When Pierce Freelon first encountered Tarish Pipkins, or the puppeteer known as Jeghetto, he was too taken aback by Pipkins' contraptions to take notice of their maker.
"I saw a little person going in on a child's cello, killin' it," Freelon remembers of a 2010 craft market at Durham's Motorco Music Hall. "I got a little closer and come to find out, it was Jeghetto, working a puppet. But the movements were so natural and organic. The puppet was awkwardly proportioned, because he wasn't a real person. But it took me a minute to even realize that I was looking at a puppet."
It is a Sunday afternoon at Durham's Vegan Flava Cafe. Once a week, the restaurant's rear dining room is reserved for qigong, an ancient Chinese "life-energy" practice that integrates meditation, holistic medicine and wushu martial arts. For Freelon, the bandleader of The Beast and a hip-hop educator and activist, the sessions serve as a yoga alternative and an opportunity for intergenerational bonding among area men of color. He's occasionally convinced a few students from his Beat Making Lab in Chapel Hill to carpool with him.
Today, though, he's accompanied by Pipkins, 43. In 2010, had Freelon not been so entranced by the cello-playing puppet's human likeness, he might have noticed that Pipkins manipulated his latest wooden device with movements that suggested the grace and precision of qigong, only set to a hip-hop beat.
"The puppet had so much character," says Freelon, "it rendered Jeghetto invisible."
Freelon, of course, eventually noticed Pipkins, and he was so impressed with the display that he invited the puppeteer to join him onstage later that night for a performance at Duke University. That show became the start of a working relationship that will produce its most noteworthy results when Freelon and Pipkins premiere their reimagined version of the classic Pinocchio tale—the Afro-futurist hip-hop opera 5P1N0K10 (pronounced "spinokio")—at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art.
For Pipkins, the production represents the culmination of an unexpected, exciting year. A year ago, Pipkins and Freelon were working on 5P1N0K10 when California-based puppet-building team Furry Puppet Studios recruited Pipkins to help bring the dancing marionettes in Missy Elliott's "WTF" music video to life. In the clip, Pipkins is the puppeteer behind Pharrell Williams' limber dance moves and drumming. So far, the video has earned more than 24 million YouTube views and Pipkins a lot of new attention. In mid-December, he even joined Elliott and Williams for a live performance of "WTF" on the season finale of The Voice.
All of this happened two years after Pipkins flew to Hollywood to audition for another television competition, America's Got Talent. That didn't go as well.
"The judges had no idea what to do with me [as an African-American master puppeteer]. Everything is categorized out there," he remembers. "They just X'd me and sent me home."
Raised in Pittsburgh, Pipkins wanted to be a visual artist for as long as he can remember. But he only started making wire sculptures 12 years ago, not long after he'd turned 30.
"I would twist the wire until it turned into a form," he says. "It looked like scribble, so I used to call it '3-D scribble.' One day I added joints and clothes. My first puppets were made out of wire—real abstract."
Soon, Pipkins began recycling old PVC pipes and wood scraps into more discernible, lifelike puppets. Pipkins subsequently moved to Chapel Hill, taking a job at the Carrboro restaurant Spotted Dog. One of the owners discovered Pipkins' away-from-work craft and suggested he busk with his puppets in front of the restaurant. He could introduce his skill to the community and convert intrigued pedestrians into fans. Many full tip jars and a few gigs later, Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger—co-founders of area institution Paperhand Puppet Intervention—spotted Pipkins and his puppets and offered him a part in 2009's The Hungry Ghost.
Around the same time, Pipkins concocted the alter ego "Jeghetto," a play on the fictional woodcarver Mister Geppetto, who built the Pinocchio marionette in the original story. That was the start of his big idea.
"I said, 'You know what? I need a Pinocchio. I'm going to make a breakdancing robot called 5P1N0K10 and he's going to do headspins,'" Pipkins says. Building a puppet with such specialized acrobatic capabilities posed several engineering challenges. Pipkins borrowed traits from two-dozen puppet types to build his 4-foot-tall b-bot protagonist.
"You got the classic families, such as rod puppets, hand puppets and Muppets like the Sesame Street marionettes with the strings," explained Pipkins. "I merge them together to get the movement that I need. I'll make a rod puppet, but I'll have strings on it to manipulate the hands, and rods on the feet."
He then merged his breakdancing robot hero with the creation myth of the Pinocchio character. Beyond that, there are few similarities between the classic tale and 5P1N0K10. You won't find any fairies, donkeys, talking crickets or expanding noses in Pipkins' work. Instead, the story occurs in the distant future, when a tyrannical ruling class has stolen a master engineer's toy-making technology to create warring robots. After retreating to the underground world, Jeghetto builds an oppression-fighting b-boy robot, 5P1N0K10. His goal? Restoring humanity in a dystopian future overrun with militarization, racism, homelessness and hunger.
Many of those same themes shape Freelon's own Pan-African agitprop as a community activist and emcee of The Beast. Recognizing the similarity, Pipkins asked Freelon if The Beast would score his new screenplay. Freelon would need to provide his bandmates with rough sketches for certain scenes and then let them fill in the missing parts by developing short phrases or loops to serve as 5P1N0K10's musical background.
A year ago, Pipkins almost became the visual background for Elliott when he was "inches from being in the 2015 Super Bowl halftime show with Missy Elliott," he says. He had made a 4-foot-tall "twerking robot puppet" of the rapper for the eventual "WTF" clip, but the puppet didn't make the shoot. Pipkins resubmitted it, albeit too late, for the halftime show.
Now, though, Pipkins is simply looking forward to the completion of his own production with Freelon and for a few more audacious projects together. He and Freelon, for instance, will soon pitch N.C. State's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering on the idea of placing robotics inside 5P1N0K10—to, as Pipkins puts it, "make it walk."
The huge puppet firms, celebrity music videos, prime-time television, academia: None of this seems to have intimidated Pipkins. It's only inspired him to try more audacious projects, this production included.
"My craft is too..." begins Pipkins, pausing to consider the flattering descriptors available—masterful, unequivocal, uncanny?
"People are blown away by what I do," he says instead. "You have puppet builders and you have puppeteers: I do both very well. All the puppeteers respect that."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pulling strings"