NEW YORK — “Ooh, I’m so smiley,” actor Alex Weisman laughs after filming a scene, flanked by his scene partners, both humans and Muppets.
“It’s ‘Sesame Street’ – of course you’re smiley,” replies longtime cast member and now-director Alan Muraoka.
Last week marked one of the first days since COVID-19 shut down production in 2020 that a visitor was allowed on set at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens where an episode set to stream on HBO Max this fall was being filmed. And while the subject matter is under wraps, it shouldn’t be a spoiler to suggest that joy, diversity and education are on the call sheet.
For Black History Month, we’re looking back at the inception of “Sesame Street” and its role in providing positive representation to young Black viewers. More than 53 years after its debut, the children’s television juggernaut continues to be a leader when it comes to helping kids feel seen by showing characters and families that look like them, and educating others on experiences that may differ from their own.
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Leveling the playing field, providing positive representation
“Sesame Street,” which debuted in 1969, was born out of the intersection of the civil rights movement, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty and subsequent Head Start program, which was meant to provide early childhood education and other necessities to low-income families.
Founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrissett based the concept for the show around one question, says Akimi Gibson, VP of Formal Learning and Racial Justice Content at Sesame Workshop: “Can television be used to teach children and level the playing field for adults most disenfranchised by societal conditions?”
The “Sesame Street” neighborhood, designed to resemble the historically Black community of Harlem, was another way of providing positive representation for communities that were often underrepresented in entertainment.
Backed by educational research, Sesame understood that characters, whether they’re creatures, human-like Muppets or actual humans, can help reaffirm children’s identities by reflecting their own skin tones, hair textures, cultures and languages through the TV screen, Gibson added.
And it resonated heavily with audiences.
Megan Piphus makes show history as first Black woman puppeteer
“‘Sesame Street’ was a real community that I could be part of, but I don’t think I understood the depth of that relationship as a kid watching the show,” says Megan Piphus, who in 2020 became the show’s first Black woman puppeteer. “But they were part of the community that that raised me, and it’s so beautiful now to be part of a show that has such a great responsibility for educating our children and raising our children.”
Piphus’ journey to Sesame Street began with an Instagram message in 2018 to Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, puppeteer for Abby Cadabby, the bright pink fairy-in-training Muppet, who shared her work with “Sesame Street” producers. It wasn’t until March 2020, when production had come to a halt and gave the team time to look through old submissions, that she was invited to join the show.
“I immediately saw myself represented through her,” Piphus says of her muppet, Gabrielle, who wears her curly hair up in two Afro puffs.
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Amid worldwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd in summer 2020, “Sesame Street” partnered with CNN for a virtual town hall about racism, inviting children and families to ask experts, activists, educators and familiar “Sesame Street” characters about what was going on in the world.
“It’s a superpower to be able to take those big issues and explain them so a 2- or 3-year-old can understand and that’s one of the reasons I think ‘Sesame Street’ has been around for over 50 years,” Piphus says.
“It may have been Mister Rogers who said that play is the love language of children. And when we do puppetry, we’re speaking their language. … That’s what keeps their attention. We’re living inside of their imagination.”
Behind the scenes, the larger Sesame Workshop team knew it was important to meet families, whether they were facing challenges directly or from a distance, Gibson says.
“We help parents understand from a child development point of view how best to talk about these things, how best to name (them) in ways (that) build reassurance that they have a family structure, as well as to help children make sense of what they may be observing,” Gibson adds.
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Creating positive memories for the next generation
Gabrielle has also been joined in recent years by new Muppets Tamir, her energetic 8-year-old cousin who loves comic books and is a vegetarian, and 5-year-old Wes and his dad, Elijah, who helped teach Elmo about racial literacy.
Last fall, the “Sesame Street” team visited communities in Long Island, Queens, Brooklyn and Harlem to connect with viewers face-to-muppety-face.
“I felt like it was the real ‘Who are the people in your neighborhood?'” Piphus says. “Gabrielle got to play with real kids. That was a special moment to be able to really bring the characters to life in person.”
As season 53 streams on HBO Max through this summer, and later airs on PBS, the season’s core curriculum will continue to spread messages about “positive identity and sense of belonging,” Gibson says.
“I hope that I can create this wonderful positive memory for the next generation,” Piphus says. “When I look back on my experience watching ‘Sesame Street,’ I remember very specific, beautiful moments … I’m just hoping that 15, 20 years from now, the next generation can have beautiful memories of friendships and community and kindness.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black History Month: How ‘Sesame Street’ was created for kids of color