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Why a giant refugee puppet is hiking across Pa.

Plus, getting inside Reba McEntire's head.

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Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Tanisha Thomas

September 29, 2023
Inside this edition: Towering puppet, T-Swift conspiracies, crowned car smasher, country corn, and fallen flamingos. Thanks for reading! 
🏆 SMART STUFF: Did you stay on top of Pennsylvania news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of the Great PA News Quiz: Amtrak addition, Taylor Swift-inspired legislation, 2024 bids, and toy riots.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

Toni Basil, best known for her version of the hit single “Mickey,” hails from which Pennsylvania city?
A. Philadelphia
B. York
C. Chester
D. Doylestown

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One theory worth pondering: Seeing Taylor Swift in a Chiefs jersey devastated Eagles fans who thought she was on their side, but Billy Penn reports some are theorizing Swift may be up to something cunning by (allegedly) dating Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. 

» One story worth sharing: Smashed cars, revved engines, dirt and gravel flying through the air. The Inquirer (paywall) did a deep dive into Pennsylvania Demolition Derby King Pete Hansen and his rise to one-man wrecking crew.

» One maze worth exploring: You can explore a corn maze shaped like country music legend Reba McEntire in Dillsburg through October. York Daily Record reports it takes most people 35-45 minutes to complete.

» One mystery worth discovering: If you ever visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Fallingwater house in Blair County and wondered what’s in the basement, NEXTPittsburgh got the answer in an exclusive tour.

» One story worth reading: A flamingo pushed into Franklin County by hurricane winds weeks ago has died, WHP-TV reports. The flamingo was recovering after being attacked by a snapping turtle. Its equally lost mate flew away alone.

The top stories published by Spotlight PA this week.
» Pa.'s Taylor Swift-inspired ticketing reform has critics
» Jailbreaks in Pennsylvania are not as common as it may seem
» Judge tells Delco to accept in-person votes for rejected mail ballots
» Your guide to the candidates in Pa.'s Supreme Court election
» Your guide to the candidates for Commonwealth, Superior Courts

📅 Upcoming events: 

» A free panel on Pa.’s 2023 Supreme Court, judicial candidates
» Spotlight PA headlines first-ever Philly Story Fest
» Spotlight PA hosts 'Path to Equity' summit in Harrisburg
a 12-foot-puppet girl is surrounded by a crowd
Pittsburgh hosted the puppet Little Amal on Sept. 20 to raise awareness of the hardships refugees face in their new homes. (Tanisha Thomas / Spotlight PA)
PITTSBURGH — Colorful streamers, live music, and spirited cheerleaders set a festive mood as a downtown crowd awaited the appearance of a 12-foot-tall puppet girl.

Children and adults cheered and clapped when she emerged from an alley behind the Pittsburgh Public Theater. It took three people to control the puppet: two managing her arms and one inside her rib cage, controlling her massive legs. But children approached the gentle giant as if she were alive, squeals erupting as she engulfed them in hugs.

Her name is Little Amal. The puppet, a 10-year-old girl, symbolizes refugees who have been forced out of their homes. A South African theater company built her in 2007, and the character debuted in a 2015 play called The Jungle, which is set in a refugee camp in Calais, France.

Khadijat Oseni, one of the producers for Little Amal’s appearances, told PA Local the reception of the play prompted the company to explore another way to shed light on the experiences of refugees. The idea birthed a performance art project called “The Walk" where Amal visited cities and towns in Europe and the Middle East. Since July 2021, Amal has traveled through 15 countries.

“We hope to switch the perspective of people looking down at refugees and show them they’re just like anyone else,” Oseni said.

This year, the puppet is scheduled to journey 6,000 miles across 40 U.S. cities. Each stop features events with local artists and arts organizations. She ambled through Pittsburgh as part of the tour on Sept. 20 and 21. She visited Philadelphia a week prior.

Oseni said Amal’s large figure contrasts the invisibility refugees often feel in their new homes.

“They shouldn’t feel invisible in cities,” she said. “... Every group has migrated to escape and find a better life.”

The puppet’s team hopes to raise $5 million for the Little Amal with Choose Love Fund to help provide medical supplies, education, food, and more for refugees in need.

Kimberly Jacobs, assistant curator at Pittsburgh’s August Wilson African American Cultural Center, told PA Local the event is part of an effort to get people downtown. The Little Amal team partnered with the center, Mayor Ed Gainey’s office, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, and more for the Wednesday afternoon festivities.

“We are showing solidarity with her by creating a live activation with the band, ribbons, and dancing,” Jacobs said.

The festive atmosphere followed Amal as she journeyed northeast through the Steel City’s cultural district, a marching band flanking her. Her flowing hair and long skirt twirled as she danced with the music. As she passed Passport Academy Charter School, students lined up on the sidewalk and jumped with glee as she gave them high-fives.

At each stop, Pittsburgh Public Theater Engagement Manager Jalina McClarin recited a monologue that detailed the emotions and plights refugees face when they are forced to migrate. When Amal reached the Wilson center, the final stop, Point Park University’s dance department ended the parade with a party.

CG Squire, a senior at Point Park University, heard about the event through their professor. Squire marveled at the spectacle as Amal bopped up and down to the marching band’s music a few feet away.

“It’s an important story to tell,” they said of refugees. “It takes these people to make our community better.”

Lejla Martin, another Point Park senior, smiled widely as Amal walked by her. Martin showed up to support her friends who participated in the parade. 

“It’s a beautiful representation of culture and bringing people together,” she said of the gathering of students, teachers, and passersby.

Oseni, the producer, said such unexpected assemblies are the point of Amal’s walks. “This is all about connection,” Oseni said. “She’s a great icebreaker to bring people together.”

Tanisha Thomas, newsletter writer / reporter
Our favorite quote about Pennsylvania — or from a Pennsylvanian — this week.

“Largely, I find it fascinating we have this monster legend that’s all ours. A monster that’s just within the borders of Clinton County.”

Local historian and author Lou Bernard on the county having its own official monster, Giwoggle
Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
A shot of the chrysanthemums at Longwood Garden, via Kathy B. Have a Pennsylvania photo to share? Send it to us by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
a garden full of different flowers
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

A. Philadelphia. 

ABC27 reports Basil was born in Philadelphia. Her song “Mickey” was on the Billboard Top 100 for 27 weeks and reached the #1 position. She is one of the few one-hit wonders from Pennsylvania. WHTM has a list of others.

And thanks for reading PA Local. We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan & nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds the powerful to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.

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