FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: Janni Younge

Janni Younge: Hamlet

January 26-28, 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.

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