You could call south side native Allyson Gonzalez a puppeteer, but "alchemist" is not wholly inaccurate. How else to describe an artist who can turn used Styrofoam cups and shredded loofahs into tiny ballerinas? "I try not to buy anything," Gonzalez says of the materials she transforms into idiosyncratic creatures on grand adventures. "Once I copied an Alexander McQueen gown. It was mostly paper towels and wire. I loved that dress."
Gonzalez's recycled, upcycled, and serendipitously found items are part of Nasty, Brutish & Short, an adult puppet cabaret showcasing artists from the Puppeteers of Color Incubator (POCI). Curated by Jamillah Hinson and Nik Whitcomb, the December 10 event presented by Links Hall and the Rough House Theater will feature works ranging from Gonzalez's NPR-inspired "This Gonzalez is Coming for Your Job" to pieces based on works by Zora Neale Hurston and Washington Irving.
"We wanted to show puppetry as a high art form, not just for kids," says Hinson, who co-curated the cabaret under the auspices of Chicago's Art Leaders of Color Network. Toward that end, NB&S will include short pieces starring shadow puppets, intricately joined reed puppets, puppets based in Japanese Bunraku traditions, and puppets that defy categorization. The POCI artists have been working since August on their creations, meeting monthly for workshops and mentorship. Gonzalez found inspiration for her piece during a cab ride.
"The driver was listening to a story about the [migrant] caravan, and I heard my name," she says. "It got my brain churning—I started thinking how global my last name is, and what the implications of that are. I wanted to explore that. I'm not showing the caravan—if people want to see pictures, they can go to the news. This is about capturing the spirit and the struggle—which is different depending on where you are geographically—of being a Gonzalez."
Puppeteers are among the most intersectional of artists: "It's acting and comedy and storytelling and sculpture and sewing," Hinson says. Most of the cabaret artists, she adds, juggle day jobs with their art. There are lawyers, grade school teachers, and marketing consultants performing at NB&S.
The cabaret will unfold in two rooms, each hosting about 30 minutes of puppet acts. "One room is more comic, the other is darker and more dramatic," Hinson says. The hour-long show will allow audience members to take in each room. "It's a short evening, but a very full evening," Hinson says.
Gonzalez, who is using a pop-up book structure for parts of her performance, speaks to that fullness.
"I've seen people do things just with light and their hands look like War Horse production values," she says. "Puppeteers make inanimate things into sentient beings. What other art form does that?" v