Sesame Street’s first Black female puppeteer wants to keep inspiration flowingNPR
Updated September 30, 2022 at 6:59 AM ET
It wasn’t until September 2021 that Sesame Street — which started in November 1969 — got its first full-time Black female puppeteer. That’s when Megan Piphus Peace joined the cast full time and landed the role of Gabrielle, a 6-year-old puppet on the classic children’s show.
This month, as she marks one year working with Sesame Street, she’s decided to dedicate her career to entertainment.
“I’m so glad I had the opportunity to be on Sesame Street and encourage other kids to dream as big as their imaginations will allow,” the 29-year-old tells NPR’s Weekend Edition. “I always dreamed of working in television, but I never imagined myself being at Sesame Street.”
A passion for puppetry
Her interest in puppetry and performing started when she was a child.
Piphus Peace says a woman at her church invited her to a puppetry conference where she first learned about the art. She saw female ventriloquists who would sing and tell stories with their characters.
She went home and told her parents she wanted to learn ventriloquism.
“I had never seen a ventriloquist before. And at the time, I didn’t realize that Shari Lewis, one of my idols … was a ventriloquist until I was much older because she was so good,” Piphus Peace says.
“Lamb Chop was my friend and Shari was just her friend too,” she laughs.
Piphus Peace watched tapes, got her own puppet and started entertaining her classmates.
“I realized I found my passion in making children laugh and smile through puppetry.”
Becoming the show’s first Black female puppeteer
Her journey to Sesame Street was preceded by Kevin Clash, a Black male puppeteer who started with the show in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 2021 that a Black female puppeteer would do the same.
“It’s a matter of representation,” Piphus Peace says. “It’s not very often that you see women puppeteers in general and also Black women puppeteers. I can probably count on one hand the number that there are.”
She first performed with Sesame Street in 2020 as part of a special with CNN. Then after a year of training in what she calls Muppet-style puppetry, she formally joined the cast in 2021.
Piphus Peace says she hopes that by being the first Black female puppeteer on the show, more doors will open for women and people of color.
She notes that the show has had Black women in other production positions “who have been woven into the fabric of Sesame Street over the years.” That has inspired her to become a producer one day.
Discussing race on Sesame Street
Piphus Peace praises the show’s team of writers and producers, saying they take the hardest topics and frame them in a way that children can understand.
“One of the lessons that we have was on using your voice. It speaks subtly to equity,” she says. “You know, we didn’t have Gabrielle go into the camera and say, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ She says that we all have a voice that matters and we can use our voice.”
Piphus Peace hopes to bring an unwavering sense of confidence and love of self to her character.
“I want her confidence to just shine through the screen so that little girls and boys around the world are filled with confidence in themselves.”
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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
“Sesame Street” has been on the air since 1969, teaching kids the alphabet and emphasizing values like diversity and inclusion. But it wasn’t until last year that the show got its first full-time Black female puppeteer.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “SESAME STREET”)
MEGAN PIPHUS PEACE: (As Gabrielle) I promise to express how proud I feel about being me by singing and writing poems about who I am.
RASCOE: Megan Piphus Peace piece plays 6-year-old Gabrielle. And her own dreams of becoming a puppeteer started when she was just 10.
PIPHUS PEACE: There was a woman at my church who used puppets to teach vacation Bible school, and she was starting a puppetry team. So she got about 10 to 20 of us together, and we all went to a puppetry conference. And in one of the evening performances, I would see female ventriloquists perform. And they would sing and tell stories with their characters. And I had never seen a ventriloquist before. And at the time, I didn’t realize that Shari Lewis, one of my idols – I grew up watching her show – I didn’t realize she was a ventriloquist until I was much older because she was so good.
RASCOE: And we should say Shari Lewis was the original puppeteer of Lamb Chop.
PIPHUS PEACE: Yeah (laughter). And so I was just amazed by these women – that I didn’t know that it was rare at the time to be a female ventriloquist. It’s a – it’s very much an art form that’s been dominated by men. And so I went home and I told my parents about my experience and that I wanted to learn how to do ventriloquism. And my mom was 100% supportive. She called all the libraries in Ohio and asked if they had tapes on – VHS tapes, of course – on how to do ventriloquism. Got a puppet, took them to school and started to entertain my classmates. And I realized I found my passion in making children laugh and smile through puppetry.
RASCOE: Are there unique challenges to playing a puppet character that may be different to other types of acting? Like, how is it doing the ventriloquism in that puppetry versus what you’re doing now?
PIPHUS PEACE: It was a challenge for me to learn Muppet-style puppetry. We use a monitor to see exactly what the camera is seeing and how our character will appear on screen. So when I move my arm to the left, the monitor shows me going to the right. So that was a difficult part to learn of getting my body to understand what’s happening in the camera frame and how to move smoothly.
RASCOE: Yeah. As we’ve said, you’re the show’s first Black woman puppeteer. Why do you think it took so long?
PIPHUS PEACE: You know, it’s a matter of representation. As I mentioned to you, I was inspired by seeing female ventriloquists on stage, and I was able to see myself through them. So it’s not very often that you see women puppeteers in general and also Black women puppeteers. I can probably count on one hand the number that there are. So I think me being the first is hopefully, going to open up more doors for women and people of color to be inspired to have a job like puppetry and just open the barriers for what’s possible. Being on the set of “Sesame Street,” I was inspired to someday become a producer because I saw Black women producers on “Sesame Street.” So it may have been, you know, 52, 53 years until we’ve gotten our first Black woman puppeteer. But there’s so many people of color who have been woven into the fabric of “Sesame Street” over the years.
RASCOE: In the past, children’s programming, including “Sesame Street,” hasn’t always talked directly about race and racism. But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, “Sesame Street” started this new initiative to help educate kids more directly about race and racial justice. You know, how do you talk to kids about those sorts of issues without scaring them or overwhelming them?
PIPHUS PEACE: We have incredible writers and producers at “Sesame Street” that can take the hardest topics and frame them in a way that a child can understand. One of the lessons that we have was on using your voice. It speaks subtly to equity – that we all have a voice. We all have a voice that matters. You know, we didn’t have Gabrielle go onto the camera and say, Black Lives Matter. She says that we all have a voice that matters, and we can use our voice.
RASCOE: But do you think that there should be, like, direct talk about race or racism or the fact that, you know, certain people, because of the color of their skin, are discriminated against?
PIPHUS PEACE: Yes. We have had direct conversations on the impacts of racism and what racism is. That was my very first recording and conversation performing Gabrielle. It was the CNN town hall. We got several of the “Sesame Street” characters live on CNN, with their correspondents and also with children who had questions. And we were able to answer racism. I remember one of Gabrielle’s lines is, when someone is treated unfairly, based on the color of their skin.
RASCOE: Is there something in particular that you hope to bring to the show and the character of Gabrielle, through your performance of Gabrielle?
PIPHUS PEACE: I hope to bring an unwavering sense of confidence and love of self. I want her confidence to just shine through the screen so that little girls and boys around the world are filled with confidence in themselves.
RASCOE: That’s Megan Piphus Peace, “Sesame Street’s” first Black female puppeteer. Thank you so much for joining us.
PIPHUS PEACE: Thank you so much, Ayesha. Thank you all for listening.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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