Amal is 10 years old, and she has had to leave home. She has lost her family in Syria and everything familiar. In Boston you may see her walking on a city street late at night and remembering her mother’s voice.
Out here she may rest by a lake and look for white-tailed deer and great blue herons, like and unlike the ones she knew at home. She may listen to local musicians and borrow an instrument to share a song.
In one sense, she has been traveling alone for more than two years. In another she has been gathering communities around the world. Amal is a 12-foot-tall puppet, a moving work of theater creating community and art across three continents.
Each community has their own sensibilities and urgencies, thoughts and connections with Amal’s story. — Enrico Dau Yang Wey, Puppetry Director and Artistic Associate
This summer and fall she will walk 6,000 miles farther across the United States — in one of the largest free public festivals ever created — to meet people and learn about the country. And she’s starting here.
After she sets foot on shore in Boston from September 7 to 9, she will come to Ashfield and North Adams on September 10. At the Ashfield Town Common she will meet Larry Spotted Crow Mann, co-director of the Ohketeau Cultural Center, artists of the Nipmuc Nation and performers with Double Edge Theatre and Ebony Noelle Golden’s Jupiter Performance Studio.
And at Mass MoCA, internationally known musician and composer Mark Stewart, founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and theater designer Julian Crouch will welcome her into a parade, a joyful procession with trumpets and drums, puppets of woodland creatures and innovative instruments
Each community has their own sensibilities and urgencies, thoughts and connections with Amal’s story, said Enrico Dau Yang Wey, Puppetry Director and Artistic Associate for all Walk productions with Amal (speaking from England as they and the Walk prepare for her next journey).
Originally from Taiwan and now living and working in the U.K. and the United States, they are a long standing senior member of Handspring Puppet Company of the Cape Town, South Africa, the artists who made Amal (and also the puppets for the internationally acclaimed production of War Horse, in London and on Broadway.)
Wey has walked with Amal since she first set out in 2021, and they have taught teams of puppeteers to bring her to life — she needs three, they said, one for each hand and one within her, playing on the ‘harp,’ the strings that give her expression, tip her head, open and close her eyes, give shape to her mouth.
Each time she sets out becomes a live performance in a new community, they said, sharing moments of connection and joy and the human stories of people who have lived her experiences.
Amal’s story begins almost 10 years ago outside Calais. In 2015, people seeking peace and sanctuary formed an unofficial camp there, as more than 1 million people came to Europe, many displaced by war and conflict. In Syria, the civil war was devastating entire cities.
The camp formed at the crossing between France and the U.K., and some 6,000 people lived there, an hour from Paris or London. And among many volunteers who tried to help them, two theater makers worked with people living in the camp to create the internationally acclaimed play The Jungle, with a cast from many backgrounds and parts of the world.
Amal the puppet has grown from a character in the play and an effort to bring new awareness to the ongoing and global challenges she faces. In 2021, she set out to walk the route that a girl like her would walk in real life, looking for safety — 5,000 miles from the Syrian-Turkish border to northwest England. She crossed through 12 countries.
‘She expands these narratives and also becomes a vessel that carries them.’ — Enrico Dau Yang Wey
She found refugees from the Ukraine at a Polish train station and walked through camps in Greece … she even met with Pope Francis. In 2022 she came on west to New York City.
Wey remembers individual moments powerfully, they said — the way a girl in Gaziantep, in Turkey, looked up at her and said my name is Amal too. In London, geese flew over a park as she walked through, and she looked up to watch. On the steps of the New York Public Library, they saw a man visibly trembling. Amal went to him and just put a hand on his shoulder.
“She expands these narratives,” they said, “and also becomes a vessel that carries them.”
Travis Coe, co-artistic director at Double Edge Theatre, has followed her walks on social media, and shares warm excitement to welcome her to his own community.
“I remember thinking how powerful this movement was,” he said, “to see this representation of a young refugee walking around trying to figure out … where is home? Where am I going to be accepted? How do I communicate with the world what’s going on?”
The Walk consciously seeks out community partners, Wey said, and gives them freedom to create and teach.
The audience experiences Amal in the moment, they said, as Amal and her artists are experiencing the moment, and she creates a space for empathy. People see her as a young girl trying to navigate hard challenges and find spaces of joy and rest.
On Ashfield Town Common, Larry Spotted Crow Mann, co-founder of the Ohketeau Cultural Center will welcome her, speaking the language of the Nipmuc nation. Her story resonates for him in many ways.
“As the First Peoples of this land … we have such a shared and lived experience of displacement, removal separated from our children and historically here in the U.S.,” he said.
He and Amal will walk to Ashfield Lake to meet members of the Nipmuc nation — they may include Andre StrongBearHeart, speaker, dancer, activist and Ohketeau’s first artist in residence, paddling a mishoon, a recently made canoe.
Double Edge and Juniper artists will join them to welcome the community. They will be at the center of an Art and Survival Festival, a gathering for their artist fellows from the past two years, Coe said, a convening of people and conversations on how to continue dreaming of new futures.
‘I remember thinking how powerful this movement was, to see this representation of a young refugee walking around trying to figure out … where is home? Where am I going to be accepted? How do I communicate with the world what’s going on?’ — co-artistic director at Double Edge Theatre
As Amal continues over the ridge, at Mass MoCA she will walk through the museum outdoors on a search for wonders.
Mark Stewart wants to get people making music together, a joyful noise — bring in listeners and transform them into sound makers. On a sunny afternoon, he imaged the Mass MoCA courtyards filled with a parade of live bands and magical forest creatures — people playing pipes and percussion, turning into bulls and stags and giant birds.
In North Adams, Amal will have a chance to do something she has rarely done before, he said. She can make music.
She has played an occasional drum, Wey said, but here she will encounter Gunnar Schonbeck’s giant banjo, tuned it to a resonant chord, so she can play percussion on the strings and sounding board. And anyone who comes can join in.
In North Adams, Amal will have a chance to do something she has rarely done — make music. – Mark Stewart, founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars
As a co-founder of Bang on a Can, Stewart has been bringing contemporary music to Mass MoCA for more than 20 years, and he performs around the world as a multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer and instrument designer — and as musical director for Paul Simon’s band. His co-director for Amal’s event, independent director and theater designer Julian Crouch, has shaped work from the Metropolitan Opera to Broadway.
“Julian is a polymath in the theater world,” Stewart said, “and he’s a brilliant musician … he’s one of my favorite songwriters.”
His magical creatures will become backpack-mounted, Stewart said, and anyone who’s game can put one on. At the same time, Stewart will have instruments on hand for anyone to play. He is making straw sawns — simple double-reed made from paper soda straws — and stumf fiddles.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I’ve wanted to make these my whole life, and now I have a reason. … They’re a natural for parades.”
He has seen them ubiquitously in the midwest at festivals and community events — a staff with a resonant string, a spring, shakers and wood blocks. Anyone can play a rhythmic boom chuck — thump the ground for one beat and pluck the string for another.
He and the museum are also reaching out to partners in the community — groups who have performed in the Chalet this summer, bluegrass and folk musicians, the Drury High School Band. But as Schonbeck said of his instruments, this is music anyone can be part of.
“I’ve discovered,” he said, “in the Gunnar realm, all you need is a melody people know well and are enthusiastic about.”
How exactly Amal will respond, no one knows yet … not even Wey and her puppeteers. Wey directs each team of artists live at every event, they said, in a kind of improvised choreography. They walk with Amal, scanning the crowd, feeling the atmosphere, seeing moments of surprise or potential.
In their relationships in the moment, and in conversations with their partners in each community, they feel a gentle back and forth, they said, and also a lot of joy and collaboration and and dreaming.
‘In relationships in the moment, and in conversations with our partners in each community, we feel a gentle back and forth, … and collaboration and and dreaming.’ — Enrico Dau Yang Wey
Coe and Mann shared a sense of freedom and hope and belonging in Amal’s story. She is coming with her own culture, they said — she’s coming with language, her people’s language. Before the crisis, before she had to take this long walk, she experienced freedom and life and love.
Wey finds her story deeply timely in the U.S. today, as they see more and more people displaced and children looking for safe homes, and not just because of political violence or war, but from many forces — climate change, food scarcity, persecution.
“… I think the story of Amal, and other children around the world who are continually going through this — she is bringing attention,” Mann said, “and we can have the conversation about — this is still going on. … And we need to start listening and looking. So this is a great way of artistic expression to bring that awareness.”
‘I think the story of Amal, and other children around the world who are continually going through this — she is bringing attention’ — Larry Spotted Crow Mann, co-director of the Ohketeau Cultural Center
Amal brings out the question for him, who belongs here and who gets to say who belongs here, Mann said. He hopes artistic expression can bring a call to social justice, and can give people ways to listen to hard stories and move them to act.
And she will carry that across the country, from Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, to Dearborn, Michigan, home to one of the largest Arab American communities in the country, and to Nogales, Texas, within a few feet of the wall along the southern border.
Coe hopes that connections will grow, within communities and between communities, as Amal links them on her travels, and that the conversations she begins will go on long after she has moved on.
“I think the hope is that Amal will just be the first one,” Coe said, “a first step in a larger conversation that can happen in our area and in our town.”
‘She’s coming with language, her people’s language. Before the crisis, before she had to take this long walk, she experienced freedom and life and love.’ — Travis Coe and Larry Spotted Crow Mann