort of scales in and out from close and personal to universal, and stories that honor our ancestral beings that basically make up the Earth itself, animals and plants and the elementals of the Earth. And just not shying away from loss, and sometimes what we leave behind, but also what we carry on with us and how we continue to celebrate life. By honoring those who have come before us."

Freelon: "We are in intimate communion with the direct ancestors of several cast members. But also, at the beginning of every show, we asked audience members to name their ancestors. And we had an altar behind the stage where we invited audience members to write down the name of their loved one, and to put it on that altar. So it really was a true communal, beloved communal experience. It was just really beautiful, really powerful, very moving, and a lot of fun."

Zimmerman: "It's a dynamic that I love being a part of is just the building of the puppets than the rehearsing and creation of the show, when it goes on. It just feels very connected. And that's very much what Paperhand is here to do is to connect people with the creative spirit and connect them with each other and connect them with the Earth as a living thing."

You've incorporated a live band and original music into these shows. Now, is that going to happen at DPAC?

Freelon: "The Paperhand band, which is an incredible collective of local musicians have written original music, as well as taking songs from me and my mother's album, “AnceStars,” and brought them to life. There's a really fun part of the show, where a mushroom pops out of a tree that's fallen over and the mushroom has like a dance battle with the frog. It's like one of my favorite live experiences ever performing that song in front of a bunch of kids, while the mushrooms doing like this crazy little wiggle dance and the frogs hopping around.

"The song is about how when something dies and something passes away, a new life is possible through these little mycelial organisms. So you know you don't need to look farther than nature to see kind of the beauty of life and death and transition and transformation. And that's what this show really brings to light."

I think there's a great fear, at least in the West, of death. It kind of hangs over people. It's easy for me to talk about because I lost my mom in the fall. But there are moments when you feel truly engaged with your life. They are moments of birth and they can be moments of death and they can be moments of creativity or friendship or companionship or family.

As you sat and thought about putting this show together, and Pierce, the record you did with your mom, were you thinking about how we shouldn't be afraid of talking about these things?

Zimmerman: "Absolutely. I mean, we thought about it a lot. And we talked at long length many times with, we had a brain trust of Pierce and his mom and CJ Suitt, a poet laureate of Chapel Hill, and—

Freelon: "Jaki Shelton Greene."

Zimmerman: "Jaki Yeah, absolutely. And we sat and talked on that subject very much. And Nnenna very much has become almost like a priestess of grief. She really knows and has delved in because she lost a lot. It's universal, even if we haven't been hit by it directly, it's in our lives, we come to understand at a very early age that living involves loss and grieving shows the love that we had for those things and in very real ways. We just decided to take the audience with us and not make it though just like a total show about sadness, but to like, have some bits that tap into that deep well of grief. But then, to then breathe, expand out and have it be about the celebration of life while we're here."

Freelon: "You know, losing a parent is one of the hardest things I've experienced. My mom has been a mentor to me in that regard, because she has tapped into art to help process her grief. And there's a moment in the show where we remember my father, Phil Freelon, and how he used to take me out to go fishing. There's like a giant spirit ancestor of my dad right there that I'm cradling and we catch a fish and yank it out of the Eno, and there's something about that, that is sad because I don't get to experience those moments anymore. But it's also, it's a blessing to be able to pour creatively into sharing the love that my dad had for me with the audience. This is a loving, tender, full relationship. And we honor our ancestors by celebrating the abundance and the richness of that love. And to be able to have a creative medium, like puppetry like music, like storytelling, like poetry, to be able to process that stuff has been healing for me as an artist. And I think we've heard over and over and over again that the audience also comes away feeling very healed. So yeah, come through. Pull up at DPAC and get you some healing on Valentine's Day, baby."

Grammy nominees Pierce and Nnenna Freelon are joining forces with Donovan Zimmerman and Paperhand Puppet Intervention for the show, "Where Our Spirits Reside," on Feb. 14 at DPAC.

Nnenna and Pierce Freelon also joined Due South for a Valentine's Day edition of Southern Mixtape. Hear them talk love songs across generations with Jeff Tiberii and Leoneda Inge.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
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