Off-Broadway Play Uses Puppets to Tell a Powerful Environmental Story

Ajijaak is separated from her parents soon after she hatches and must find her own way through their migration route. (Photo: Richard Termine)

By 1941, there were just 23 whooping cranes in the United States, down from 10,000. Their populations had been decimated by habitat destruction and hunting. Today there are around 800 of the large, white-feathered birds in the wild, the result of diligent conservation work undertaken by a number of organizations including the Rhode Island Zoo. That's where Heather Henson, as a student intern, once used a crane puppet to teach baby cranes how to walk.

Henson, the founder of IBEX Puppetry and daughter of "Muppets" creator Jim Henson, has kept cranes close to her heart since then. It's her compassion for the long-legged migrating birds that formed the seed of the show, "Ajijaak on Turtle Island," playing at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street in New York City.

Working with Grammy Award winner Ty Defoe, a Native American multidisciplinary artist, Henson uses her experience and puppetry expertise to create a show that's about much more than cranes — though the graceful birds do inform the gorgeous swooping visuals and are the backbone of the story. The show is also about the relationship of indigenous communities to the environment, specifically in North America. It also takes an honest look at the dominant culture's current relationship with our shared natural world, pointing out the imbalances.

An image from the play of a giant turtle that comes apart into various pieces.
In many Indigenous cultures, North America is called Turtle Island, due to its shape resembling a turtle from above; that idea was illustrated with puppets in the play. (Photo: Richard Termine)

"Ajijaak on Turtle Island" covers these challenging topics with a light hand — it's a show primarily aimed at children. It's an impressive bit of storytelling that unfolds in glorious balance between the story of a young lost crane (Ajijaak) who has to find her parents; it's also a simple parable about the havoc caused by environmental destruction, all told by Native American singers, dancers, drummers and puppeteers.

As the small crane makes her way through six environments, much of the story of is told using visual cues. Puppets at each stop in Ajijaak's journey are created from materials local to the ecosystem — like the bison puppets, which sport shaggy coats that look as if they are made from grasses local to that habitat. These details were important to both Defoe and Henson, who both emphasized the importance of visual storytelling.

Indeed, the land is one of the characters in the show: "The land is a living entity and is a relative to our people, and should be treated as such," says Defoe. Each environment is given due consideration and respect in the stage design and storytelling.

Two shaggy bison on stage with Ajijaak the crane flying above them.
The Bison in the grasslands ecosystem are shaggy from the grasses that make up their puppet forms, a creative homage to the animals' place on the continent. (Photo: Richard Termine)

One of the threads that connects these ecosystems (and almost all life on Earth) is water, which appears in the show in several ways, from flowing silk fabrics overhead, to mimed drinking, to filled copper buckets that are carried, to projections of rivers and estuaries.

"Water is what connects all of us," says Henson of the repeated theme. "Water is crucial, the lifeblood of Mother Earth," adds Defoe. Like the native plants and moon motifs, it's one of the many subtle elements of storytelling that incorporate so many ecological ideas.

Music and dancing are an important part of the show too, and the music by Dawn Avery & Larry Mitchell, Kevin Tarrant, and Ty Defoe, with lyrics by Ty Defoe and Dawn Avery had the whole audience singing along for the several interactive parts of the performance. That's important, says Henson, who hopes bringing the audience into the action will encourage them to learn more after the show and ultimately to help them "know a different way to be in relationship with nature."

Although adults will find plenty to love, and the visuals are hardly kid's stuff, this show is aimed directly at children. "I hope when the youth come to see the show, they're inspired to take leadership and take action. There's opportunity for change," says Defoe.

That change can't come quickly enough as we look at ever-shorter timelines for taking action on climate change and other environmental threats. "It's not about the taking, but about the giving. Mother Earth doesn't need us, but we need her," says Defoe.

You can see scenes from the play in the play in the video below. The New York show is a limited run that ends March 10, but IBEX will continue its storytelling throughout the year.