People with the ability and talent to perform the art of puppetry are far and few.
Puppetry is an art form familiar to most Americans through live performances or taped presentations. It can be seen in theaters, public parks, auditoriums, playhouses and the streets.
Very few if any can name or identify a black person performing this art. And this is a reality across America.
The good folks of Orangeburg County can claim the notoriety of knowing a black woman who has an exceptional talent of performing the art of puppetry through a religious ministry.
In 2009, I witnessed a puppet show performance during the celebration of a birthday party. What was so unusual was the puppeteer was a black female, Glenda J. Middleton, the wife of local Allstate insurance agent Alonzo Middleton.
Ten years later, I witnessed Glenda Middleton performing again in the same type of setting. I was truly amazed that she had mastered this art with a high degree of professionalism in her performance.
After those years, it was quite obvious that she had worked very hard to entertain an audience and bring joy and laughter for the people. I found it out of the ordinary for a black woman to entertain an audience with the art of puppetry.
Middleton has developed into a professional puppeteer and is the director of the Puppetry Ministry at the Greater Faith Baptist Church in Orangeburg. The group performs one Sunday each month during the praise and worship segment in the church program. The group has performed in Bamberg and other locations around Orangeburg.
Middleton began her love for the world of puppeteering in 1995 when she was introduced through a church ministry. A group of interested members formed the team ministry of puppeteering.
Middleton said everyone was given a booklet titled, "To Be or Not to Be a Puppeteer.”
She practiced at home every day, working to develop her arm muscles and hands, learning how to use her thumbs and reading scripts. Those components have to be mastered in order to give your audience an enjoyable performance. It is very important that one develop stamina and endurance.
She gives credit for her success and motivation to Betty Jenkins, who had attended a church workshop in Columbia. Jenkins brought plans back to Greater Faith and the Puppetry Ministry took off. She collected all the necessary materials: how to build a stage, props, scripts and books on the art of puppetry. Also, certain guidelines must be followed to perfect a performance.
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“The team had to learn the scripts and hang them up so that you would know where you are. Synchronization is the key in performing a show and not flipping the puppet, which is called 'flipping the lid.' And you had to always know where your audience is seated. Most important, you have to make the puppet come to life by wording, synchronization, using your arms with motion," Middleton said.
"You learn who your character is and you study it, just like and actor or actress. And then you act it out accordingly. The world of puppeteering requires hours of practice and you have to constantly work at it. You have to develop strength in your arms and hands, therefore you practice, practice, practice.
"There are times when the performance becomes physically tiring and you have to rest when you get home. Sometimes, you almost have to get under the bed. Its tiring but exhilarating at the same time because it’s a ministry," Middleton said.
"You have to learn how to enter properly and exit properly and the team members have to learn how to support each other. While you are in your character, you try to talk to the audience and get them to respond to you. You have to constantly practice, practice, practice. At this stage of my performance, I have mastered the physical aspects of puppeteering," she said.
"My favorite puppet character is Cinnamon because of her redness and appearance. She is a little feisty, so I have to take on her personality. I don’t get crazy with it but you know where you are and you ask the Lord for wisdom and knowing what to say, how it should be said and you take on their personality. Most of our church members love Cinnamon.
"A lot of times, you try to interact with the audience and if they are not responsive, I would say something like, 'Isn’t God good!' You always listen for their response. 'Can y’all hear me out there? Hello, what’s happening? Good morning Greater Faith! Hey now!' We try to captivate the audience."
The average skit could be five pages but the performance is usually about three to five minutes. There are directions in all of the skits and everything that you need is right there except the puppet.
"We try to get feedback from the audience and sometimes they don’t say nothing. After such a performance is over, you say, ''Well, we completed it.'
"The thing that blesses my heart after the service is over is when people would say, 'I just loved that song. Who was that? That was good!' Those comments just bring so much joy to my soul because I need to hear that.”
A former teacher of Middleton, Mary Stroman, said, “Glenda was a sweet student, high academics, always polite and very religious. She had the potential to master anything that she did.”
Middleton has two sons, Alonzo and Zackary, who assist her when she needs them. Her husband Alonzo is her main supporter in the ministry, which she has taken on to encourage all others through the art of puppetry.
Glenda Middleton has been involved with her puppetry ministry for nearly 25 years. Her love of our Lord and Savior has led her to encourage and uplift mankind through the use of puppets. By way of the different puppets that are being displayed in a performance, she connects her audience with God by encouraging people spiritually through the puppets.
She is truly a servant of our God. She said, “I love the Lord and this is my way of displaying my feelings and what I do to give encouragement to God’s people. I get tremendous joy in our puppetry ministry. I just love doing it.”
Richard Reid is president of the Orangeburg Historical and Genealogical Society. His mission is researching Orangeburg history, with a particular emphasis on the role of African-Americans in that history.