A DESIRE to give a “voice to the unheard” led director Sue Buckmaster to create the play, Journey of a Refugee.
Inspired by true stories of refugees and displacement, the play explores the journey of a migrant to the UK and the universal theme of people searching for a place they can call home.
Journey of a Refugee follows on from Buckmaster’s company Theatre-Rites’ earlier production, The Welcoming Party, which ran at Manchester’s Museum of Science & Industry as part of Manchester International Festival in 2017. That show was made in the context of a looming Brexit, a worsening refugee crisis, and the UK’s decision not to take in unaccompanied child refugees.
The Welcoming Party was reimagined and performed in Dinslaken for the Ruhrtriennale Festival in 2018 to highlight Germany’s acceptance of Syrian refugees. Featuring refugee actors and performers, the piece looked at ways to incorporate their real experiences and re-tell them to an audience.
“It was important seven years ago in Manchester, and then when we did it in Germany, it was important because they had taken in a lot of Syrian refugees and were going through the process of welcoming and integrating them,” Buckmaster told Eastern Eye.
“Now, in the UK, it’s just got worse. We’re hearing words like ‘enemy’. We’re hearing things like migration being ‘used as weapon’, which is abhorrent.”
Journey of a Refugee will showcase Mohamed Sarrar, 33, an original member of The Welcoming Party cast and a professional musician and performer who fled Sudan as a refugee. He will collaborate with Adi Detemo, a Croydon-based professional performer and refugee from Ethiopia, in this production.
Buckmaster worked with the performers to unravel the personal stories they wanted to share. Kassichana Okene Jameson and Vivian Triantafyllopoulou are also attached to the production.
“Over those eight years [since the production of The Welcoming Party began], I have spoken to many organisations, individuals, people who have supported refugees, or who are refugees, people who are a part of the legal system, but the one thing key to this production is I’ve kept in touch with Mohamed [Sarrar],” said Buckmaster.
When Buckmaster was approached by the Agudo Dance Company to revisit the refugee story for This is Croydon – London Borough of Culture 2023, she knew she wanted to go back and see how life had changed for Sarrar.
“Seven years later, he’s had his permission to stay – he fought for it. He toured with The Jungle (a play based on life in ‘the jungle’, an unofficial refugee camp at Sangatte, Calais, where Sarrar had stayed before he reached the UK).
“He said ‘I’m doing okay, but I don’t see my family, because they’ve been placed elsewhere, or my younger brother who is still in Sudan’. When I asked him if he wants to go back, he said, ‘I can’t, so I’m surviving in London’.
“He’s a professional musician and actor. It’s taken its toll, but he’s doing okay. When I asked him, ‘It’s seven years later, would you still like to tell your story?’. He said, ‘Of course, it’s become even more important’.”
The other lead performer in the production, Detemo, 20, made the perilous journey to the UK when he was 15.
“He did the journey in his way and got as far as Calais like Mohamed, but there was no jungle for him (Detemo). He had to find other ways of travelling.
“After seeing Adi’s impressive talent at the audition, we decided we wanted him for the show.
“We started speaking to him about his own story and, thinking this is a more recent story of a young man, we began to ponder how we could place these two stories together and reflect on what’s happening now – the fact that the jungle wasn’t there for Adi, and therefore his crossing became even more dangerous than Mohamed’s,” she said.
Though the play is inspired by Sarrar’s and Detemo’s stories, their names were changed because they wanted to incorporate stories from other refugees who have made similar journeys.
Being staged at Stanley Arts Centre in Croydon, south London, this production promises an immersive, interactive experience. Audience members will step into a scenario where they will be invited to partake in a welcoming event for newcomers who have recently arrived in Croydon. The production will promenade through multiple spaces within Stanley Arts Centre, giving the audience an insight into the spiral of UK bureaucracy facing asylum seekers.
“The context of the production is that no one has arrived. Mohamed explains that it was difficult when he arrived, but now no one is arriving and certainly isn’t going to come along for a welcoming party,” said Buckmaster.
“What happens is that the group of people then decides they want to hear Mohamed’s story. The audience goes in to watch and listen, and sometimes they get involved and do things to help tell the story of Mohamed’s journey to the UK.
“That’s partly the excitement of being immersed in it; the audience will really experience the journey and get caught up in it. Gradually, as the show goes on, it becomes more and more immersive, and the audience is involved in experiencing what it’s like to arrive in the UK and deal with the asylum seeker system.”
The play is suitable for children above the age of eight and there will be performances for local schools.
The Agudo Dance Company is also at the forefront of educational activity, delivering more than 40 sold-out workshops in Croydon for schools, youth groups, refugee groups and young carers.
“I have often been asked if Journey of a Refugee is political. My answer is that I hope it allows young people to practice being a political member of our society and to exercise their right to engage with and reflect upon important issues of our time,” said Buckmaster.
“It feels essential to recognise and inspire young people and offer adults a chance to see things through their eyes.
“I hope the production encourages empathy, an understanding of basic human rights and a recognition of our shared responsibility towards those in need.”
“It will be meaningful and also magical. The use of immersive performance techniques with objects and puppetry ensures that poetic metaphor is at play and that audiences of all ages can find a gateway to enjoy and relate to it.”
Journey of a Refugee will be performed at the Stanley Arts Centre from Saturday, February 3 to Sunday, February 18, 2024