Amber Williams is a puppeteer. Yes, you read that correctly. She heard about a job opening, through her sister, and the rest is history.
Did you know that puppeteers must not only be able to maneuver their hands intricately but also convey emotion with those movements? Or that there is a test, that involves an egg, to see if one is going to be able to learn to operate marionettes?
This energetic, articulate, 25 year-old mother of four children is a puppeteer, at the Puppetworks theater in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York.
While chaperoning my daughter’s class trip to see “Puss in Boots” at Puppetworks, I was impressed with Amber’s rapport with the children. It also occurred to me, that I had never before seen a black woman who had the skill of professionally operating a marionette puppet, much less did it for a living! When the show was over, I left my card and hoped that Amber would call. Just a few days later, she did!
Amber agreed to meet with me, so that I could write a blog highlighting her work with Puppetworks. Little did I know that Amber would inspire and move me to tears, during our meeting, with her dignity and wisdom which were gained through overcoming life’s trials.
Amber was placed in foster care, specifically a group home, after the death of her mother when she was only 16 years-old. She described how trying it was to see her mother slip away from life and into death, on that fateful day. Her story was punctuated by tales of the perseverance and determination that she mastered at a young age.
The mother who had provided for her, loved her, and allowed her to pursue her love of art, dance, and anything creative, had been in poor health. She died while being treated in an area hospital. The death of Amber’s mother cemented her desire to learn more about natural healing and remedies, as well as using spices and herbs as preventive medicine.
Amber attributes her flawless hair to the natural potion of oils and emollients, which she formulated and tested on her own hair, and that of her children. Wait. So she’s a chemist too?
Amber is a mother of four children, two boys and two girls, which includes a set of fraternal twins. Her first child was a big part of Amber’s motivation to work hard and save her earnings, when she was still living in a group home.
Photo credit: Yael B. Yisrael
Imagine being a teenager in a group home, grieving the loss of your mother. Then, add the disappointment of your father’s unwillingness to provide adequate care in your mother’s absence. Next, envision getting so frustrated that you choose to become an emancipated minor, and sign yourself into foster care. Finally, think of how difficult it would have been to work super hard outside of the group home, and also take five-dollar cleaning jobs in the group home, all while being a teenage mother.
What a work ethic Amber had at that age! But it gets even more amazing. Amber realized that the New York City foster care system was obligated to move her belongings, once she obtained an apartment. So, while saving for a down payment, she also purchased items for her new apartment. The apartment that she had only seen in her mind.
When her room began to be overcome by boxes and bags, staff and other residents would comment and laugh at her. But Amber had a plan, and she pulled it off. She did by using her logic and drive to succeed, which are skills she employs today in her work as a puppeteer.
A major part of Amber’s identity is that of being an artist. She explained that being a dancer has also had a big impact on her work as a puppeteer. Puppeteering is a dying art. The creating and repair of marionettes is an even more endangered art. Most 25 year-old New Yorkers are only using their hands to swipe touch screens. Amber is using her hands to bring marionettes to life, as well as to help repair them when they are injured!
Photo Credit: Donovan Hall
“Some of the puppets are falling apart,” said Amber, as she explained that almost all of Puppetworks’ marionettes are vintage. The tree fiber used in the joints of the puppets, which allows them to move, is not even made anymore. She talked about the time that she spends learning to repair the puppets, and also how to give them lifelike qualities when operating them. The Chief Puppeteer, Michael Leach, has been a mentor to Amber, as has Donovan Hall who is also a Puppeteer with the company. Nicolas Coppola and James Wojtal, Jr., the Puppet Builders, are part of the small, tight knit crew at Puppetworks, who have taught Amber so much in this newest form of her artistic expression.
Amber also shared that having a set of twins who spent time in the NICU after being born two years ago, was a challenge that she overcame through faith and perseverance. She even helped save one of the twins’ lives, once they were home, by using the CPR training she had received before they left the NICU, when an Acute Life Threatening Event (ALTE) occurred. Amber is a phenomenal woman, yet so easy to talk to.
Throughout the entire interview, Amber reflected on the joy that she uses to approach life, despite obstacles. One such obstacle, is her battle with the chronic disease sickle-cell anemia, which means that she must take extra special self-care. The NY winters and having a job where she’s using her hands so much, mean that heating pads and heat treatments are a go-to for Amber to relieve pain.
I’m so thankful that Puppetworks hired Amber, and that I chose to be a chaperone on that trip, because meeting her reminds me that there are no obstacles too great for art to conquer.
We are very fortunate to have access to so many artistic and cultural outlets here in Brooklyn! With the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and the hard working grind, it’s easy to forget to take some time out for recreation and art. However, please make some time to take advantage of all that our borough and city have to offer.
Puppetworks is one such resource, with a rich history. Please visit their website, and show your support, via attending shows and giving them donations. Your children will thank you, and you will be quite entertained!
If you plan to see Circus Der Sinne perform Mother Africa at The New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street before the last show on Jan 1, 2017, you may want to wait to read this blog. If you are a parent or expecting parent, interested in learning more about one of NYC’s cultural performances,
New York City is such a wonderful place to raise children who appreciate and value cultural theatre, art, music, and dance performances.
I recently had the pleasure of attending such a performance at the New Victory Theatre. I found out about Mother Africa one morning while watching Good Day New York. I immediately called my mother and asked her to tune in to the segment featuring two of Circus Der Sinne’s spectacular performers. Her response to that clip was, “Let’s take the children to see it!” The 2pm performance on Wednesday, December 28 was a perfect Chanukah gift for my children during their vacation from school.
Simply put, Mother Africa is an African circus, a showcase of talent, entertainment, and skill. Every performer, the set, and the band, work seamlessly together. The band has the spectacular South African township music sound, and even plays some Calypso and also Bob Marley.
The jamming is broken up by segments of live drumming that had me ready to run up on stage and bust a few moves. Instead, I let out a loud “lou-lou-lou-lou-lou-lou-lou!”, the call I learned many years ago while attending many African dance classes and performances. If my fellow theatregoers were unaware of the African tradition of shared energy and call-and-response, I did them a favor by demonstrating it!
For real. There is absolutely no way to have a bad time at Mother Africa. Mother Africa left me entertained, amazed, and inspired!
The New Victory Theatre is a family focused venue. It is both lovely enough to have an authentic Broadway feel, and cozy enough for every seat in the house to have a great view of the stage. All this adds to the drama when seeing the Mother Africa acrobats, doing precise ballet like contortions at ridiculous heights on unheard of surfaces; a wooden plank on top of a hollow tube, and several layers of this configuration, like a triple decker sandwich. And speaking of sandwich, their child friendly concession stand is top notch! I purchased two bags of sea salt popcorn, one bag of BBQ bean chips, two natural juice pouches, and a 16 oz bottle of water for 8 bucks! In a venue in NYC theatre district. That’s cheaper than some Brooklyn bodegas would have charged me!
The show is set in a township in South Africa, and depicts everyday life, just with a circus twist. So one minute, a beautiful woman is serving drinks to some men at a restaurant, the next minute she is doing a stunt. First she lays down on a chair, with her feet parallel to the chair’s back. Then, one of the men throws a square table which she catches with her feet, and begins spinning it and flipping it! All with her feet. Simply breathtaking!
All of these stunts are done with great skill, technique, and precision. The ever present feeling of danger is assuaged by the deep trust that the audience gains by watching these talented performers successfully do the unthinkable. In this circus, there are no nets. One wrong move could mean disaster!
When I was a child, my mother made it a priority to buy tickets for our family to attend many performances on and off of Broadway. One of the plays that had a huge impact on me was Sarafina.
Seeing Mother Africa reminded me of the pride, freedom, and joy I felt while watching Sarafina.
I am so grateful that now that she is a grandmother, my mother is still giving the gift of culture. I’m also thankful that the New Victory Theatre believes that children can appreciate and should be included in theatre shows. These are the gifts that last for a lifetime.
Our goal is to raise 100,000 new, unopened disposable diapers for families in NYC who are experiencing diaper need.We are also accepting donations of new, unopened packages of baby wipes.
The following shelters and organizations will be the recipients of diapers and wipes donated to the drive:
1. Women In Need East Flatbush Family Shelter
2. Women In Need East New York Family Shelter
3. Dean Street Residence
4. Met Council on Jewish Poverty
5. The Mother’s Union of The Church of St. Mark’s
6. Beth Shalom Hebrew Congregation
Over 23,000 children are homeless in NYC, and many more are living in poverty. 1 in 3 families struggle to buy enough diapers to be able to change them when needed. Diapers cannot be purchased with food stamps.
We CAN prevent child abuse and neglect, by providing clean diapers to families who are in need of them.
For further information or to schedule a diaper donation pick up, please call Yael B. Yisrael, Owner of Flatbush Doulas, at (347) 688-9235.