When a member of Chicago’s theater community was racially profiled, he turned the experience into a short film with the help of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. Here’s a look at a one-man, one-puppet show about the consequences of “walking while Black.”
Jerrell L. Henderson: It’s not about me, right? It’s about the puppet. It’s about making sure I put all of my energy into him, where he’s looking, what he smells, what he hears.
Marc Vitali: Jerrell Henderson demonstrated to “Chicago Tonight” how he manipulates the puppet he calls “JL” – his avatar and co-star of a new short film.
Henderson: I don’t drive, and I get stopped by the police at least three times a year. Just walking home, from bars, from school, going to or coming from work. Simple everyday things that become not so simple and not so ordinary.
Vitali: When he’s out in public, Henderson is hyper-aware.
Henderson: Where are my hands? How am I standing? Will I look aggressive? Well, I looked aggressive enough for them to stop me. I don’t want to make a natural movement that projects aggressiveness to someone that might cause them to end my life.
I resent the fact that I have to break down my human movements because breathing the wrong way or shifting my weight might be seen as an act of aggression for someone who has a weapon and is allowed to discharge that weapon and I don’t have that. I don’t understand why the police get to panic with guns and Black people who get stopped don’t get to panic. That makes no sense to me.
Vitali: It is something he’s had to deal with his entire life.
Henderson: The first time I was followed in the store I was 8 years old, and I didn’t know what was happening, so I asked the guy if he had a problem. And my older brother pulled me to the side and told me that I shouldn’t do that because that if they’re doing that, it means they’re already suspicious of you as a thief. And I wasn’t stealing. I’m not a thief.
Vitali: Henderson’s stage credits include directing, writing and performing. He created this haunting version of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” – produced by renowned puppet artist Heather Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter.
His latest work may be his most personal – even though it depicts a common experience.
Henderson: So many times, the situations that I find myself in because I happen to be Black, I’m not sure if it’s reality or if it’s just in my own mind. So when pieces like this are created, then other people say ‘No, you’re not crazy.’ These things happen. You’re not alone.
So whoever can find a message of helpfulness or joy inside of this – or just sometimes the joy that comes from knowing that other people are angry and upset as well. Other people are fed up. Enough, right? Enough.
That’s really what it’s all about, right? To take care of yourself and heal yourself so that you can then help heal others, hopefully.
Jerrell Henderson’s film is called “I Am the Bear.” It is now available for free viewing via the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival
Follow Marc Vitali on Twitter: @MarcVitaliArts