Secret Agent 23 Skidoo recruits puppets for Grey Eagle show

FEATURED CREATURE: The Street Creature Puppet Collective's red dragon puppet, which takes four people to operate, will be part of the group's March 23 performance at The Grey Eagle. Photo courtesy of the Street Creature Puppet Collective

Cactus, the Asheville-based hip-hop children’s artist also known as Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, doesn’t remember exactly when he first encountered the Street Creature Puppet Collective. He figures he must have spotted the group at a local festival or parade.

“They’re pretty hard to miss when they have 20-foot-long dragons and whatnot,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve known people in the puppetry and the circus community in this town, but I had never collaborated with Street Creature.”

The Grammy Award winner saw an opportunity to do just that when he started planning his new character-based story songs for the stage. On Saturday, March 23, at noon, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo will partner with the collective at The Grey Eagle, where the groups will perform a family-friendly hip-hop storytelling show.

“This seems inevitable, and I’m glad it’s finally happening,” Cactus says. “We’re both really interested in the same type of wildly imaginative storytelling for kids that has a grown-up vibe to it. I think that proper family entertainment makes everybody feel like a kid again. And Street Creature 100% does that.”

The show’s rap songs, Cactus continues, are inspired by Aesop’s FablesOne Thousand and One Nights and Chinese folk tales, among others. The featured puppetry will act out the stories.

“To have these things onstage that kids can look at is just going to be this amazing sort of multimedia presentation, and I think it’s going to be really magical,” Cactus says.

‘Not little puppets’

Melanie Brethauer, the puppet collective’s team leader for The Grey Eagle show, says the nonprofit group will feature over a dozen  members operating 40 or so puppets during the performance.

“People hear puppets, and they think of marionettes or hand puppets,” she says. “Well, we have a red dragon … that requires four people and a pretty solid middle person to hold the body, the head and each wing. So it’s not little puppets.”

Formed in 2012, The Street Creature Puppet Collective is a familiar sight around Western North Carolina due to regular appearances at LEAF Global Arts, the Asheville Holiday Parade, Asheville Mardi Gras, Marshall’s Mermaid Parade and Festival, Black Mountain’s Lake Monster Parade and more.

In 2022, it collaborated with musician Josh Fox on The Earth is Alive!, a family musical and puppet show celebrating the medicine and magic of Appalachian plants.

When Cactus first broached the idea of collaboration, the puppet collective invited him to their “puppet clubhouse” at the Asheville Mall, Brethauer says. From the outside, the space is unmarked and nondescript.

“And then we opened the door, and he gasped,” she says with a laugh. “It’s quite a sight. All the way to the left we have completed puppets that are stacked up on high shelves. And then on the right we have boxes of fabric and sewing machines and tables we can take up or down. It’s great to have that reaction from anybody.”

Working together, they chose puppets to go with songs and developed the show.

“A lot of times when you’re dealing with storytelling, you end up dealing with archetypes,” Cactus explains. “So whether it’s them creating puppets to tell those stories or me creating stories through a hip-hop medium, we end up landing on the same archetype. So it was really easy to match it up and make this thing happen.”

Show time

During the first part of the show, Cactus and his fellow Secret Agent 23 rappers Debrissa McKinney and Ryan “RnB” Barber will perform seven to eight story songs. “I’m curious to see what’s going to happen with the storytelling because it’s all happening to a beat,” Cactus says. “It’s all pretty energetic. People might be watching these stories and dancing at the same time. Or they might be completely hypnotized by the puppets and sit there.”

FOR THE KIDS: Ryan “RnB” Barber, left, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, center, and Debrissa McKinney will perform with the Street Creature Puppet Collective at the Grey Eagle on March 23. Photo by Mike Belleme

The second part of the show will unfold as a less structured dance party.

“We call it surprise and delight,” Brethauer says. “It’s not choreographed, we just kind of mingle within the audience. And it’ll be a really big party.”

Brethauer thinks The Grey Eagle event will lead to additional collaborations with Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, who won a Grammy for Best Children’s Album in 2017.

“It sounds kind of trite, but we’re very excited to work with him and just see the next thing this collaboration breeds,” Brethauer says. “One idea  leads to the next, and it’s not like there’s any kind of plan and progression. So after we do the 23 Skidoo show, we’ll have a thousand ideas, and one of them will take root, and we’ll go with that one.”

Cactus is equally excited about the collaboration.

“I already know what the vibe of The Gray Eagle is gonna be,” he says. “I have hung out with these puppeteers, and I know what their vibe is, and I know what our vibe is. Asheville has always had a very unique creative magic. Sometimes people say that they miss old-school Asheville and what it used to be. I know that that thing is still alive, it’s just you have to look for it a little bit more. And I know that this event is going to be very much that.”

The Grey Eagle is at 185 Clingman Ave. For more information to to buy tickets, go to


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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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