Parading down the middle of West 63rd Street last Saturday afternoon, we were following a giant puppet — a whole crowd of us, trekking along behind Little Amal.
The 12-foot-tall Syrian refugee child, a creation of the renowned Handspring Puppet Company, was en route to Lincoln Center to greet more of her public, who would throng the wide plaza there to catch a glimpse of her with their own eyes, and capture proof of the encounter on their phones.
Fueled by a savvy social media campaign — and surely also by recent headlines about migrants and asylum seekers being bused and flown north by Republican governors — Little Amal is the hottest celebrity in New York right now, drawing masses of admirers to her dozens of scheduled appearances.
Since last year she has traveled across Europe, a sympathetic, high-profile emblem of the global migrant crisis. Her current 19-day tour of these five boroughs lasts only until Oct. 2, and as always with in-demand visitors, the time limit adds to her cachet.
For me, a puppetry fan with an interest in political theater, Little Amal — who is operated by one puppeteer strapped into stilts inside her torso and two others controlling her arms — should have been an almost automatic fascination. And yet she left me cold when I first went to scope her out, on Fifth Avenue in front of the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, on Sept. 15, the day after she arrived. Even when she bent down to cuddle Patience, one of the famous marble lions, I was unmoved.
Amal is a 10-year-old, but with her gargantuan hands and forceful jaw, she reminded me of one of those paintings of a child before painters figured out that children weren’t merely miniature adults. Worse, the event felt like barely more than a photo op. I wondered if she is truly meant to be experienced in person — if, in fact, she counts as theater — or if the main purpose of this wordless puppet is to be an object, recorded in photos and videos in glamorous locations that people all over the world will recognize.
Then, last weekend, my heart abruptly cracked wide open. On that tree-lined stretch of West 63rd Street, the brass band accompanying Amal broke into a festive rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and she began to dance as she walked along. It was a gentle, reveling bounce, and it made her utterly enchanting.
Later that day, her path cleared by a police escort, Amal led another procession up Central Park West. As her band played, we trooped along in the street — grown-ups, little kids riding on shoulders, the occasional dog. The mood was buoyant, happy, kind.
There is something to be said for what is, in effect, a citywide party in honor of a refugee — even if she is merely a puppet, even if she is so well-connected that St. Ann’s Warehouse helped to bring her here. Symbolic behavior matters.
Up ahead, Amal’s long brown hair swayed in the breeze, adorned with a bright red ribbon that was a beacon for those farther back. A thought crossed my mind that took me entirely by surprise. Although I was raised Roman Catholic, I’m not religious, and definitely not accustomed to bits of Bible verses floating through my consciousness.
Still, there it was, inescapably, a line from Isaiah: “and a little child shall lead them.”
This, of course, is the point of Little Amal — to use the visceral power of puppetry, and of theater at its most disarming, to make us feel, and cajole us into considering what we owe to the most vulnerable among us. And ultimately, presumably, to act on that moral imperative.
But it is so easy for any message to get lost on the grand stage set that is New York, and maybe even more so when collaborations with the city’s cultural institutions can come across as mutually promotional opportunities, bereft of substance. When Amal visited Lincoln Center, she seemed more like a dignitary granting an audience than a child ambassador for a cause. Her context had disappeared; without it she registered as a buzzy spectacle, one you want to be able to say you saw.
Still, the visuals were terrific — musicians serenading her from the balcony of the Metropolitan Opera House — and people strained to get near her, to touch those enormous hands. It is astonishing when she gets really close, looming right above you. Looking up, all you see is her huge face, with those big, brown, blinking eyes. (Makes a great photo, actually.)
I followed Amal late on Sunday morning to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where the vast front doorway posed no obstacle to her height, and where the lyrics of one hymn were particularly apt — not so much for her but for the rest of us: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.”
And I followed her early on Monday morning to Coney Island, Brooklyn, where she wandered the wooden boardwalk forlornly, peering through the gates of rides not open just then for customers. The carnival colors popped, the moody clouds cast a flattering light and when she looked over the side of a pier into the water, the sound was of crashing waves and clicking shutters.
If it seemed contrived — which, to be fair, it was; this was theater — there was no feigning the interest in her as she strode along with a gathering entourage, while a persistent drone hovered unnervingly overhead. Some people had made the pilgrimage to see Amal; others, like a smitten woman in a one-piece swimsuit and pink bathing cap, seemed to have ditched their beach plans to tag along.
Amal’s performance that night, with its narrative of a weary child’s peregrination through Dumbo to the glass-walled carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park, should have been delicate and gorgeous. But from the moment she set off from the walk’s starting point, a triangle in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, something was wrong.
It wasn’t only that the hundreds of us were too many for the narrow cobblestone streets; the spirit of the evening was off, too. In that most Instagrammable of the city’s neighborhoods, the focus of the crowd was palpably on getting the shot — and Amal, in that lighting, did look glorious. (She stopped, lingeringly, in precisely the ultra-photogenic spot that’s illustrated on the cover of the current issue of The New Yorker.)
But this wasn’t the joyous welcome of an attentive audience; it felt like a flash mob that had gotten out of hand. And when we reached the carousel — an elevated and brilliantly illuminated space that should have made an ideal stage — it was so surrounded by people that the performance was impossible to see unless you were up front. Even being 12 feet tall couldn’t help Amal there.
The creepiest thing about that evening’s walk, though, was the sense that allegiance had been replaced by pursuit. It had the feeling of a hunt, with the puppet refugee as quarry. People jostled for position, cut in front of one another, tried to anticipate where Amal was going and get there first.
And so I wonder, a little worriedly, with Saturday’s walk across the Brooklyn Bridge coming right up: Are we ruining Little Amal for ourselves?
There may be no solution to the problem of the sheer numbers she draws, especially when the vistas promise to be breathtaking. But one tenet of theater suggests a way to better experience her live.
Shoot a few photos if you like, a snippet of video. But mostly, just put down your camera, put away your phone. Be there, in the moment, walking with her. And feel.