Junauda Petrus-Nasah has often taken on topics of fantasy and the other worldly in her work as a novelist, theater-maker and poet. Her book “The Stars and the Blackness Between Them,” for example, wove magical realism with elements of astrology and Afro-Caribbean spirituality. With her latest project, the Minneapolis writer and artist ponders what we can learn from dinosaurs.
A bit over two years ago, Petrus-Nasah began working on her latest puppet theater piece, “The Impact Theory of Mass Extinction,” opening at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOBT) this week. Ever since she began thinking about the project, she has noticed how many other Black people besides herself are really into dinosaurs.
“It’s interesting the ways that I’ve been like, ‘Oh. Black people and dinosaurs intersect in the Zeitgeist in all these interesting ways,” Petrus-Nasah says.
The poet Danez Smith talks about making a dinosaur movie in “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” for example. In the poem, Smith describes a scene where a Black boy plays with a toy dinosaur on a bus, and then sees a T. Rex. “his eyes wide & endless,” the poem describes the boy. “his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there.”
Then there’s Motown singer Valerie Simpson, of Ashford & Simpson, known for their hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” As a solo artist, Simpson wrote the song “Dinosaurs are Coming Back.”
Recently, Petrus-Nasah was in Los Angeles, and ran into actress Thandiwe Newton. “I was like, at this flea market, and I’m just noticing a woman. I don’t even realize that it’s her, but a Black woman with braids and a dinosaur earring.” Petrus-Nasah complimented the earring, and then recalls Newton saying, “Oh, I love dinosaurs. Do you know they are still around?”
Petrus-Nasah also has recently had experiences like noticing a Black person with a dinosaur backpack. “It initially seemed very personally interesting, because of my love for dinosaurs and Jurassic Park, and some of these kind of ideas of ancestral existence before humans,” she says. “I was referring to them as the ancestors before the ancestors.”
In her new play, two Black, queer teens in the 1980s discover dinosaur bones in their south Minneapolis home, and end up traveling to prehistoric times to learn from the dinosaurs before they become extinct.
Working with director Harry Waters Jr., puppet and set designer Steve Ackerman and a team of puppet artists, Petrus-Nasah creates a dinosaur reality that is very sensuous, with creatures that are loving, inclusive and intuitive. It contrasts with the time period of the 1980s, which on the one hand was a time period of disinvestment into urban neighborhoods, but also immense creativity through the birth of hip-hop and other aspects of popular culture.
That mix of utopia and dystopia isn’t so dissimilar to today, two years after the murder of George Floyd. “In this moment of reckoning with what is the identity of the city, what is the identity of south Minneapolis, it feels very poignant to be making public art about Black girls and dinosaurs,” Petrus-Nasah says.
Working with HOBT is a bit of a return for Petrus-Nasah, who attributes the theater along with Pillsbury House Theatre as places where she first blossomed as an artist. Petrus-Nasah worked with HOBT as an artist for many years, on stage productions as well as the MayDay Parade and Festival. Most recently, she was a consultant with the organization through her collective Free Black Dirt.
The theater has undergone significant changes in the past few years. In 2019, Free Black Dirt helped HOBT develop a comprehensive community engagement plan, which included a new MayDay Council, made up of artists and community members who were Black, Indigenous and people of color to find ways to make the festival more equitable and accessible.“I feel like the legacy of In the Heart of the Beast is so profound and beautiful and amazing artistically,” Petrus-Nasah says. “The institutional aspect of it has been very bittersweet and complex. A lot of artists, even in their gratitude for getting to explore the creativity they explored, it was often at some other personal cost.”
Right now, Petrus-Nasah sees the organization as at a crossroads. “I feel like In Heart of the Beast has really tried to do the very messy, difficult, soulful work of how do we get in right relationship with all of the kinds of people who are here, all the different kinds of artistry, all of the legacies of cultural impact that are a part of this experience,” Petrus Nasah says. “There’s a part of me, my little south Minneapolis kid’s self that’s like, I want it to exist forever, and to be reimagined and reclaimed by a community group of artists that are able to hold the legacy and its complexity and trauma and beauty and innovation with a therapeutic and healing hand.”In the meantime, Petrus is no longer working as a consultant with the theater, but solely as an artist working on a piece about dinosaurs, extinction and rebirth.“I’m just the random chick running around with puppets,” she says.
“The Impact Theory of Mass Extinction” opens June 16 and runs through June 26 at the Avalon Theater in Minneapolis. (Tickets are $30 with a sliding scale option and numerous free performances.) More information here.