Every year, on a chilly October afternoon, the routine hustle and bustle of West Philadelphia is interrupted, both visually and audibly, by a congregation that resembles something out of a spirit realm.
Towering puppets surrounded by evocative, solid–colored banners proceed down the street, silhouetted against rows of homes and power lines strung across the sky. One is a colossal, black–bodied skeleton, another a larger–than–life giant with poles attached to its limbs, and the remainder an eclectic collection of characters existing somewhere between abstraction and reality. Beating through the brisk autumn air in the background is the sound of drums—an immovable heartbeat of the neighborhood in which it resounds. While the details of this scene vary from year to year, the puppets and sounds constitute a West Philadelphia tradition that has been around for decades: Spiral Q Puppet Theater’s annual Peoplehood Parade.
Spiral Q is an organization that builds community through art—specifically, puppet–making, performance, and the expression of culture. This Saturday, Oct. 20, the organization will host its 19th Peoplehood Parade, a community tradition of people citywide walking in celebration of those living and working at the forefront of anti–oppression and anti–discrimination work. Peoplehood is the organization’s largest event of the year, engaging activists, community groups, and citizens across Philadelphia to join together and walk in solidarity. Preparations for the parade begin in late spring, rolling through a carefully considered theme selection and brainstorming process before launching into a puppet–creating community effort in the studio.
Each year, parade processors revolve around a central, timely theme. In past years, Peoplehood has had themes honoring black lives, protesting recessions and bailouts for big banks, and championing the importance of democracy. This year’s theme, in partnership with the Trans Equity Project, is “Give Us Our Roses: Honoring Trans Lives,” which pays homage to the quote “Give us our roses while we’re still here”—a rallying cry against the extreme violence perpetrated against transgender bodies. “The quote means ‘Honor and love us while we’re still here,’” says Spiral Q co–director Jennifer Turnbull. “‘Don’t wait until we’re dead to mourn us.’”
Violence against the transgender community, as well as the wider LGBT community, is deeply rooted in history. Members of the community are targeted for their perceived violation of heteronormative rules and revolve around fixed mindsets of gender and sexual roles. From the police harassment incidents protested in the 1969 Stonewall riots, the Dewey’s lunch counter sit–in in 1965, and the Compton’s cafeteria riot of 1966 up until now, extreme violence continues to be an issue that weighs down on the lives of the LGBT community.
The Peoplehood Parade will walk in three sections in recognition of this struggle: Remembrance, Resistance, and Resilience. “Remembrance” will serve to memorialize murdered folks in the Philadelphia transgender community with rose crowns and portraits of the deceased. “Resistance” will embody a more demanding sentiment, with giant cardboard puppets representing the power of oppressed communities. Finally, “Resilience” will symbolize the ability to carry on in the wake of tragedy and will feature a giant unicorn puppet, participants wearing the binary colors of the trans flag, and more.
The back of the parade will feature Peoplehood classics, such as people wearing patterned cardboard houses to show the organization’s deep connection with the community. The houses make a return appearance every year, to the delight of many families. “Some kids make it their personal goal to grow big enough to fit into the houses,” Liza says.
The Peoplehood route will commence at the Paul Robeson House on 49th and Walnut streets, a historical landmark house that offers space for art and community events. From there, participants will meander through West Philadelphia streets until they arrive at Clark Park. According to Turnbull, the whole event is an “extremely site-specific” West Philadelphia tradition—its route pointedly steers clear of landmarks like Front Street in favor of more local, narrow streets. “We’re really getting inside the neighborhood and making the local connections,” she says.
Once the congregation reaches Clark Park, a spectacular pageantry will take place in the park’s “dog bowl”—a dried–up former pond that now resembles a football field with its rolling greens and wide–open space. Drill teams will kick off the event as the people and puppets in the parade celebrate. Turnbull has choreographed two dances for the occasion. The first will accompany a chant honoring murdered members of the transgender community that intersperses eleven names of the victims in total with the words, “Say their name!”—similar to the chorus structure in the 2015 protest song “” by Janelle Monáe. The second dance, called the “Healing and Reconciliation Dance,” is an ensemble participatory flash mob-style dance that embodies the violence inflicted on the bodies of minorities. Turnbull, who hopes onlookers will want to join in after watching the dance for a few minutes, has carefully tailored her choreography to be accessible to anyone. “The dream is that the whole bowl in Clark Park is filled with people dancing,” she says.
As a people–powered organization, Spiral Q’s main goal is to be deeply and genuinely connected with the local Philadelphia community. That mission rings clear in its every action—the organization has established partnerships with the Attic Youth Center, Delhi Youth House, Art Dept Philly, and many other local groups. In addition, it holds education programs in a variety of Philadelphia public schools. But beyond that, Spiral Q wants to engage individuals in its projects, even if only for a sliver of their time. Penn students searching for community involvement through art will easily find a home in the Spiral Q studio. “You can come into the puppet studio for one day and never show up again, or you can stay the whole time. And if you’re watching Saturday’s parade, you can just join in,” says Liza. Indeed, the for Peoplehood extends the “invitation to ALL to join in representing yourselves, your group, your personal cause, and marching in solidarity.”
For everyone involved in the Peoplehood Parade, the artistic preparation is every bit as important as the march itself. Spiral Q believes in the ability of art to communicate across boundaries and express individual experiences of the world. The organization strives to use that power in equitable ways by leaving room for community members to bring in their own values in whatever capacity they have. Turnbull looks solemnly ahead to exploring this year’s theme of honoring transgender lives in depth on Saturday. “While the trajectory of history may seem obvious to us now, back then, people weren’t thinking about the conversations that have today,” she says. “It’s important that history be told because of the questioning of it.”
Come parade time, that history will be unraveled and laid bare for all in the streets to see—and anyone who wishes to partake in that retelling is welcome to join in. All you have to do is show up.