Joe Murphy & Joe Robertson
|Jonathan Nyati, Tommy Letts & Ammar Haj Ahmad|
One young woman tells how she walked 3000 miles just to get to the Mediterranean, still a sea and a continent away from her destination. An Iraqi with a guitar sings a song and relates how this song moved the hearts of guards to let him and 200 others cross a closed border. A twenty-something man – his body racked with scars from torture – stands statuesque with a single river of tears dripping to his chest while relating in almost monotone voice of six days, six nights in a hellacious truck crossing the Sahara. A boy barely man mentions how he waited in hiding three days at the French border with no food, only to be found and severely beaten by French police. And all around the crowded café, men and women hold up phones to show videos of being crammed onto rubber dinghies and leaking rafts, sent across the Mediterranean on journeys their paid smugglers never made with them, since survival was not likely for many.
And in today’s San Francisco Chronicle – several years after these stories occurred – a headline declares that 64 rescued migrants are still in the Mediterranean with countries like Malta and Italy refusing to let their boat land. Another day, the number in a headline was 122; another day, 76. Behind each such headline of one number are separate, different stories like the ones above; yet most of us only see that overall number while glancing at the headline, maybe taking a moment to think/say, “How terrible for those poor people” before checking to see if the Giants finally won last night or not.
The power of The Jungle is that never again will anyone who enters Salar’s Restaurant in the completely transformed Curran Theatre – never again will that person look at one of these headlines without seeing the tear-stained face of Okot; without hearing the voices of Helene, Norullah, or Safi; without remembering Little Amal as she wanders among us with a smile so innocent and so heart-breaking.
Two young British men went in 2015 to the shanty-town of tents and flimsy structures built on a landfill near Calais, France that became known as The Jungle – a location from which the thousands of stranded refugees from twenty-five countries hoped that tonight there might be a “good chance” (the first two English words many learned) to hop on a ferry at the nearby port or onto a traffic-stopped lorry on the near-by highway in order to cross the Channel. It is across that Channel that all residents of The Jungle could see the White Cliffs of Dover and the country they all sought to enter for safety, jobs, medical help, and a better life.
Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson were those two, young, British arrivals who took their own experiences as actors forming a theatre for the refugees as well as the stories of the people they met in order to create a fully immersive, theatrical experience bearing the same name as the multi-nation, multi-culture community that existed from January 2015 to October 2016. That production of The Jungle from the Good Chance, National, and Young Vic Theatres now arrives on tour in San Francisco at The Curran, ready to change our lives forever in the way we think about, care about, and hopefully do something about the migrants of the world who become desperately stranded refugees. How could The Jungle make a more timely arrival in San Francisco than in 2019’s Trump-America?
There are two ways to experience the two hours, forty-five minutes visit to Salar’s Restaurant, the center of communal life in the Jungle. One is to sit in the mezzanine above, now made much closer after the orchestra and loge sections have been covered by a dirt and saw-dust-covered floor and after the balcony above has been hidden by a giant tent that serves as the ceiling of the entire setting. The other way is to enter below through the small storage rooms and the kitchen of the Afghani restaurant – one that actually did exist and received a “4-star” review from a London newspaper – and then to sit on rows of long benches at the narrow tables or to recline along the wall on pillows. Raised platforms crisscross among the guests and serve as the stage that is only inches away from many of the restaurant’s now-packed audience members.
Sitting in the restaurant itself, one is part of the hubbub of people constantly coming and going among us — sometimes offering us milky chai; sometimes stopping to chat; often climbing between, over, and around us to get through the crowded venue. We cringe at the heated, shout-filled passions of two opposing views of how to run the community. We hold metal bowls for a drummer joyfully to play his native beats while we also hold quickly distributed towels to avoid the “tear gas” of invading police. Inches away a woman kneels praying as her tears draw our tears; and next to us, we smell the hot breath of a panting boy who has been running like mad to escape a fellow refugee’s wrath. And all around us, a united community of mixed nations and religions forms as Shiites and Sunnis, as Christians and Muslims, and as those white and those black realize that “If we are to live together, we must stand together.”
|Ben Turner & Ammar Haj Ahmad|
Our evening begins at the end of the story, with the sound of bulldozers rocking the restaurant around us, with riot-geared police bursting in with their clubs and tear gas, and with the 3455 refugees (including 455 children, 305 unaccompanied) having just lost their court appeal to stop the French-led eviction. When the action then flashes back to March 2015 – two months after the initial refugee arrivals – already the restaurant that Salar (Ben Turner) has built has become the hub where the residents meet to argue policies, form committees, and vote on everything from the name of their city-of-sorts to the response to make to the threatened evictions.
|Ammar Haj Ahmad|
The question that Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) – our occasional narrator and one of The Jungle’s more respected voices – stops action to pose to us is, “When does a place become a place?” He answers his next ponder of “When does a place become home?” by noting that along with Salar’s Restaurant, there are already in March 2015 are hairdressers, dentists, small stores, a church, and even a theatre dotting the Jungle’s barren landscape.
One of the other things the community gathers to decide by vote is whether to accept the aid of sudden-arriving Brits who have come on their own to help. After all, as Salar reminds the gathered community, “They [the Brits] go to places they are not wanted and tell people what to do.”
|Jonathan Nyati, Ammar Haj Ahmad, Dominic Rowan & Tommy Letts|
By late 2015, there are hundreds of plastic-covered, plank-framed homes – many arranged in neighborhoods by native country – all part of the vision and ingenuity of an eighteen-year-old, passion-filled Brit, looking a bit like Harry Potter and named Sam (Tommy Letts). The houses are also due to the organizing/building know-how of a beer-loving, banjo-picking geezer from Newcastle (Boxer played by Trevor Fox), who declares upon entering Salar’s, “I’ve come to fix things.”
Carrying his environmentally correct ‘Greenshop’ gear, a Brit named Derek (Dominic Rowan) also bursts with a flair into the restaurant to apologize “on behalf of my country,” soon offering “to build the new Jerusalem.” Sometimes hot-headed, always deeply caring Beth (Rachel Redford) is here to teach English to these hopeful citizens of her country while rough-shod, no-bullshit Paula is here because “Fuck knows where Save the Children Are.” The passions of those there to help often clash in mighty battles of do-good ideas and goals – sometimes with those they are trying to help, but more often among themselves. Along with the bone-chilling, heart-stopping stories we hear from the refugees themselves, we also gain new insights about the drivers, the intents, and the hearts – all overall good – of the folks who step forward from their own homes to help those who no longer have a home.
|Zara Rasti & Khaled Zahabi|
Within minutes, the members of this cast cease to be actors in roles and are instead real people with huge investments in their own and others’ safety, well-being, and dreams. (In fact, several members of the cast were once inhabitants of The Jungle, being refugees themselves who were among the lucky to reach the UK.) John Pfumojena leaves an image never to be forgotten as Okot, the man who stands before us to tell his story of the Sahara truck escape and the ensuing tortures. Nahel Tzegai is Helene, a devout Christian among so many fellow followers of Islam, whose beautiful soul wins her many friends and new family. Khaled Zahabi is a big-smiling prankster and talented pickpocket named Narullah whose smile and eagerness to please wins over Salar the restaurant owner, who in turn makes the boy his Number Two and almost his son. Norullah has an early big-time run-in with Mustafa (Moses M. Sesay) that almost becomes a two-person race war, but the two soon bond into brothers where differing nationalities and skin color are forgotten. Zara Rasti is the adorable Little Amal who steals everyone’s heart in Salar’s café (including all of ours); Jonathan Nyati is the wise-speaking, level-headed Mohammed; and Milan Tajmiri is Omid whose angel-like voice and softly strummed guitar won him and the 200 others an impossible border crossing.
Along with these and other, equally compelling refugees, we also meet a money-hungry, heartless smuggler named Ali (Rachid Sabitri), who prefers to call himself “a freedom fighter.” Alexander Devrient takes on several roles, from a vicious French guard to Henri, a French government official who explains (in my paraphrased version) to Sam why he wants to evict those in The Jungle: ‘I don’t want to go bed at night to give someone in Syria hope to get on a boat in order to get a good life here.’
|The Setting in The Curran|
The incredible transformation of the Curran, as designed and orchestrated by Miriam Buether as set designer, must be seen to be believed (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xka8veAE4rc). The realism of nationalities and personalities is greatly enabled by the costume designs of Catherine Kodicek. Paul Arditti’s sound design literally at times rattles our bones and fills us with dread of the approaching bulldozers while the lighting of Jon Clark helps ensure we are all a member of this café’s community while also zeroing us into a focus of one person’s gripping story and pain.
But not enough can be said about the mastery of direction by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin. How does one even envision the placement, movement, and realistic events that occur by such a large and diverse cast among the couple hundred theatre-goers who crowd the very stage on which multiple entrances and exits from all directions, dances and fights, silhouetted stories and crowd-packed meetings all play out? Grand kudos goes to both co-directors!
Seeing the The Jungle is not a passive experience. Whether sitting above or in the midst of the action, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson demand that each of us becomes an active, temporary inhabitant of this once-vibrant community. Only as such can we walk away forever changed by stories we realize are never ever two the same. No matter how many headlines we do see in the future that summarize the latest boat or border crisis into one number, we will now finally realize that the sum does not tell the the many individual stories crying out to be heard.
Rating: 5 E, “MUST-SEE”
The Jungle continues through May 19, 2019 at Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at https://sfcurran.com/or by calling the Box Office at 415-358-1220 between 10 a.m. and 6 pm. Monday through Friday.
Photo Credits: Little Fang
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