Little Amal visits the French Quarter

A spectacular sight was seen in the French Quarter on Saturday, when a world famous 11 feet high animatronic puppet graced our city. Little Amal is a project by Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa. Little Amal has been on a global tour known as The Walk to bring awareness to refugees fleeing from the continuing conflict in Syria. Amal portrays a 10-year-old girl fleeing a war-torn nation searching for her mother by walking the earth.

No exaggeration, some of her appearances since this project started in July of 2021 have included nearly 100 cities in 14 countries, covering more than 6,000 miles. New Orleans has the privilege of being her latest stop. On Saturday, the puppet’s stroll started on the Riverwalk, then proceeded to Jackson Square and onto the finish at Congo Square.

The scale and mechanics of the animatronic puppet are amazing to behold in person while from a distance the creation does take on a very human like presence. Praise to the creators and puppeteers, especially the one inside walking on stilts navigating our infrastructure. Amal’s magnetic VHS tape hair blowing in the wind from the river just added to the life-like quality.

Amal’s arrival was heralded by a lone trumpet player at the Moonwalk by the river. There was some sort of eery industrial fire to the southeast of us miles away casting a dark line of smoke on the horizon in the otherwise clear blue sky. Almost a war like backdrop to her story.

Waiting were performers from the local puppet company, The Mudlark Puppeteers. There was a brief performance about Native Americans, the river and colonialism. To be honest, I’m not really sure what the premise was. It did not strike me as particularly well-conceived, rehearsed or directed.

From there, it turned into a second line of sorts with the brass band TuBad. Prior to the start I was standing downwind from them smoking and caught a pretty good secondhand buzz, so of course they sounded good to me.

The puppet was, of course, the star attraction and at times dancing to the music of the band. I kept waiting for her to twerk for that true NOLA flair. Amal managed to dwarf anything she stood near in Jackson Square. The statue, the fountain and trees were all reduced in her presence.

I was impressed how the performers managed to bring life to the character by interacting with its surroundings. Leaning forward to look at a sign, examining a tree or fountain. As the crew walked down Decatur Street in front of the Square, the puppeteers thought that stopping to pet a carriage mule might be a nice gesture. As it approached the mule and put out a hand the size of a garbage can lid, the buggy driver screamed “GET THE FUCK AWAY!” as he shook his buggy whip at the puppet. The mules are usually pretty chill, but to be honest at first glance this puppet is a little freaky.

The procession stopped for another skit with The Mudlark Puppeteers in front of the Cabildo. This performance was a little more obvious than the first. It was about the slave trade in America. I’m not sure of the connection to the plight of refugees, perhaps it was just a regional culture reference.

Some puppet performers wore masks, while others had matching colonial wardrobe and most just wore street clothes. The masks were obviously those of white European-descended slave traders. All lifeless looking and identical except for hair colors of blond and red. The puppets brought out were characters of African slaves. The slaves looked like they were designed based on 1920’s racist advertisements for laundry detergent. It was just uncomfortable and awkward to watch the performance. –not due to the content but the quality.

On St. Peters Street, diners on the balcony of Tableau were treated to a nearly face-to-face encounter with the creation. With all that is happening in our frighteningly changing world today and the politicization of every aspect of it, there was not as much as I anticipated. I half expected to see pro-Palestinian supporters make some sort of an appearance. There had been a rally earlier in the week at Duncan Park.

Perhaps the organizers preempted any involvement by those looking to exploit the moment. The entire Israel and Palestine conflict is a hot button topic that only widens division. Thankfully none of that came into play yesterday, although it wasn’t not entirely unrelated.

There was however a second line reveler group sporting the colors red, green and yellow for Africa and Black Lives Matter regalia. A bit surprising since most corporations, NGO’s and nonprofits have distanced themselves from BLM following last year’s scandals. The organization’s leadership has been accused of embezzling tens of million from donors for personal use. The British production company responsible for this global odyssey probably had little or no say in who would be greeting them.

For the record, Syria is located in Western Asia, not Africa.

From an artistic standpoint, I would’ve sought out a Mardi Gras Indian krewe to accompany our city’s guest. The colorful and flamboyant Indian costumes would have nicely contrasted the muted earth tones of Amal’s appearance. Being also large in scale it would have made for great visuals with something iconic to our city’s culture.

I spent the rest of my day pondering the themes of refugees and colonialism presented by this performance. One could argue that the original European settlers in the Americas were in fact refugees fleeing religious persecution in their homelands. Apparently, the Native Americans had very liberal immigration policies for their times. An open border with assistance of food and shelter for the migrants. In hindsight the indigenous people might now think that was not a great idea.

Another parallel that came to mind was that the Jews were refugees in the 1930s fleeing from religious persecution. Now they are accused of being the colonizers, same as the Pilgrims. What is the tipping point from where refugees and migrants become the colonizers? I think there are many native Europeans asking that question today.

A discussion for greater intellects than mine.

Reporting from the East Bank of the Gonad Heights.