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Sesame Street's first Black female puppeteer wants to keep inspiration flowing

Megan Piphus Peace stands on the set of <em>Sesame Street</em> with her character, 6-year-old Gabrielle.
Zach Hyman
Sesame Workshop
Megan Piphus Peace stands on the set of Sesame Street with her character, 6-year-old Gabrielle.

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.

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"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.

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"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.

Lewis, the original puppeteer of Lamb Chop, performed puppetry and ventriloquism on television for decades, most notably on The Shari Lewis Show and the PBS program Lamb Chop's Play-Along. Piphus Peace grew up watching her work.

"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."

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Becoming the show's first Black female puppeteer

Megan Piphus Peace's character Gabrielle lives and learns on <em>Sesame Street</em>.
Julian Wass / Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop
Megan Piphus Peace's character Gabrielle lives and learns on Sesame Street.

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
Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and the Saturday episodes of Up First. As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.
Michael Radcliffe