What an interesting hybrid puppet master Gary Jones has come up with. At the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater, a cast of three humans and several dozen supported characters is breaking down some traditional barriers with "Blackstreet U.S.A." The puppets and puppeteers are all black, which is fairly unusual in itself. What's even more so is the sense of motion swirling through the hour-long presentation. Seldom have puppets tended so strongly to resemble a dance company rather than a band of actors.
Jones' marvelously crafted puppets soar through the air like ballerinas, dance as lightly as Mr. Bojangles, boogie with disco fever and tap as madly as if they'd just arrived fromthe Harlem Renaissance. It's a celebration of life energies that absorbs the three puppeteers (Jones, Robert Vines and James Olive). For instance, there is an appropriately elegant and willowy Judith Jamison puppet which Jones manipulates gracefully through a solo turn; but as Santana's "Black Magic Woman" plays, the dance becomes a pas de deux as the puppeteer becomes the puppet's partner and the distinctions between wood and flesh diminish.
The highly expressive puppets incorporate disparate traditions: heads and bodies derive from ventriloquist puppets, the arms from rod-puppets. The free-swinging legs and the positioning of the puppeteers are inspired by the Japanese Bunraku style. Stylized movement and facial characteristics--full lips, flat noses and nappy hair--are used to "dramatically reinforce a positive self-image among black people and educate whites to the cultural standards of the largest minority in the U.S.A.," according to Jones. It's an ambitious project, but Jones manages to cover a lot of bases in his show, much of which revolves around "Tick Tock," a puppet searching for his own identity in a world of too many possibilities.
Jones and company are strongest in movement, a bit less sure in their vocal delivery (the music and songs are all pre-taped). It's fascinating to see a trio of puppets and performers defying the laws of gravity in a graceful ballet sequence, and even more interesting to observe the shifting relationships between puppets and puppeteers. But there are times when the action lingers on unchecked, particularly on the poignant "Mr. Bojangles," set to Nancy Wilson's languid vocals.
"Blackstreet U.S.A." is a kind of "Sophisticated Puppets" that focuses on black traditions and life style through emotional song and dance. It will be repeated through May 2, Wednesdays through Fridays at 10 and 11:30 a.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. For information, call 357-1700.