Over more than 50 years, “Sesame Street” has been introducing children to a diverse ensemble of characters, cast members and puppeteers.
Megan Piphus Peace is one of them: In late 2021, she became the show’s first full-time Black woman puppeteer, playing a 6-year-old Black girl named Gabrielle. Last month, she celebrated her one-year anniversary as a member of the team—and officially left her real estate career, which she had been pursuing as she tried to establish herself as a puppeteer.
“I always dreamed of working in television, but I never imagined myself being at ‘Sesame Street,’” she tells NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe and Michael Radcliffe.
Piphus Peace, now 29, grew up watching “Sesame Street.” As a young child, she considered the puppets to be her friends, not realizing until she was older that they weren’t real, she tells the Washington Post’s Sydney Page.
She has been pursuing puppeteering since then. When she was a high school senior in Cincinnati, students knew her as the “Ventriloquist Valedictorian.” At Vanderbilt University, where she studied economics, she was known as the “Vanderbilt Ventriloquist.” She even appeared on “The Tonight Show” in 2012 and “America’s Got Talent” in 2013.
One of Piphus Peace’s mentors, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, who debuted the “Sesame Street” character Abby Cadabby in 2006, tells the Washington Post that Piphus Peace is a gifted storyteller and natural leader.
“To say that I was intrigued by Megan would be an understatement,” says Carrara-Rudolph. “Megan’s sheer talent as a singer, actress, writer and performer is incredible on its own, but I was instantly inspired by her loving heart, strength of character, humor, humanity and what an energetic creative force she is.”
Although Piphus Peace submitted her first video audition to “Sesame Street” in 2017, she didn’t hear back until 2020, when Matt Vogel, the puppet captain of the show, reached out to her, reports Ebony’s Rashad Grove.
“She comes from a different kind of puppetry background than most of us other ‘Sesame Street’ Muppet performers,” Vogel tells the Washington Post. “Some of us went to college to learn puppetry, or acting schools, etc., but Megan is a self-trained ventriloquist—something none of us have done.”
After going through an extensive audition process, Piphus Peace first performed as Gabrielle on “Sesame Street” in 2020 for a children’s town hall called “Standing Up to Racism” in partnership with CNN.
Piphus Peace commends the show for tackling difficult topics and presenting them in a way that children can process. “One of the lessons that we have was on using your voice. It speaks subtly to equity,” she tells NPR. “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.”
“Sesame Street” got its first Black male puppeteer much earlier: Kevin Clash started working on the show in the 1980s, playing Elmo in addition to various other characters.
The show, broadcast in more than 150 countries, has roots in Black culture and was heavily influenced by New York City’s Harlem. In its early years, the show intentionally featured a range of Black guest stars—including actor James Earl Jones and singer Nina Simone—to help teach numbers and letters to a target audience that included young Black viewers. More recently, Gabrielle has been featured on the show alongside tennis player Naomi Osaka and poet and activist Amanda Gorman.
Season 53 of “Sesame Street,” recorded earlier this year, will stream on HBO Max this fall and then air on PBS Kids in 2023.