Franklin Furnace presents the conversation The Serious Business of Doll Play livestreaming on the global, commons-based, peer-produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Wednesday 16 November 2022 at 3 p.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7) / 5 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 6 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4).
Presented via Zoom on Franklin Furnace Archive’s digital LOFT, The Serious Business of Doll Play features a conversation/discussion illustrated with historic and contemporary objects, photographs, portraits, and performance stills limning the legacy of Lenon Holder Hoyte, known as Aunt Len. Artist and playwright Alva Rogers and doll, puppetry, and object performance scholar Dr. Paulette Richards, in discussion with the public, will provide historical context and a contemporary view of object performance, women’s work, the seminal business of doll play, and demystifying challenging aspects of Alva’s play.
Lenon and her husband purchased the three-story brownstone at 6 Hamilton Terrace between Convent and St. Nicholas Avenues in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in 1938, and it became the home of the museum. Hoyte’s passion for doll collecting began in 1962 when she was asked to organize a doll show fund-raiser for Harlem Hospital. Hoyte then turned part of her brownstone into Aunt Len’s Doll and Toy Museum. The public spaces of her home museum consisted of narrow passageways winding through the ground floor and basement. From 1970 (according to Dolls Magazine) or 1974 (if your source is the New York Times) through 1994, Hoyte served as the full-time executive director, president, curator, and tour guide. Admission fees never exceeded $2 for adults and 50¢ for children. At one time, the museum held close to 6,000 dolls ranging in size from one inch to three feet. Fine French bisque dolls cavorted alongside presidents and first ladies, Shirley Temple, Betsy Wetsy, Barbie, and Cabbage Patch Kids. Hoyte’s collection included extremely rare and singular nineteenth-century Black dolls, including rag dolls made by enslaved people from scraps of muslin and feed bags and a pair of papier-mâché dolls named Lillian and Leo, which were created by Leo Moss, a 19th-century Black handyman from Atlanta. Legend claimed that after separating from his wife and children, Moss only made sad dolls. Lillian and Leo had tears running down their cheeks.
Aunt Len’s Doll and Toy Museum was a community place open to all, a home museum offering children of all ages the chance to engage, hands-on, with dolls and other material objects; to absorb social and cultural history; and to express their unfettered imaginations. Historically, the work of women of color, and doll/object play research, have not been considered scholarly topics. Hoyte believed otherwise. Hoyte worked tirelessly to create a cultural institution for the ages, to turn the status of her museum from a perceived novelty to a seminal and prominent institution. Hoyte became a highly respected expert and was consulted by international aficionados, dealers, and collectors alike. Unlike the once-unknown Arturo Schomburg, who found support for his life’s work in similarly unrespected territory, Len was unable to turn her passion into an endowed institution like Schomburg’s Center for Research in Black Culture. However, that was her intention and she held a million-dollar fundraising drive to enable moving the contents of her home museum into a five-story, four-building complex. “We’ve already go the buildings picked out,” Hoyte was quoted in the September/October 1985 issue of Dolls Magazine.
Alva Rogers’ The Doll Plays has long informed Dr. Paulette Richards’ theoretical insights about African American object performance. She notes in particular how Alva Rogers deploys a topsy turvy doll (two dolls in one, fused at the waist with a single skirt. To play with the Black half-doll, one flips the skirt over the white half-doll, and vice versa). In The Doll Plays, such a doll draws attention to the fact that the enslaved child whose mother has made her this toy is actually the half-sister of the young white girl she serves. Whatever the origins of topsy turvy dolls they function as performing objects similar to transformation puppets. Dr. Richards references the play in several crucial sections of her forthcoming book Object Performance in the Black Atlantic (Routledge 2023), concluding that “the doll plays enact Aunt Len’s deathbed remembrances with live actors playing dolls from her collection. The show plays with scale by also having the doll characters manipulate doll puppets. The Doll Plays culminates when the dolls transform Aunt Len into a doll to keep her safe, so in a sense Rogers animates dolls as performing objects in the realm of ritual.
Rogers and Richards presented on The Doll Plays at the 2020 Women’s Theater Festival. Subsequently, Dr. Richards, as a member of the advisory board for the University of Connecticut’s Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, brokered the inclusion of two Kara Walker shadow puppets from The Doll Plays in the museum’s Puppetry’s Racial Reckoning Exhibit which ran from 28 May to 30 October, 2021.
As Alva explains, The Serious Business of Doll Play is meaningful now because current events have created the need for enchantment and inspiration from our past to give us direction, hope, and solace.
“I am inspired by Hoyte, an artist, and a retired NYC school teacher who wanted museum-goers of all ages to address her affectionately as Aunt Len. As a motherless daughter, I was obsessed with dolls, but I did not grow up with many. My father never purchased dolls for me, but I remember learning how to make cloth dolls as a child. When I would go on vacations or travel for work, I would always seek antique shops and look for dolls and other antiques. I could not always purchase them, but I photographed said dolls. So, when I learned in the late eighties of a doll museum in NYC, I had to find it immediately. I was called to it as a place to engage with my inner child’s imagination. Upon first arriving in Hoyte’s glorious Harlem brownstone, I was in awe upon being led through the museum’s parlor floor and basement galleries. I made several additional visits, but each connection with Aunt Len became more difficult. She began to forget our appointments–and my name–until she saw my face. Yes, dementia was moving in on Aunt Len–on one of my last visits, a neglected pipe burst and flooded the museum.
Fast forward to 1999. I was a first-year graduate student at Brown University in Creative Writing. While reading The New York Times obituaries, I see Aunt Len has died, and most items in her collection were auctioned at Sotheby’s to private collectors to pay for her care. I was saddened to learn that not only had Aunt Len passed, but NYC was unable to care for this treasure. Neither Schomburg nor the Museum of the City of New York recognized the gem in their midst. It was then I decided to write my graduate thesis about Aunt Len and what she had created for the children of Harlem.
Our culture values neither the historical importance of doll play, nor the “home” and “creative-at-home-work” of women of color, as activities worthy of humanist scholarship. But what Aunt Len put into collecting, researching, and contextualizing her dolls was scholarship. The fate of my play has sort of followed the fate of Aunt Len’s Doll & Toy Museum, in that the doll plays has not yet found a producer or a publisher. A lot of this has to do with the disregard that mainstream theater has for object performance and the historical disregard that puppetry has for dolls. I must resuscitate Aunt Len’s vital and indispensable life’s work for the greater common good.”
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Alva Rogers is an artist and dramatist based in NYC. Following an influential early career as a member of the performance collective Rodeo Caldonia, and as an improvisational vocalist, and film actor (Spike Lee’s School Daze, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust), Rogers concentrated more on writing and furthering her study of America’s first reconstruction period. She earned graduate degrees from NYU/TISCH (MFA), Brown University (MFA), and Bard College (MAT/History). Soon her plays began to appear regularly in developmental readings and workshops across the country, among them: The Bride Who Became Frightened When She Saw Life Open, a dream narrative (The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1998); scooping the darkness empty (New York Public Theater, 2004; Women Playwright’s Festival-Seattle Repertory Theatre, 2006); and what remnants remain (Dixon Place, 2006).
Her plays have been produced by Atlanta’s Actor’s Express Theater (The Doll Plays, 2002), New Georges in residence at HERE (belly, three shorts, 2003), and (virtually) at The National Women’s Theatre Fringe Festival (the life before/reconstruction/reconstructing whiteness, 2021). Rogers’ musicals (written with composer Bruce Monroe), Night bathing, Sunday, and Mermaid, have had readings at the New Work Now Festival at The Public and The Women’s Project, New York. She was a TCG Playwright-in-Residence at the Public Theater and has been the recipient of a Bessie Award, as well as grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Jim Henson Foundation, the Playwriting Award from the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) and Franklin Furnace Archive. Julie and Roman, her most recent play, was commissioned by the Lucas Artist Residency/Montalvo Arts Center in 2019, and it will be produced at the Tank Theater in New York City in 2023. Rogers will premier a new performance at Museum of Modern Art in February 2023 and an adaptation of The Doll Plays, as a puppet theatrical titled Harlem Doll Palace, will be presented at Dixon Place in 2023.
Dr. Paulette Richards
Dr. Paulette Richards originally trained as an academic researcher and teacher dedicated to bringing the history and culture of Africans in diaspora into the humanities. A 2013-2014 Fulbright Scholar in Senegal, Dr. Richards served on the faculty at Georgetown University, Loyola University New Orleans, and Georgia Tech. She also worked to make this knowledge accessible to communities within and outside of the academy by producing documentary videos such as When A House Is Not A Home, about mortgage fraud in Atlanta’s Historic West End District. Most recently, Dr. Richards presented on two Puppetry and Social Justice panels organized by UNIMA-USA for the International Puppet Fringe NYC.
One of these presentations illustrated how an ordinary citizen was able to preserve his mother’s puppetry career for the archival record by digitizing her papers, thereby building the general audience’s capacity to participate in the process of humanities research by digitizing their own personal archives. Recipient of a 2019 New York Public Library residency fellowship, and a 2021 Doris Duke Foundation grant, she recently served as co-curator of the Living Objects: African American Puppetry exhibit at the University of Connecticut’s Ballard Institute and Museum. Paulette Richards holds a PhD from the University of Virginia. Her doctoral dissertation is “Airing the Dirty Linen: A Critical Introduction to Mayotte Capécia’s Strategies of Reading Colonial History in Je suis martiniquaise,” and her third book, Object Performance in the Black Atlantic, is forthcoming from Routledge in 2023.
This event is made possible with funds from Humanities New York, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the New York State Council on the Arts, and friends and members of Franklin Furnace Archive.
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