Nick Lehane and Derek Fordjour- Fly Away

Petzel Gallery
New York, NY

review by Diéry Prudent

What makes “Fly Away” so remarkable is the way it calls to the humanity in us all.

Originally published in The Puppetry Journal (Fall 2020 Vol. 71 No. 4 by Puppeteers of America)

In “Fly Away,” the puppetry performance that brings to life Derek Fordjour’s contemporary art show, Self Must Die, at Petzel Gallery in Manhattan, a Black “Everyman” puppet arrives on stage in a plain pine box, borne on the shoulders of four black-clad, white-skinned puppeteers. Their dark suits and pall-bearers’ posture suggest a child’s coffin, but a soundtrack of waves lapping the shore—and the puppeteers’ ebb-and-flow movements before bringing the box to rest– conjure a slave ship.

So begins a narrative tour-de-force in which this gorgeously rendered, charismatic puppet undergoes a series of trials at the hands of his white handlers in this parable about Black life in America. For me, a 58-year-old Black New Yorker, many of the story’s vignettes cut to the bone.

“Fly Away” by Nick Lehane and Derek Fordjour, Petzel Gallery
Photo: Richard Termine

The tale unfolds in a built-to-scale puppet theater nestled in the middle of a pandemic-era art opening showing Fordjour’s stunning paintings, in a challenged city in a nation rife with political, economic, and social strife, and a painful racial reckoning.

Created by Fordjour and master puppeteer Nick Lehane, “Fly Away” chronicles the odyssey of this Black character as he fights to survive, thrive, and assert his selfhood, claim his freedom, fly away home. But where is home? Success, fame, autonomy, death, Africa? All of the above?

The puppet emerges, examines the coffin/ship that has brought him to this strange new place, and soon finds himself struggling to adapt to a series of challenges. From the instant he leaves his container to enter our consciousness, he’s put through his paces in a range of physical activities: as a soccer player, as a horse jockey, and finally as a marching-band drum major.

On the path toward self-realization, our man achieves success and acclaim. But even when he’s able to rise above his station and soar above his lowly origins, like Icarus flying too close to the sun, he’s soon brought to Earth by gravity, winds, bad juju: forced to eat dirt.

The fact that our hero’s story is controlled by eight white hands that at first he doesn’t sense—but in time comes to see, and from which he eventually seeks release—seems a fitting metaphor for Black lives in America. His triumphs are temporary, if not pyrrhic; his predicament, Orwellian.

The show’s action, featuring a beautifully honed and hued puppet designed by Fordjour and crafted by Robert Maldonado, along with crisply attired (and masked) puppeteers and an elegantly choreographed dancing oboist, strikes our stunned gaze like a fun-house mirror through a magnifying glass.

Nick Lehane explained that despite his early reticence about Fordjoutr’s desire to cast white puppeteers—and some deep talks before the two agreed—their decision provided the tension at the heart of the show. “When Derek first approached me about working together, I almost subconsciously assumed that the puppet would be representative of the Black body and, therefore, the puppeteers would also be Black, because of my concerns about equitable casting in the theater,” Lehane told me.

Fordjour explained that their early standoff over casting “thrust us into the thesis at the heart of the show. Nick was coming from recent work in the theater around inclusion…. He was being a good soldier.” Those discussions “exposed the difference between theater and contemporary art, which doesn’t have to subscribe to the same sorts of mandates required of the industry of theater,” Fordjour said. “Things (in the art world) can be a lot more messy and unresolved, and on the nerve of what is problematic or uncomfortable.”

Lehane added, “The interdependence between this puppet and the puppeteers, the fact that they are surveying, controlling, manipulating, but at the same time being genteel, being empathetic and sympathetic at least in affect, seemingly having a heartfelt connection with this man, while being responsible for his downfall and his obstacles, none of that would track without the puppeteers representing whiteness and white supremacy in America.”

Fordjour elaborates: “There’s a tradition in puppetry where bodies of the puppeteers are not typically implicated, that they work in service of the puppet. So I was coming into a kind of tradition and I assumed that we could kind of move those pieces around. Nick explained that there’s a hierarchy that you don’t want to disrupt. He was coming at this as a well-meaning puppeteer, respecting the craft. I was coming at it very much like a Black man and, once I’m not telling my truth, | don’t know what I’m doing. That’s all I got.”

The context and timing of the piece are important in light of distressingly regular reports of police brutality against Black bodies, as well as the disproportionate toll of suffering and loss caused by COVID-19 in communities of color. Fly Away memorializes the countless Black people that have been vilified, petrified, and mortified by the facts of living—and dying—far from our ancestral home.

Audience member CD Cymbalista, a self-described New Yorker of Italian origin and puppetry lover since childhood, said it was the most moving display of puppetry she’d ever seen. “I had no idea what the show was about,” she said. “I just wanted to see an art show and some puppets…” after a long pandemic drought. She was moved to tears when the puppet achieves his final destiny, she said, because the medium is so familiar, and the stories ring true.

John Aylward composed the lively score, performed by oboist Stuart Breczinski and composer Hassan Anderson, which beautifully accents a textured soundscape that adds depth to the drama. The show is produced by Danni Pascuma and features puppeteers Dorothy James, Rowan McGee, Andy Manjuck, Jon Riddleberger, and Emma Wiseman.

It also engages the talents of Robert Maldonado, puppet design; Caren Celine Morris, production stage manager; Stuart Breczinski, oboist; Marika Kent, lighting and theater design; Christopher Darbassie, sound design/dramaturg; Joseph Lymous, movement consultant; Seth Kelly, theater design and consultant; Rebecca Zammit costume design; Pablo Diaz, props design; and Maggie Ellis, props coordinator.

“Fly Away” hooks into our awareness of historical and recent events to remind us that our predominant national identity—a deeply ingrained color-caste system granting one group dominion over another—is rooted in slavery, the kind of full-scale human puppetry that simultaneously binds and harms both puppet and puppeteer.

What makes “Fly Away” so remarkable is the way it calls to the humanity in us all. Those witnessing the character’s struggles can’t help but be drawn in, wishing they could shift some levers, pull some strings, or just lend a helping hand.

Diéry Prudent is a fitness professional with a passion for food, music, travel, and the visual arts. He resides in Prospect Heights Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

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