‘Kibwe’ convenes marionettes, myth, music and visual art

STRINGS ATTACHED: The story of "Kibwe: A Marionette Puppet Performance" centers on Asha, a character who “must journey forth to find ancient relics in order save their nation.” The marionettes — there are three, one of which is a bird — were a school project for artist Devin Lancaster, center. But from the beginning, he knew the undertaking would expand into a production.
STRINGS ATTACHED: The story of "Kibwe: A Marionette Puppet Performance" centers on Asha, a character who “must journey forth to find ancient relics in order save their nation.” The marionettes — there are three, one of which is a bird — were a school project for artist Devin Lancaster, center. But from the beginning, he knew the undertaking would expand into a production. Photo by Michael-Jamar Jean Francois

There are probably few questions to which puppets are the answer. But, “I firmly believe the medium should fit the concept, not the other way around — at least for how I go about making art,” says Devin Lancaster, who is currently completing his Bachelor of Arts in painting at UNC Asheville. He’d been developing a project for a while around the notion that people have influence over their lives and are not just victims of circumstance.

“I usually make abstract art, [but that form] can be seen as elitist by nonartists,” says Lancaster. “I wanted to be able to communicate to as many people as possible … without sacrificing my abstract tendencies, so I was like, ‘Why not paint on a human-shaped form?’” And that was the impetus for Lancaster to create the puppets through which he and his collaborators will tell the story in Kibwe: A Marionette Puppet Performance. The free multimedia show will be onstage at The BLOCK off Biltmore on Thursday, June 1.

Seeking happiness

“Kibwe is a Swahili word for ‘blessed,’” says Lancaster. He chose it because, regardless of what we go through, whether positive or negative, the opportunity for the experience is a blessing, he says. The artist wrote the script for Kibwe based on an incident from his own life. “I translated it like a myth,” he explains. “I took the events and replaced them with other objects to be a metaphor for what I was experiencing. … You can’t just tell people to get a grip. You have to teach from experience.”

The story is “either about endurance or perseverance, depending on your perspective,” says Lancaster.

The narrative centers on Asha, a character who “must journey forth to find ancient relics in order save their nation,” according to the Facebook event page for the show. “But is it really worth it if it doesn’t make Asha happy?”

The marionettes — there are three, one of which is a bird — were a school project for Lancaster. But from the beginning, he knew the undertaking would expand into a production. At UNCA he met local artist and musician Michael-Jamar Jean Francois, who was in the university’s Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program at the time. The two clicked, and “he originally wanted me to help him write the script,” says Jean Francois. When the person working on scoring the show dropped out, “I ended up taking over the role of music. … I wanted to do the music anyway.”

Jean Francois describes the soundtrack as “definitely a reflection of what I see in myself, definitely a reflection of what I see in Devin and definitely a reflection of what I see in the project itself.” He’d never worked with puppets — “I hated puppets. I never thought this could happen” — but when Jean Francois saw Lancaster’s work, “I was like, ‘That’s insane. I’m ready. I’m down to do it.’”

Though he’s a talented visual and spoken-word artist, it’s music that most captures Jean Francois’ imagination. He describes his creation as a lot of ethereal and futurist sounds culled from a combination of electronic and traditional instrumentation. “It’s going to be grand,” he says. Jean Francois will release the 30-minute soundtrack, also called Kibwe, on Bandcamp on the same day as the show.

Creative journeys

The show also incorporates scenery and props that Lancaster handcrafted. “I was using the same materials I was making art with before, which is cardboard,” he says. “I like reusing materials … upcycling rather than recycling. Adding worth to things that are seen as useless is an important statement to put out to the American psyche.” He glued multiple layers of cardboard together, then carved into them to achieve the shapes he wanted.

“I like the gritty textures that are created when you saw into cardboard,” Lancaster says. “I like that aesthetic.” He documented the process of making the set and the puppets through the Instagram account @kibwepuppets.

And, though Lancaster rarely collaborates on such a large or long-term scale, he seems at ease with the shared creative process. “I’d expected it to change because it was a collaboration,” he says. “The type of people I chose to collaborate with … we all have the same emotional foundation. … Because we relate in that way, the most important part of the play [didn’t] change, because we all agreed and empathized with the idea.”

Of note, the collective — including puppeteer Harry Rivera — is “pretty much an all-black ensemble,” as Jean Francois explains. Together, they felt that performing at The BLOCK off Biltmore would be a way to pay tribute to Asheville’s historic black business district. The venue is located in the YMI center. Constructed in 1892-93, the institute was founded by Asheville’s African-American leaders of the time. It served for generations as the social and cultural hub of the black community and is still a landmark and important touchstone.

But if an all-black marionette and multimedia arts production team seems unusual, Lancaster points out that African-American puppeteer Tarish “Jeghetto” Pipkins is based in Durham. Kevin Clash, creator of the “Sesame Street” character Elmo, is also one of the small community of African-American puppeteers; The Brewery Puppet Troupe is noted as “the only African-American puppet company to gain recognition on Broadway.” The Kibwe group might be in the company of only a few such artists, but they’re not alone.

But these Asheville-based artists seem unconcerned with their limited community — or limits at all. Shortly after the BLOCK off Biltmore performance, they’ll scatter for travel and creative opportunities. Jean Francois, whose family is from Haiti, is headed to the Dominican Republic with relatives. Another troupe member is hoping to spend time in Italy.

And Lancaster, nearing completion of his degree in painting (before UNCA, he was enrolled at the School of the Arts in Winston-Salem where, he jokes, he was “whipped into being an artist”) is nurturing a new interest in dance and body movement. “It’s a more interesting way of expressing myself,” he says. A similar openness to exploration is what led him to develop Kibwe in the first place: “I was looking to a medium that fit my concept.”

WHAT: Kibwe: A Marionette Puppet Performance
WHERE: The BLOCK off Biltmore, 39 S. Market St., theblockoffbiltmore.com
WHEN: Thursday, June 1, 7:30 p.m. Free

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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