Samuel J. Lewis II, a Black man, is seen behind two screens of a paper "crankie." On the left screen is a rendering of an old-fashioned steam locomotive. On the right is a drawing of a black man holding a red flag in his hand.
Sam Lewis with a crankie puppet from his new piece called Praiseworthy (crankie created by Grace Needlman) Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Some 20 years ago, Chicago artist Samuel J. Lewis II discovered a vintage Black Americana marionette named Jambo the Jiver in his father-in-law’s attic. Built in 1948 by a company called TalenToon, along with other characters such as Pim-Bo the Clown, Toonga from the Congo, Kilroy the Cop, and MacAwful the Scot, the marionettes were packaged with music—phonograph records meant to accompany their movements. 

“I found him after watching Spike Lee’s Bamboozled,” recalls Lewis. “That movie was why I felt compelled to do something with it. It dealt with Black iconography and negative stereotypes. Jambo the Jiver is negative—he has this big wide smile, a humongous bowtie, purple jacket, gold pants. I realized I could use him to show people that this kind of thing existed and how people felt about us in this country, but also to tear that down and reclaim it, embrace that stereotype to say, ‘Come on over—come sit with us—let us work together.’”

He Worked Hard (excerpt of Everybody Knew His Place), Sun 2/19 2 PM, Art Center Highland Park, 1957 Sheridan, Highland Park, 847-432-1888,, free
Szalon, Sun 2/26 6 PM,, free

A cofounder of experimental music and performance venue Elastic Arts, Lewis began to incorporate the puppet into collaborations with other Elastic musicians such as Marvin Tate and his band Kitchen Sink, for which Lewis also sang backup vocals. In the hands of the self-described “accidental puppeteer,” Jambo the Jiver transformed into a new character named Jus Hambone (“One day for dinna, my ma says, ‘What you want fo’ dinna?’ And I say ‘Jus Hambone,’ and it kinda stuck!”). “In the [puppetry] scene, the puppeteer is usually deemphasized,” notes Lewis. “I wanted people to see that I was the one manipulating Jus Hambone: a Black man is also the puppet master in this scenario. But am I master over him or just facilitating?” 

In late 2018, Lewis’s curiosity about his heritage began to deepen. “My mother and father separated when I was three, and we moved from rural Tennessee to Saint Louis. He passed away when I was 16. I would go down there and visit but was mostly with my mom’s side of the family. I didn’t really see him unless we were intentional about it, which we always were one time during the visit: this is the time you’ll see your dad. So I never knew much about that side of the family,” he says. “I started asking questions and got on Ancestry[.com].” Through relatives who had also moved to Chicago, Lewis began to trace his lineage, starting with information provided by his cousin Stephanie Pegues. “She was reading a book that this man named John Marshall wrote—Mason: A Glimpse into the Past, a self-published book about Mason, Tennessee.” 

Lewis contacted Marshall, a white judge in Memphis, Tennessee, and they met in 2019. “The reason he had a lot of information on my family was because my ancestors were the children of his relatives,” says Lewis. “They were the people they were closest to as a family—so much so that they worshipped in the same church, which my ancestors helped build. They worshipped there at different times, but they sat on the same pews! And those pews are still there.” Lewis visited the church, known as Old Trinity or Trinity in the Field, the same year. “I have a baptismal record of my great-grandmother being baptized during the Civil War in that church. That was one of the things that got me asking, because I grew up as an Episcopalian. Whenever I asked my mom about that, she’d say, ‘I got that from your father.’ I was like, ‘How does a Black rural Deep South person become Episcopalian? Most everyone else is Baptist—it’s weird!’ Slavery: that’s why.”

Says Lewis, “John Marshall has helped a bunch of people and spoken at Black people’s family reunions, met with folks, given information—it’s a lot of work. His guidance and emails . . . there’s a lot of gold in what he has given [me]. I’m able to more intentionally find stuff. He’s had an evolution in his thinking. In earlier work, he was referring to the Civil War as the War Between the States. That goes to show that what you put into books and what you put in schools, people will take with them. You get to certain folks and the trail ends. That’s where white people came in.” He adds, “Probably the most tense moments [Marshall and I have had] are when I’ve asked if we’re related.”

He also notes that there are direct Chicago connections to Mason, which for a small town had a lively nightlife scene, composed of what Lewis calls “juke joints on a boardwalk. Little shack-speakeasy-type places. They called them cafes. But they were bars. 

Fun fact: this club called Club Tay-May on Roosevelt moved down to Mason. That’s how hoppin’ it was! So much so that they had two, they doubled their operations when they went down there. One was right next to my grandfather’s blacksmith shop, and his house was on the other side of that, the house I was born in. I was born near Club Tay-May. [There were] rhythm and blues and blues by the railroad tracks, [which were] built because of cotton. That town sprang up because of cotton. [It was] a boom town, founded in 1855.”

YouTube video
Video of He Worked Hard, featuring Sam Lewis, Noah Maxen-Lewis, and Parker Maxen-Lewis; music performed by D-Composed, composed by Ahmed Al Abaca

As Lewis continued his research, he realized he was learning not only about his own family history but also about the place, the past, and about the slipperiness of historical narrative itself. In one newspaper, he discovered the story of a great-granduncle who was shot by a coworker while working as a railroad laborer in Fulton, Kentucky (“the banana capital of the world”). In another, he found the story of a great-grandfather who was scalded during a boiler explosion in a gin and grist mill. 

“They were like, ‘He went to this doctor, and he’s being taken care of. They’re upstanding gentlemen.’ It was in a Black newspaper—then you start thinking, ‘What kind of image do they want to uphold?’ It was a paper by church folks who have business interests, so they want to portray the ‘New Negro’: successful, hardworking, enterprising. There’s a story of them buying a new buggy. Such-and-such went to visit her sister in Louisville: Black society, Black business, efforts to change and make our conditions better, because we deserve it. The other story, [which I call], ‘He Took A Knife to a Gunfight,’ was in a white paper. So I’ve learned about America through this whole thing.”

“I love the detective work,” says Lewis, recalling how a simple keyword search in the Library of Congress turned up a story of how the quick actions of his great-great-grandfather had prevented a train accident on the railroad tracks near his home. Lewis presented the story, Praiseworthy: An Intelligent and Prompt Negro—A Disaster Averted, with Nasty, Brutish & Short during the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival this past January. 

Puppeteer, actor, and family historian Samuel J. Lewis II with puppet James Lewis, named after his grandfather, and co-puppeteers sons Noah Maxen-Lewis (center, wearing sunglasses) and Parker Maxen-Lewis (right, wearing hoodie); puppet designed by Grace Needlman. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

In addition to family members from the past, Lewis has been collaborating with his teenage sons, Noah and Parker Maxen-Lewis, as well as several musicians and puppet designer Grace Needlman, to develop an evening-length work with the working title Everybody Knew Their Place. “It’s awesome to work on the piece with my sons,” he says. “It’s a different way to give them this story, and hopefully they will remember.” 

Lewis first introduced Everybody Knew Their Place with a puppet of his Grandpa James at the Green Line Performing Arts Center at the first Green Line Puppet Slam in 2019. “Sam’s work is rooted in his family history and themes like legacy that Arts + Public Life was thinking about on the south side,” says Brett Swinney, then APL’s community art engagement manager, who programmed the event. “To launch this series of puppet programming and to set the tone as being grounded in cultural legacies, it seemed like the perfect fit for Sam to be one of the inaugural performers. People got a deeper sense of the research he’s putting into it. I look forward to seeing how it evolves. I hope other performers, not just puppeteers, look within for their inspiration for what they’re sharing.” 

Last December, Lewis returned to the Green Line with his sons to premiere the excerpt, He Worked Hard, which elaborates upon Grandpa James’s work as a blacksmith, with original music composed by Ahmed Al Abaca, with additional music by Hunter Diamond, performed by Chicago-based Black chamber music ensemble D-Composed at their fifth-anniversary concert. Lewis and his sons will perform He Worked Hard February 19 at the Art Center Highland Park and online at Andrea Clearfield’s Szalon February 26.

“I want to encourage other people to start asking questions. Maybe they won’t get as lucky, but they’ll know more than they knew. Sometimes it’s painful. But all in all I’d rather know these stories,” says Lewis. “I hope it’s going to solve problems, as people realize they come from a lot of cultures and places instead of being hung up on this binary people consider race. It’s a lot more layered and deeper than that. It’s like looking at a map. I see points where these stories took place; as you zoom in and look at stories, you’re learning about the place, the time in that place, like the banana capital, like gin and grist mills.”