The puppeteer brings the family story to life

Puppeteer Sam Lewis (left), assisted by his sons, performs with ‘James’ February 26 at Canal Shores Winter Wonderland. (Photo by Gay Riseborough)

Visitors to Canal Shores Winter Wonderland on February 26 enjoyed “James” – a puppet with an age-old story that comes to life after years of research, discovery and family ties.

Winter Wonderland is a community partnership between Canal Shores, Downtown Evanston and Evanston Made, where the public is invited to create a nature art exhibit on the Canal Shores golf course in February. Programming throughout the month included artistic creation and household collection and involved collaboration with organizations like Artists Book House, which sponsored Sam’s performance.

Sam Lewis is a black artist, musician, poet and actor who has worked in the Chicago art scene for decades. In 2018, through an introduction by a relative, Lewis met a white judge in Nashville who helped him uncover his family history. Lewis’ parents divorced when he was quite young and he knew little about his father’s background. An survey had revealed to Lewis that he was 30% European, which made him even more curious about his story.

Judge John Marshall of the 14th Judicial Circuit of Virginia is a scion of the family who “owned” the Lewis family for more than 200 years. According to Lewis, Marshall is an ardent family historian eager to share his knowledge through his self-published documentation books with other relatives and descendants of the tiny town of Mason, Virginia.

Attendees of the Winter Wonderland finale at Canal Shores gather to watch James. (Photo by Gay Riseborough)

Lewis came across an old Talentoon puppet, 1940s “Jambo the Jiver” in his stepfather’s attic and worked with it for 10 years, often at the Roughhouse Theater at Links Hall in Chicago, a multi-disciplinary organization that includes many puppeteers and artists. of color. He started dreaming about the kind of puppet he would like to represent him and his newly discovered family history. He wanted a unique puppet, which he would build himself.

A residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest allowed her to reflect on her projects and develop a prototype. Lewis created the puppet in the likeness of his great-grandfather from an old photograph provided by Marshall and named the puppet after his great-grandfather, “James Lewis”.

James is a rod puppet operated by Sam and his two teenage sons, with Sam’s wife often recording the show. Last Saturday, James told his story and Mason’s story in a kind of rhythmic call-and-response rap version. In the finale, he thrilled the audience with his attempt to dance to Lewis’ funky recorded music.

Lewis was director of the Elastic Arts Foundation for 20 years, sings in a band called Kitchen Sink and occasionally performs on camera and does voice-overs. He serves on the board of an annual arts festival in Logan Square, is an active participant in the week-long Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, and now also works for Ragdale.

Lewis says, “We have to know our history and accept it. Part of an extended repair package for Black would be to give us our story!


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