An Only-in-L.A. Family: “Blackstreet” Puppets

This is not a review.

It’s a meditation, and a call.  It was inspired by seeing a unique piece of LA theatre so rare it’s not yet booked for another performance.

I’m talking about the Blackstreet USA Puppet Theatre, and its creator, Gary Jones.

The Blackstreet family

The Blackstreet family

You may have heard of them — or seen them, at their former theatre on Washington Blvd., at a school, at a birthday party — some time in the last 30 years.   Jones and his puppet actors, numbering nearly 200, like to stay busy.

Last weekend, they performed just down Washington from their old digs, at Ebony Rep.  In the rehearsal hall of this fine modern facility, which is now their home, Jones and 10 of his troupe did two shows — a matinee for children, and a later cabaret for adults.

The evening show has some gently “adult” material, but it’s clearly aimed at grownups who still carry little kids inside.  A house slave tells a wicked tale on her master, a ballerina joins Jones in a flowing pas de deux, a chanteuse in gold lamé vamps Roberta Flack’s classic cover of “Impossible Dream” — and between numbers, a cheeky young teen sits on Jones’ knee, tirelessly angling for the spotlight while accepting (with a sigh) her role as co-emcee.

All the puppets are Black.  They wear the many skin tones we lump together with that word.  They share pronounced features — full lips, flat noses, nappy hair — that announce their African genes.  Their humor, from the house slave’s sly wit to the little girl’s pleading and tricking, has the distinct “up from under” flavor of Black experience in America.  And their art, when they yield their two-foot-high bodies to dance or song, is … human.

Jones’ work is both a passion and a mission.  When he fell in love with puppets as a boy, at Chicago’s famed Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera, he apprenticed himself there and created a puppet Porgy and Bess.  On the strength of its success, he founded Blackstreet in 1974, and started to train young puppeteers; soon, they were touring the US and Europe, Latin America and Asia.

But after 10 years, exhausted by his non-art duties, he closed the Chicago shop and moved to L.A.  He thought he’d try TV and film. Once here, he found himself trying to help mend a community torn by police and civilian riots, trying to rebuild its children’s self-confidence.

Working alone — or, as he puts it, “as Blackstreet’s sole human member” — Jones took his fellow artists of fabric, wood and resin into schools all over LA and then around the country.  They get into scrapes kids recognize, learning to deal wisely with sex, with drugs, with bullying and conflict.  “In the two weeks he was here,” says one  principal, “we didn’t suspend a single student for fighting.”

He also created “The Yuppets,” a dozen young urban adult puppets who perform a satiric play for grownups.  It reminds us to keep our eyes on what matters — not on the money prizes offered for going up the corporate ladder or down gangster alley.

And always, since he started working in that theatre above the  Chicago restaurant, Jones celebrates Blackness.  His puppets reflect the endless varieties of physical beauty — and the endless wealth of story, dance and song — manifested by Africa’s great-grandchildren.

Gary Jones

Gary Jones

How rare is Gary Jones’ work?

With my limited skills, I could not google a single “Black” or “African-American” puppet theatre.  I did easily find several dozen puppet troupes, and a national organization with more than 100 member companies.  I also found two Massachusetts profs who got a grant this month to create a theatre piece about local Black history.  No puppets — but they came up third on an image search.   Go figure.

What I figure is, Jones’ Black puppet troupe is as rare as hen’s teeth.

And even if it were not rare, Blackstreet is unique.

Jones is one of the leading creators and refiners of “wand puppets,” moved from underneath by wands instead of from above by strings (“marionettes”).  This and his lifelong love of dance have also led him to develop an unprecedented performance style: While he does at times hide beneath a tiny puppet stage, he can usually be found dancing in front of it with his puppets.

“I love the way he involves himself,” says Bob Baker, impresario of LA’s oldest and largest marionette theatre.  “He gets on the floor and dances, and becomes part of the show.”

At past 70, Gary Jones is still trim, and moves with easy strength and speed.  But I’m of a similar age,  and I know what that costs.  I know, too, that we won’t last forever.

Someday — decades away, if we’re lucky — a family of 200 will lose their father.  It has to happen, and we can’t stop it.

On that day, the Black puppets of LA — who may be the only Black puppet theatre troupe in the nation — will sit motionless, silent.  They may or may not shed tears, but they will begin to gather dust.  And the life work of a rare, unique artist will begin to disappear.

That does not have to happen.  We can do something about it.

We can call Ebony Rep and ask when the next shows are planned, and then go to them.  And take our children or grandchildren, or our friends’ children.

We can visit the Washington Street theatre even when there’s no show, and see the puppets in their gallery.  We can check out Jones’ sculpture, in the lobby.  (His graceful bronze and resin-clay dancers recall Degas, but with a sense of humor.  And Black.)

And somewhere in LA, there must be a kid (or a grownup) with a camera — or an iPhone or an iPad — who loves taking pictures.  Who’d like to meet and shoot portraits of 200 amazing actors who promise to sit still.

Maybe that portrait artist will learn their stories.  Maybe even learn how they’re made, how they’re operated.  And just maybe …

The Blackstreet USA Puppet Theatre, created by Gary Jones.
Presented — and housed — by the Ebony Repertory Theatre, 4718 W. Washington Blvd., LA 90016.  (323) 964-9768.

To contact Jones:  <> or (213) 308-4805.