Graceful Puppetry and Native Actors Combine in ‘Ajijaak on Turtle Island’

Courtesy Ibex Puppetry A scene from 'Ajijaak on Turtle Island' includes a massive crane puppet meeting with a large turtle. The play, created by Jim Henson's daughter Heather Henson is scheduled for Philadelphia and New York.

Vincent Schilling

Graceful Puppetry and Native Actors Combine in ‘Ajijaak on Turtle Island’

Created by the daughter of Jim Henson, Heather Henson, 'Ajijaak on Turtle Island' weaves Ojibwe, Lakota, and Cherokee stories into the story of a beautiful puppet crane named Ajijaak

Lovers of the Jim Henson’s muppet’s legacy and theatrical-based stories of the Ojibwe, Lakota, and Cherokee Nation, can look forward to a performance of Ajijaak on Turtle Island. The play, directed by Heather Henson and Ty Defoe, is produced by Ibex Puppetry, a company founded in 2000 by Heather Henson, the daughter of the iconic muppets creator Jim Henson.

Courtesy Ibex Puppetry

A scene from ‘Ajijaak on Turtle Island’ includes Native actors interacting with a giant black serpent.

In addition to the contributions of the renowned contemporary puppet creator Heather Henson, artistic contributions to the play also include Grammy Award winner and champion hoop dancer from the Oneida and Ojibwe Nation, Ty Defoe (Giizhig,) Grammy and NAMA-nominated Mohawk artist Dawn Avery, and notable Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin performer and musician Kevin Tarrant.

Photo courtesy Ibex Puppetry

Champion hoop dancer, writer, and director Ty Defoe. On the right side of this image, Defoe performs a healing crane dance in ‘Ajijaack On Turtle Island.’

Other actors include Tony Enos, Joan Henry, Wen Jeng, Curtiss Mitchell, Adelka Polak, Sheldon Raymore, Josephine Tarrant and dancers Jake Montanaro, Jennifer Sanchez, Euni Shim and Dormeshia Ward.

Courtesy Ibex Puppetry

Some of the Native actors in ‘Ajijaack On Turtle Island’ include Josephine Tarrant, Sheldon Raymore, Tony Enos and Joan Henry.

The production is currently scheduled for tour dates in Philadelphia at the Kimmel Center / Perelman Theater on Saturday Jan 27, 2018 at 7:00 pm and at the New York-based La Mama Theatre February 8, 2018 through February 18, 2018. More dates are being considered by organizers.

The overview of Ajijaack on Turtle Island is described on the Philadelphia-based Kimmel Center website as follows:

In this coming of age story, follow our hero, Ajijaack as she learns lessons along the way from her mentors and friends: the buffalo, deer, frog, dragonfly, coyote, and a turtle activist family. On her heroic journey, pieces of the Ojibwe, Lakota, and Cherokee Nations are highlighted along with cultural rituals and practices of Indigenous Peoples’ on Turtle Island (North America). Reflecting our connectedness with all of creation, this immersive story is told through rituals and puppets, projections and kites, aerial antics and life-sized maps. Tracing the tragedies befalling cranes, of disappearing forests and lakes, this story celebrates the richness of indigenous cultures that honor and protect these majestic birds.

Courtesy Ibex Puppetry

Tony Enos, one of the Native actors in ‘Ajijaack on Turtle Island,’ maneuvers a coyote made entirely of corn husks.

Tony Enos, a two spirit Cherokee actor told Indian Country Today he was thrilled to be a part of Ajijaak on Turtle Island and has continuously marveled at the creativity of the play. He also said he was grateful for the cultural respect paid to the Native story.

“So much care was taken in making sure traditional elements were respected and woven properly into the fabric of the show. We wanted to walk through the show with honor and offer audiences a special message as Native and Indigenous individuals working to change native theater. The show is beautiful and it’s message simple: ‘Love and protect our Mother Earth, care for yourself and each other and never give up,’” said Enos.

In addition to Enos’ comment, members of the cast and crew sent their comments to Indian Country Today via email.

Ty Defoe, an Ojibwa and Oneida actor told Indian Country Today he hoped Ajijaack on Turtle Island would inspire youth and families from all cultural backgrounds including the Native community, to tell an authentic story about Native peoples. said “I’d really like all people to experience ways to honor the past, the present, and consider how we can give to the future,” wrote Defoe.

Joan Henry (Tsalagi/Nde’/Arawaka) said the indigenous nature of the play, which included storytelling, relations to Mother Earth, animals, and plants was important. “The endangered and revered Whooping Crane introduces audiences to contemporary Native people in real time, with real concerns.”

Actor Wen Jeng said “I really don’t know how to describe Ajijaack on Turtle Island other than some kind of beautiful, some kind of magic,” while the production’s stage manager called the play, “a magical and beautiful flight.”

“It’s amazing how these animal puppets create a world where our imaginations allow us to listen to their messages of protecting earth’s natural resources,” said actor Sheldon Raymore of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

“I’m honored to be apart of this production,” wrote Raymore.

For performance information and tickets to Ajijaak on Turtle Island, visit the following sites:

Kimmel Center in Partnership with IPAY
300 S Broad St. Philadelphia, PA 19102
IBEX Puppetry: Ajijaack on Turtle Island
Saturday – Jan 27, 2018 – 7:00 PM

La MaMa Theatre Ellen Stewart Theatre
66 East 4th St, New York, NY 10003
February 8, 2018 – February 18, 2018
Thursday to Saturday at 7pm; Sunday at 2pm
$25 Adult Tickets; $20 Students/Seniors (plus $1 Facility Fee)

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