FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: Janni Younge

Janni Younge: Hamlet

January 26-29, 2023

The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center

Presented by The DuSable Black History Museum & Education Center and Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

With special support from: The Jim Henson Foundation Allelu Award

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Gardeners, Ditchers, Grave-makers, and Puppets: All Human Together in Janni Younge’s Hamlet

An Essay by Paulette Richards

In January 2022, Janni Younge braved the Omicron surge of the COVID-19 virus to codirect a revival of the award-winning The Bluest Eye adaptation that she and Margaret L. Kemp developed at UC Davis for the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. A year later she returned to the stage at the DuSable Black History Museum with her production of Hamlet. Though Younge’s choice of burlap (hessian cloth) for constructing the puppets may evoke the biblical “sack cloth and ashes” that people historically donned in mourning, Hamlet was in development before the pandemic. Still, in an email interview conducted on May 23, 2023, Younge averred that this catastrophic event brought themes of mourning to the forefront in this interpretation of the play:

… I think one of the reasons the play took hold of the creative team so powerfully was the pandemic and the rawness it exposed. Life in South Africa is already dangerous and precarious. But in the face of the pandemic, everything felt more vulnerable, closer to the emotional surface. Loss, fury, and a passionate care for each other all seemed closer to the surface. These former [sic] are mirrored in the emotional content of the work, while the latter is played out among the performers. Indeed, the very nature of the interpretation was influenced by our needs within the pandemic.

With her focus centered on Hamlet’s spiritual and emotional journey, Younge stripped the play down from 4.5 hours to just over two hours by removing all of the political material, yet the production delivers a powerful message about the need for all the members of the body politic to work together.

According to the New York Times (Allen, 2023), since the beginning of the pandemic, slightly more than four million COVID-19 cases have been reported in South Africa, and at least 1 in 571 residents have died from the coronavirus—a total of 102,595 deaths—so for Younge the context “demanded that we as artists care for each other as institutions, and the state were unable to meet the needs of the people of our country, particularly the artists.”.

Younge had always aspired to do a Shakespeare production, and Hamlet had always fascinated her because of the internal conflicts that beset the melancholy Prince of Denmark. An added advantage of staging Shakespeare is that audiences are already familiar with the story. Younge goes on to explain that:

At least twice in high school, every South African adolescent must study Shakespeare. This is not a Eurocentric longing on the part of our education system to return to the cultural domination of Great Britain. It is about the power that Shakespeare possesses to poetically encapsulate some of the greatest themes of being human.

Though staging the familiar story with puppets is an unconventional choice, Younge asserts that “The question for us is not ‘Why puppetry?’ or ‘Should this be a puppetry production?’ but rather ‘What is it that puppetry can bring to this production?’” In her opinion, “Puppetry allows for the independent embodiment of the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of a single person, while also demonstrating their interconnectivity and mutual influence.” 

One of the first principles of puppet manipulation is establishing the “floor” on which the puppet stands. Though the puppets in this production do not have legs, they “float” at a consistent level; thus, all the characters, not just the Ghost, move gracefully through the scenes. The puppets are slightly larger than life-sized and manipulated by rods, while the operators’ hands supply the puppets’ gestures. Some puppet characters have two or even three operators, and others have only one. Younge notes that “as two live bodies and one inanimate figure hold up a single character, the complexity of entanglement and support in a South Africa where we all count is made tangible.”¹ 

Sometimes the puppeteers disappear into the character, and sometimes they present themselves as distinct from the puppets. Younge explains “…we found that giving Hamlet multiple voices and using this puppet-performer dynamic deepened our relationship with his state of mind” (Younge, n.d.: 11). Through this technique, Younge makes the Jungian persona-mask and shadow elements of each character tangible. “Audiences will witness soliloquies and monologues turn into trialogues and dialogues between the puppet heads and the performers who embody their souls,” she writes.² In this way the tension between the social masks we wear before others (the Jungian persona) and the inner identities we may hide even from ourselves (the Jungian shadow self) is constantly at play before the audience. 

Witnessing the interplay between each puppet, its operators, and the other puppet characters heightens the audience’s awareness of the connections between characters. One operator may step away from the puppet and speak lines as a private soliloquy while other lines are delivered through the puppet by another operator. In real life we often aren’t aware that interactions with certain people bring out some shadow aspect of ourselves, but the audience can see these dynamics onstage in this production. The threads of burlap dangling from the puppets sway, brush against each other, and sometimes become momentarily entangled, thus vividly illustrating how the characters are all interwoven with each other. The human bodies of the cast also illustrate diversity in action. Younge notes that “Through a collective commitment, bodies with vastly different experiences of the human condition come together to ask the seminal question that guides most dramatic inquiry: What does it mean to be human (together)?”³ 

The most beautiful sequence of the play represented Hamlet’s voyage to England. Most of the cast manipulated triangles of different sizes and shapes, combining them to figure the ship, the sails, and the ocean waves. This sequence was impressively well rehearsed. The timing and precision of the movements were impeccable. While Hamlet narrates the grim story of how he foiled Claudius’s plot to have him killed by turning it against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the impact of the cast moving together with one objective rather than animating multiple characters gives the scene even more dramatic force.  

The interaction between humans and objects reminds us that failure to care for each other and acknowledge the threads that connect us all leads to madness and death. As of August 2, 2023, the World Health Organization reported that since January 3, 2020, there have been 103,436,829 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 1,127,152 deaths in United States of America. Mortality was disproportionately high among populations that have historically been held apart from economic opportunity and access to medical care. Like Younge’s Hamlet, we must learn what it means to confront the shadowy, disavowed aspects of our national history in order to be able to face the future. 

1 This quote was taken from the section of Janni Younge’s website that discusses her concept for Hamlet. While the site is still live, this particular passage no longer appears on it. To view a trailer and photos of the production, learn about her other work, and watch an interview she gave to CNN, visit https://www.janniyounge.com/.

2 This is another quote taken from a prior version of Younge’s website.

3  And another.

Works Cited

Allen, Jordan et. al. “Tracking Coronavirus in South Africa: Latest Case Count.” New York Times, updated March 10, 2023. Available at:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/world/south-africa-covid-cases.html.

World Health Organization. “WHO Health Emergency Dashboard: United States of America Situation.” Available at: https://covid19.who.int/region/amro/country/us. Accessed August 6, 2023.

Younge, Janni. “Hamlet” [web page]. Available at:
https://www.janniyounge.com/hamlet. Accessed August 6, 2023.

World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts Entry

Play Video

View Janni’s presentation above or watch full symposium on Howlround.

Janni Younge at the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium

On Saturday, January 28, 2023, Janni Younge was a speaker at The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium session entitled “Maya: The Uses of Illusion.”

The event was co-hosted by The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, moderated by Dr. Paulette Richards, and held at the Studebaker Theater as well as streamed through Howlround.

Transcript of Janni's Presentation

You can't see that, so that's fine. I'm gonna read it to you anyway. I'm just gonna read this one part because I wonder if I say it correctly. So the puppet. Puppet is a representation creating of the illusion of the animate in the inanimate. It's a thing that's brought up. We all know it. The representation is an automatically metaphorical act because we're saying on thing is another. We're creating a parallel being. It's a transparent metaphor. We see both the illusion and it's source allowing a direct engagement with the acts of creating identity.

Every human mind is engaged in a great act of creation. We continually invest belief in a fixed reality, including the idea of a self. So, you know, the philosophy that we talked about. The Hindu philosophy talks about this ultimate reality where in fact we are one with each other, with being of the divine. But really in our everyday world, what we relate to is my, me, me, me, my things and stuff. Here I am. This is my world. It’s all about that. And even those of us that are really interested in these philosophical ideas, I’ll just be myself. It’s not something that we can continually process because right here and now there’s a smart stand in front of me and I’m sitting here, and it is I sitting here talking to you. So that is the constant space in creating and fixing an idea of I in a real world, which in fact is an illusion as all of these philosophies tell us. Most of us don’t perceive this act of creation. Every human mind is engaged in a great act of creation. So this is kind of the ultimate suspension of disbelief. For those of you who are really in the puppet field, you know we love to talk about the suspension of disbelief. People know that the puppet is not real, but they suspend, they put aside that disbelief and invest their emotions in the reality that’s being created on stage and for the period that they’re engaged in it, believe in it. But we are the masters of the suspension of disbelief in our own lives. We do it all day, every day. But the suspension is so complete, that we’re really very often completely unaware of the creative act involved in that. So this ultimate suspension of disbelief leads to certainty, which I believe certainly is is our greatest threat in negotiating the fragile space upon humanity. So for me, and I think I’m not alone in this, but I think that when we believe with certainty, I am, this is, they are, this is the boundary, this is the border, this is who we are, this is ours, this is yours, those kind of concepts of certainty are the source of many of the conflicts and situations that leave to lead to disharmony amongst ourselves and between us and our beautiful world. So that’s why I talk about certainty being a threat. So the human investment in the illusion of the fixed living identity is directly invisibly mirrored in the puppet life metaphor. The heart my work has always been to scratch at the edges of the illusion of a stable and unified reality to provoke a glimpse of the fluidity between ourselves, our identities and our world. I see the purpose of my work being to open the dynamic space uncertainty, that I experience to be the vibrant part of being human. And so that’s the blog I really wanted to read you. Now close this. Gonna talk about a few of my shows to give you a sense of idea and practical reality. This is an easier part. So we’re gonna go onto the pictures. So the very first work that I created after graduating from the French National School of Puppetry Art was my master’s thesis. Wasn’t the first one, but it was the first significant work for me. It was my master’s thesis production. The thesis was on the way puppetry is a miracle of the illusion of self. So very much on the topic that we’re talking about today. And the production was called “Dollhouse.” It was about a relationship between the young man and a young woman who were engaged in relationship and were in the fragile space of questioning where it was time to make a more permanent commitment to each other based on where I was at in my life at the time of my husband. And the way that the show started off… You can we see the next slide, right? I’m trying. I don’t know how to scroll down in document. I might have to get out. That gave me to the other document in the folder. Well, nevermind. So I’m just gonna tell you a little bit about it. So this particular show, “Dollhouse” started off with their two characters, and each character, the man and the woman is manipulated by three puppeteers. And all the puppeteers were completely covered in black. They were covered. So you couldn’t see, black gloves, the whole thing. So they were invisible. And in the beginning we see this relationship between this man and woman developing and, you know, things are going well, but as things start to, some conflicts comes into the relationship, we start to see the manipulators removing their cowls, and entering into conflict with each other about how they want the person to act with the other person. And eventually all of them are totally undressed that they’ve got bras on and they’re , they’re wrestling, they fight, they pull the puppets into pieces and then finally, and towards the end of the production, they’re completely all puppets and pieces all over the floor and all the puppeteers are all sort of exposed and they somehow see the best that they’ve created of themselves and each other. And they start to put the puppets back together and find a way towards re-entering relationship. And finally, they actually get married. And when they turn, their wedding garments are all the things, that baggage that, you know, we’ve sort of encountered in the course of the play is trailing off behind them. Anyway, so that particular production was what we saw was the manipulators exposed more and more in the course of the production as forces acting on the puppets. And the next, so that’s “Dollhouse.” Then “Ouroboros,” there was a production that the puppeteers were exposed all the way through and they were in a kind of a neutral brownish color And they were like the forces behind characters, but they didn’t play a direct role like a character role as they did in “Dollhouse.” In “Ouroboros,” what we saw was in the beginning of the show, you have the impression that you’re seeing a lot of different stories about different people. But in fact, what it was was one story with five different versions of the same people. So you have man and woman and you’ve got an adult person, a child, a baby, an old person, and a dead person. And so somehow in beginning you’re seeing these characters interacting. It looks like they’re following different people. You think there’s a child and his father, but then as the relationship between the man and the woman develop, you realize that the thing that’s blocking them from being in relationship is that the child doesn’t trust the the woman and it’s hidden the man’s heart. And there’s a whole lot other complications involved in the whole relationship. And somehow the two children have to find a way , the child from within the woman and the child from within the man have to find a way to reach a resolution over this heart.

And, you know, the little boy has to decide whether he can trust the girl with their heart, basically. girl with a heart base. So it ties together, life and death and the process of interaction. And in that production, what I was really looking at is how ourselves across time and space, how we act on ourselves. How we’ve gone through something when we are young. And in that thing is a thing that we carry with us, that way of being or that anxiety or that care even for ourselves, that concern for us is sometimes invisible to us, but it’s within us, causing us to act and react in ways that are sometimes quite mystifying to ourselves. And that was the idea going on behind the show, and then the story was, once again, it was a relationship story. Oh look. There’s Robert on the screen. So if you want to go back a couple of pictures. I’ll just say I only have two pictures of “Dollhouse.” That’s “Dollhouse,” the two in the beginning and you can probably, maybe not see at all, but the manipulators are all there totally in black. And then in the next image, that’s the wedding scene and you see the manipulators and how they’re exposed and the different ways of being dressed. So, you know, the guy had, for example, he had what we call GQ man and then he had Doughboy and then there was an active guy. So they have different kind of personalities, these three different manipulators within each one of the characters. All right, now we can go on to Roberts. And that’s just a shock to show you, like, the whole family portrait. So you see the two. In fact, it’s not whole family ’cause you don’t see the dead people there. But there we’ve got the children, the baby, the woman, the man and all over the place. The costumes, you may recognize. They were repurposed from “Hamlet.” We have to sometimes. So okay, we can go to the next slide. So that’s a little boy in his room. And one of the dynamics in his life is we hear his parents arguing in shadow. They’re not there present, but they’re arguing and he’s playing war games in his bedroom. Inside, that’s him setting up his war games. And eventually, he can’t bear the sound of his parents fighting and he takes off his ears. And if you you go to the next image, that’s him. He continued to play and so on, and so on. And later on as an adult man, he also takes out his organs. And later on as an adult man, he also takes out his organs. So he takes out his heart and he looks at it. He thinks about his lungs and his stomach and so on. And that’s in fact how his heart manages to get taken away by somebody. So go on. This is the old man, also a writer. We have the writer motif coming back to help the audiences to understand this fact the same as we reserve the color coding of the costumes. And somebody said to me afterwards, I really love the show. But I don’t understand why you went with, like, a pink . I was like, oh my God, I did. How did I do that? And it was really actually that she was red. But when I dye the clothes, they came out pink. So , you know, I’m talking about the hazards of materials and their infants on what happens. Go to the next one. So there’s a man, he actually took, as he’s examining himself and looking inside himself, he pulls himself apart completely and takes off his skin and his face. There, he’s having a look at himself. But in fact, what he needs to be acknowledging and looking at is this little boy who’s running around in his face trying to get his attention, trying to be seen, like, this interior part that needs to be seen and acknowledged. So he’s looking in the wrong places, but getting down to his skeleton. All right. There’s another image of the heart. So that’s Roberts and I think we’re going on to the next show now. Yes, “The Firebird.” So “The Firebird” based on Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” considering what “The Firebird” is about for me, I looked at the original ballet and there’s this force who is a dark and controlling energy that wants to and these demons. And then there’s also the Firebird. It was a very creative, energetic, inspiring, passionate energy in the production. And the way that I interpreted the Firebird there was almost the opposite now of this previous two shows. The central figure was a human being. So the seeker, the central figure of Prince Ivan in the traditional fiber became my seeker, who’s a woman, a young woman who is trying to find her voice. And it starts off when she has this relationship with flat and with paper, and we see little bits of paper that emerge from her and begin to form flat black images, and eventually they come towards words. But then also at the same time, there’s The Garden of Kastchei. There’s the sense of of threat and destruction and criticism that comes in, and all of those images were created with six snakes and beasts. So the forces of creativity were related to birds and paper. And then the forces of questioning and anxiety were created in sticks. And what happened during the course of the production was that these forces come into conflict within her and they eventually start to blend with each other. As I investigated more and more what it meant to be creative was in the beginning it was quite a clear cut for me. It was like, wow, the great, the wonderful, beautiful spaces of creativity that we feel the inspiration and then how that gets dragged down by the anxiety and the self-criticism and the darker forces that exist within us. So it was quite a clearly dichotomized view. But as me and the whole cast delved into the meaning of these two different forces, we found that it’s actually not the one or the other. Duh, right? They’re both essentially part of a dynamic that without that questioning, without that reconsidering and pulling apart, can we really own who we truly are? So there is the conflict and then in the end you have the beasts and the sticks and so on, blending with the forces of creativity and emerging as the dragon, which is a mixture of the bird and the beast. And on the back of the dragon is flying the child, which is also another element in the production. That’s “The Firebird” in a nutshell. Now I’ve run out of time. Okay. So “The Bluest Eye” shall have to wait.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 26-29, 2023
The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center
740 E. 56th Place

US Premiere

Humans and puppet creatures coil, tangle, knot and mesh together in celebrated South African artist Janni Younge’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Told through beautifully crafted life-size puppets, this captivating production explores the complex psychological facets of humanity facing an onslaught of challenges.

With special support from: The Jim Henson Foundation Allelu Award

Past Performances and Further Reading

Past Reviews/Articles