It's unlikely that any of the children who were there, not to mention their adult minders, will ever forget the day the monsters came to life at the Chapel Hill Public Library, as if they'd crawled out of the stiff pages of the picture books, suddenly inhabited by a strange, sinuous soul.
As futuristic music and a vocoder voice-over begin to weave a tale of time travel and brotherly love, two robots, one big and one small, converge upon a silver time machine at the center of a black-draped table. The time machine is a cardboard box; the robots are made of skeletal, featureless wood. At rest, they look more like poseable anatomy models than finished puppets. But they spring to life the instant they start moving, and not in the broad way of the world's most famous puppets, the Muppets. They don't caper or pratfall. Their motions are exquisitely deliberate, expressing subtle gestures in their prodigiously jointed frames. Though the theme is sci-fi, the theater is classical—its slowness has echoes of Japanese Noh, while the visibility of the puppeteers harks back to bunraku. The children are so enthralled by the robots that they hardly notice the boy and the man, dressed all in black, who stand silently behind the table, manipulating the marionettes with strings.
The boy is Tarin Pipkins, a nine-year-old puppeteer. The man is his father, Tarish Pipkins, who is forty-five but looks much younger. He says that when a puppeteer reaches a certain skill level, he can vanish in plain view. Pipkins's unassuming demeanor serves this cause—his calm, quiet way of speaking and his deep, warm laugh, which slowly rumbles up his slim frame. But his laid-back personality belies his confidence and drive: this is someone who makes connections, follows through, and gets things done, qualities that don't always come along with such outsize artistic inspiration.
Pipkins is also able to disappear because the puppets he builds and controls as Jeghetto—a self-styled hip-hop Geppetto, the creator-father of Pinocchio—are so awesome. The effortless way he makes a finely articulated sea serpent ripple through the air turns a library activity room into the ocean floor. His pièce de résistance, a thigh-high Tyrannosaurus rex, strides with more bouncing weight and ferocious grace than anything in Jurassic Park.
The children sitting on the floor murmur and jockey for position during the robot section of the show, which is called Time Machine. But the entrance of the T. rex raises the pitch in the room to something bordering on anarchy. None of them seem afraid as the dinosaur approaches them and lifts its head to unleash a mighty roar. They reach out to pet it as the back rows start to surge forward, though a few kids lose their nerve when they get too close.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Jeghetto demonstrates his lion puppet for children at the Chapel Hill Public Library
In this modest setting, you wouldn't guess that Pipkins has reached the upper echelon of his profession. But he knows it, and says so with the earned assurance of someone who has gone from barbering and busking to working with Chapel Hill's Paperhand Puppet Intervention; from there to national TV alongside the likes of Missy Elliott, Pharrell Williams, Steve Harvey, and Alec Baldwin; and onward, earning a Jim Henson Foundation grant to develop 5P1N0K10, his hip-hopera with The Beast bandleader and Durham mayoral candidate Pierce Freelon.
"I can always improve on it," Pipkins says of his puppetry. "But I think there's a level where you can only be so good at something, and I think I'm in that group. My fans call me a master, so I'm going to go ahead and go with that."
Pipkins can say things like this without sounding cocky both because he's so good and because he says it so quietly. He created his artistry from scratch, the evidence right there in his puppets, which are made from recycled materials, delicately wrought but left raw and open to show the magic of their jointure, where the uncanny illusion of life resides. But even as Pipkins's genius gains rightful recognition on the national landscape, his most important work is still passing it along, charged with an Afrocentric perspective that stands out in his field, to a generation of kids who can see themselves in it more fully than they can in either hip-hop or Sesame Street alone.