Education Through Puppetry

July 06, 1995|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

As the highest ranking executive of Schroeder Cherry and Associates, Schroeder Cherry is the ultimate control freak. He speaks for his associates, acts for them and even thinks for them.

But the boss' high-handed, unenlightened management style doesn't faze the Cherry associates. In fact, nothing does.

Dr. Cherry's associates -- such as Kyle, Mr. Zeke and Afrika Brown and others -- are an eccentric assortment of African-American puppets featured in plays Dr. Cherry has written and produced.

"The characters come from people I see out in the streets every day," said Dr. Cherry, who lives in Ednor Gardens in Northeast Baltimore and has a doctoral degree in education. "When I'm looking around, I'll see something and think that'll make a good character."

Take "Mr. Zeke," for example. He's a crusty old man with gray hair, ashen skin, crow's feet and a coarse voice. And there's "Kyle," a nervous but energetic boy of about 10. "Afrika Brown" is a feminist steeped in African culture.

Cherry and Associates may be the only puppet show in the country that features a black cast and black puppet maker, said Peter Schawman of Puppeteers of America, a California organization.

"Other puppet shows entertain and educate, but none with an African-American creator and performers," Mr. Schawman said. "It's novel as far as I know."

Dr. Cherry said he created his characters and shows to fill an entertainment and cultural void and fulfill a boyhood ambition.

"There are so few African-American puppets available," he said. "Whenever you ask anybody about a puppet they can name Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, all of the "Sesame Street" characters. They can name some of the classical ones like Pinocchio. But people have never seen black puppets, and I figure there are enough puppets out of other cultures.

"I think it's important for African-Americans to see themselves. I think it's important for non-African-Americans to see TC African-Americans in different types of roles."

Cherry and Associates recently performed "Underground Railroad, Not A Subway," at the Maryland Historical Society downtown. The play is about an adolescent slave boy's escape to freedom in the north, where he meets an array of people involved in the abolitionist movement.

The play's theme focuses on loss and gain: slave masters lose their slaves, while the slaves gain their freedom. Everyday types are the play's heroes and heroines.

"I'm just trying to get across the idea that not all black people were slaves and not all white people were slave owners," said Dr. Cherry, 41, who is director of education at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"Everyday people are involved. Normal people. I want to show that it wasn't just Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman who were involved in the effort, but everyday people too."

The play gives a history lesson as it follows "Kyle" on his journey north in search of freedom. Kyle is aided by whites as well as blacks he travels the Underground Railroad.

Before the play, Dr. Cherry tells the audience -- mostly children -- that slaves on the Underground Railroad "go fast and nobody sees them running away." The railroad must be underground, he says, because "nobody sees them."

Eric Sumpter, 12, said he had heard of the Underground Railroad, but wasn't sure what it was. "You think it's not pleasant, but it was some sort of transportation for the slaves," he said. "I never knew they had to sleep hidden and travel at night."

The play's name was chosen after Dr. Cherry talked to several youths -- black and white -- in New York. He was appalled by how little they knew about history.

"I asked if they knew about the Underground Railroad and they said 'Yeah, that's the subway that helped black people get to freedom,' " Dr. Cherry said.

Kit Tubman of the historical society's education department said the play uses a unique method to teach history. "It makes history come alive to children," she said. "It makes them learn about their past."

The play teaches without becoming overbearing, said Beatrice Taylor, executive director of the Baltimore Children's Museum.

"It has historical content that he made come alive in this time period," Ms. Taylor said. "It gave a sense of history without being heavy. Some serious learning came out of it."

Dr. Cherry makes the puppets in his home studio. The puppeteer, who has an undergraduate art degree from the University of Michigan and received his doctorate from Columbia University, has been making puppets since the fifth grade.

He has created and performed puppet shows since 1974. Others include "The Land Of Primary Color" and "Harlem Renaissance."

Dr. Cherry does about 15 shows a year, each about 30 minutes, in libraries, community centers, churches and museums. In 1990, Cherry and Associates performed while traveling in Senegal in western Africa.

He is careful of the images that his puppets portray. "The puppets that I use are not involved in buffoonery," Dr. Cherry said. "They may be funny or do comical things, but they're not clowns. They're not pretty, and that's a problem we have in this country -- we're not sure how someone is supposed to look to be attractive."

At the historical society performance, about 150 children ages 6 to 12 chanted on cue during a refrain in the play:

"Underground Railroad, not a subway

"People traveled far the North way

"Walk-run-swim, travel far

"Follow that Drinking Gourd."

Robert Wallace, 11, of Owings Mills said he got more of a history lesson in the 30-minute show than this year in fifth grade.

"It's not crammed at me," said Robert, who was visiting with his mother. "The puppets made me see what a hard time slaves had trying to be free."

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