Puppetsweat Theater puts on compelling performance at Ballard Institute

A student puppeteer is seen during Puppetsweat Theater's performance of “The Autobiography of James Mars: A Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut” at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (Allen Lang/The Daily Campus)

Puppetsweat Theater put on a compelling performance of “The Autobiography of James Mars: A Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut” at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry Saturday afternoon.

The show followed the true story of a young black boy, James Mars, and his father, Jupiter Mars, as they attempt to escape from slavery and circumvent the complicated slave laws of Connecticut at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

James and his father, mother, brother and sister are owned by a parson in Canaan, Connecticut. When the parson marries a southern woman and wants to bring his slaves to the South with him, Jupiter decides to flee to Norfolk, Connecticut in the dead of night. 

The family is relentlessly hunted by the parson, who desperately wants the two young boys—his most valuable and productive slaves—back. The family endures numerous heart-wrenching separations in order to ensure their safety. 

When James’ brother leaves to live with a different family, James remarks, “and I saw him no more for two years.”

Eventually, after endless months of running and hiding, the family makes a deal with the parson. The parson will free Jupiter, his daughter and his wife and they will get to choose the family the parson will sell the two young boys to. 

“We two boys were sold for 100 pounds per head,” James solemnly states. 

Puppets are seen on stage during Puppetsweat Theater's performance of “The Autobiography of James Mars: A Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut” at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (Allen Lang/The Daily Campus)

The play ends with James making his way to his new master’s home—all by himself. “I now felt for the first time that I was alone in the world,” he remarks. 

Suddenly, James sees his father, who informs him that James’s free family members will be living near him in the neighborhood.

“I went on cheerful and happy,” James concludes.

The play’s “happy” ending was shocking, considering James and his brother were still enslaved. However, it’s a real story based on a pamphlet written by James Mars himself, which can be found at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Mars’s tale reveals the brutality of slavery in New England—an ugly truth that many don’t like to dwell on and often imagine only occurred in the South.

Not only was the show’s storyline fascinating, but so was its medium. Puppetsweat used flat cut-out puppets, projected images and intense music to convey—with heart-wrenching effects—the horrors of human bondage. 

One of the most haunting scenes occurred as Mars recounts a story of his grandmother getting whipped by her master until her blood streams across the floor. The puppet’s distorted face and oozing blood throbbed across the screen, unsettling everyone in the theater.

“We’ve done this show before, but I really wanted to revive it because it’s really one of my favorite of our shows,” Puppetsweat co-founder Leslie A. Weinberg said.

The audience seemed to find the show similarly appealing, breaking out into enthusiastic applause at the show’s close.

Mansfield resident Joelen Gates said she particularly admired its unique design.

“I’d never seen that combination of puppet and some shadow puppetry and film in the background, and I thought it was very unusual. It was totally unexpected and I enjoyed it very much,” she said.


Helen Stec is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at helen.stec@uconn.edu.