Dodge & Burn: Ruth and the Green Book at the Center for Puppetry Arts

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The Center For Puppetry Arts, the largest dedicated puppet theater in the country, will debut Ruth and the Green Book on February 7, which will run through February 26 to coincide with Black History Month. The show is based on the popular and award-winning children’s book by Atlanta playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey. The titular Green Book, which was used from 1936-1954, listed services, housing, and restaurants that would serve black motorists.

The story centers around a young black girl named Ruth, who is excited to be traveling by car with her parents from Chicago to Alabama to visit her grandmother. What Ruth did not expect were all of the encounters with gas stations, restaurants, and hotels that would refuse service to black people. The story educates audiences on our grim past of Jim Crow and “sunset” laws, which not only permitted but encouraged open prejudice against blacks.

This is not the first live performance interpretation of the book. Ramsey had previously written a play for adults, titled The Green Book, that was performed in Atlanta last year by Theatrical Outfit. How would a puppet show interpretation fare? The puppet performance features four human actors who are usually in plain sight, instead of behind a curtain, and are accompanied by live music performed on piano. In addition to voice acting and controlling the puppets, the actors sing and dance as well.

The performance is an unflinching, yet gentle look at “Whites-Only” bathrooms, restaurants, hotels, and gas stations, and the laws that made them the norm and not the exception, particularly in the south. The characters all express pain, frustration, and anger, but keep it very family friendly with no foul language or violence of any kind. With the story taking place in 1952, there are no references to Martin Luther King or other black leaders. The only political reference was to Alabama Governor George Wallace, and his desire to preserve segregation forever.
The puppet show does a great job of expressing the distress, anger, and outright inconvenience experienced by black motorists, even for a family traveling in nice clothes in a brand new Buick. The entire performance is rife with educational gems for all young people who attend to see a slice of what American life was like for blacks in the early to mid-twentieth century. I wasn’t sure what to make of the few musical numbers, but I imagine they will help keep the youngest viewers engaged.
Author Calvin Alexander Ramsey was present for the preview show I photographed. He told me after the show, “I loved it. It was ten times better than what I expected.” He seemed genuinely moved by this interpretation of his work. I found it moving too, and a sad reminder of a time to which we must never return.
The Center for Puppetry Arts will be presenting Atlanta playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey’s Ruth and Green Book through February 26, 2012. Check for available tickets on the Center for Puppetry Arts website.

Dodge & Burn is a series of photo essays documenting local culture with a focus on artful imagery, movement, and light. Check BURNAWAY’s homepage for new photography every week, and watch our Flickr account for regular updates!

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