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Black Cherry Puppet Slamwich

Decades on, a local puppet troupe remains an animating force

Photo: Frank Klein, License: N/A

Frank Klein

Black Cherry Puppet Theater Co-Founder Michael Lamason pulls the strings.


Black Cherry Puppet Slamwich

At the Black Cherry Puppet Theater June 2 at 7 and 9:30 p.m.

More at weekly.citypaper.com

In the field of digital animation there is a problem called the “uncanny valley.” After a certain point, the more lifelike an animated person becomes, the weirder it starts to look. Instead of seeming like a lifelike cartoon, it begins to seem like a fucked-up real person. Puppeteers don’t have this problem, and in this world of increasingly sophisticated CGI and professionalized entertainment, the homespun quality of puppet shows has become more appealing. The Muppets and Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 2004 puppet spoof Team America: World Police have their own appeal, but the underground world of DIY puppeteers, with a nod to foodie culture, might be said to provide “slow entertainment.”

If this scene has a local godfather—or a Geppetto as the case may be—it is Michael Lamason, co-founder and director of Southwest Baltimore’s Black Cherry Puppet Theater. Lamason explains what originally drew him to the world of puppets and led him to found Black Cherry Theater in 1980, with a single unlikely word: “money.”

“Back then, before Reagan’s austerity cuts, the city had enough money to fund not one but two puppet theaters to go around to the rec centers,” he explains. The money didn’t last, but Lamason’s passion for puppetry did. “You get hooked,” he says. “Puppetry draws on all your faculties. You’re modeling and sculpting one day, performing the next, and administering an event or teaching kids the next.” A majority of his work—and the theater’s funding—still comes from his performances and workshops for children (as he talks, he is packing up equipment for a school show the next morning). But there is a growing movement of puppetry for adults centered around the Puppet Slam Network, a national organization that, according to its web site, promotes work “at the nexus of vaudeville, burlesque, and performance art through the intersection of experimental theater, art, music, and dance as a viable alternative to the culturally homogenous digital mass media.”

The row of three demented-looking frogs hanging from a shelf high up on the wall beside a giant blue head with a long nose and dozens of other hand-crafted puppets and masks ensure that no one could mistake what Black Cherry is doing for “culturally homogenous digital mass media.” On a recent weekday, Lamason and two collaborators—Valeska Populoh, an organizer, and Kevin Sherry, a performer—prepared the painstakingly renovated pair of once-dilapidated rowhouses, and their minds, for the Black Cherry Puppet Slamwich, Baltimore’s version of the puppet slam. “Baltimore has a real inferiority complex when it comes to puppets and other cities,” Lamason says, but the puppet slam is a perfect fit with the city’s eclectic and sometimes ragtag art scene.

“Kevin and I met at MICA [the Maryland Institute College of Art],” Populoh says. “We were both doing other work because we didn’t know you could do this.” As she started to see more puppet performances, Populoh became inspired. In 2010, she traveled to the O’Neill National Puppetry Conference in Connecticut, where she met Marsian De Lellis, the director of the Puppet Slam Network—initially spearheaded by Heather Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter. Populoh, who had already begun to work with Lamason, brought the idea back to Baltimore, where Black Cherry has now hosted seven slams since 2010.

Sherry, a children’s book author, was drawn to puppetry because it allowed him to tell a story visually. For his last slam performance in March, Sherry created a gruesome-looking hand puppet out of spray foam and resin. “For the lips I was trying to use something inflatable, but it just didn’t work,” he says, slipping his hand into the puppet. Instead, he painted the fingers of a glove so that they looked like lips and teeth. “It was a genie,” he says of the creature on his hand. “It was a very reflective piece. I’m always a character in my work, but it was really explicit here.” Sherry was 29 and going through a rough patch, so he called on a genie (the puppet) who took him backward and forward in time. “When I went back to 19, I realized there was nothing in my head,” he says. “I was so stupid. I was like, ‘Take me back,’ and finally I realized that I wasn’t in such a bad place.”

Other regular performers at Black Cherry include the Porch Puppets, a company founded by C. Ryan Patterson, his wife Rachel Valsing, and their friend Mary Pulcinella. At Black Cherry’s October 2011 slam, they performed a piece that melded the children’s story Millions of Cats with their lives in Waverly. “We have so many stray cats in the neighborhood,” Patterson says. “Every time we opened the window they’d claw through the screens and we’d come home to find all these cats inside. All of our work is very personal and very Baltimore.”

In addition to performing two shadow-puppet pieces—one of which uses live actors casting the shadows—at an upcoming Slamwich on June 2, they will be living up to their name later in the month with a puppet show block party, where they will perform a puppet show from their porch. “We loved the slam,” Patterson says. “But we wanted to do something in our neighborhood of Greater Waverly, in the community, so we decided to do puppet shows on the porch and we got a Baltimore Office for the Promotion of the Arts Community Grant to do it,” Patterson says. “We live on the back side of the same block as Yau Bros. Chinese restaurant, which has become notorious for the violence there and so we wanted to get people into the street for something good.”

This is the same community spirit that has motivated Black Cherry since Lamason founded it three decades ago. “So many things in this neighborhood have come and gone,” Populoh says. “But Black Cherry has really become a foundation or a pillar for this community.”

The Porch Puppets will perform from their front porch at 513 E. 30th St. on June 23 at 5 p.m.

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