Louder and faster the children in the audience changed: "Timbuktu, Timbuktu, ancient city we've heard of you . . ." and Schroeder Cherry beamed. His life-size puppet, and African in a dashiki, had done its work, telling the story of Timbuktu from Cherry's lap. Now he put aside the puppet and emerged from the background to lead the children in their chant.
A week from Saturday, he'll be bringing his show of folktales, songs and black history to Saturday Morning at the National, a series of free programs for kid and anyone else who wanders in.
This Saturday, the Six O'Clock Company sings and dances to the tune of Mother Goose and other storybook lore. They're a group of young people from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New York and Washington. Other performers coming up will be a string band; a street musician and a mime group.
Some will be from far away, such as the Cambodian Dance Troupe; others will be local artists, such as Cherry, who graduated from McKinley High School and after college came back to Washington, becoming coordinator of outreach services at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. Besides arranging programs for school children, he puts on puppet shows there, too.
Of the first toys he had as a child, there were building blocks -- "I fantasized about being an architect" -- and puppets. "I never thought the puppets would come back," he said. "My parents were a little surprised."
In his college years he got the idea of doing something that excited him as a child, and hitting upon puppets he worked in Chicago as an apprentic to the troupe Black Street U.S.A.
Now one of his puppets, name of Preacher, is on display in the Corcoran's exhibit "Puppets: Art and Entertainment." Preacher won't be lonely, though: "He's got 250 other puppets with him," said Cherry, "some big names -- Lambchop, the Muppets, Howdy Doody."
Cherry could tell his tales in person, but he says, "I think a puppet holds attention longer. It's a type of magic."
He gets all sorts of reactions, from "I have never seen black puppets" to "I have never seen a puppet before," to "I never knew puppets didn't have to be for kids."
It's true that some part of you never really grows up. Kathy Barry, who runs Saturday Morning at the National, is amazed to be getting "lots of adults, especially retired people and people who live in the District. I hope the kid don't mind.
"They take the Metro in and become regulars," says Barry. "It's become a real mixture of the neighborhoods of Washington."