Refugee Week: Thought-Provoking Theatre

Refugee Week: Thought-Provoking Theatre

Refugee Week is dedicated to recognising the overlooked. HOME, Manchester, set aside 16th-22nd June to provide a platform for theatrical, musical, cinematic and political offerings from refugees and solidarity supporters. 

Walking past musicians tuning up in the bar area, and visitors browsing exhibitions, I managed to catch two poignant events: One More Push, a one-woman retrospective, balancing the comedy and pain of life before and after relocation, and This Is Who I Am, a verbatim delivery of testimonials on the specific issues faced by LGBT+ asylum seekers. Both were thought-provoking, inspirational events, stepping into a new sphere of necessary non-fiction theatre. 

One More Push starts with Fereshteh Mozaffari on the floor, surrounded by colouring pencils; from this childlike position, we see her grappling with the language of job interviews, the “big words” that are “necessary” to find a job in the UK. As a masters degree from her home country of Iran doesn’t even qualify Mozaffari for cleaning or care work, she explains the flaws in our system and teasingly engages the audience in a call-and-response of Farsi phrases. This is not a politicised rant, rather an honest plea from a woman who has been failed by religion and the state, as she has always known that she is worth more.

The narrative of One More Push unfolds in retrograde, taking us through failed job interviews, anecdotes of confused language and back to Tehran, where Fereshteh met her first and second loves. Feeling almost like a tame stand-up set at times, Fereshteh speaks directly to us. Miraculously, the audience interaction is not cringeworthy, as we all embrace the supportive atmosphere. We sit as if listening to a friend sharing her story.

Fereshteh Mozaffari is a brave and intelligent woman so, naturally, her story is captivating. She pieces together her life through a series of sketches, finding the irony and humour amongst some of her uncomfortable experiences. Balancing Iranian mannerisms with a Mancunian sense of humour, Mozaffari embraces slapstick as she demonstrates why she couldn’t sink to selling her body as a belly dancer, or worse.  

Some fierce feminist undertones abound in One More Push, as Mozaffari denies her subjugation as a woman and reenacts her rejection of traditional muslim dress. She also toys with her sexuality in her storytelling, as a woman who not only seeks freedom and education but, naturally, love and sex too. 

As the story draws on, the storyteller actively retreats into her own narrative, becoming increasingly theatrical, with torchlight and atmospheric music. By the end of the piece, Mozaffari is barely interacting with us as an audience anymore; she is a child cowering in the basement once again, unexpectedly feeling safer than ever, as she is distanced from politics and persecution. Through her soulful a cappella singing, she and I are transported back: to her home country, and to a simpler, more naive existence, before distance from “home” both defined and diluted her sense of identity.  

One More Push (photo by  Mark Simmons )

One More Push (photo by Mark Simmons)

The same room a couple of days later, Ice and Fire theatre group, with a guest performer telling her own autobiographical tale, gave an intimate rehearsed reading. This Is Who I Am is an extension of the company’s acclaimed Asylum Monologues series. The fourth wall is well and truly demolished, as the lead explains how interviewing asylum seekers in the UK for a number of years resulted in the realisation of specific and unaddressed issues faced by members of the LGBT+ community. 

Two actors read monologues on behalf of absent parties, whilst Margaret Nankabirwa tells her own story: from an international sports star, representing her home country of Uganda, to living on the streets of London after being discovered in bed with the woman she loves.

Each track told a varied and intensely personal tale: stage left, the words of a gay man from Kazakhstan faced with life in a halfway house as he fights the case for his Uzbekistani partner to follow him to the UK; stage right, a Nigerian lesbian who fled an abusive marriage only to be denied safety, detained and threatened by the UK Immigration Authority, before losing her son through deportation. Margaret sat centre stage and explained the unique trouble of how her celebrity status enhanced her risk of persecution.

Whilst Sebastian Aguirre and his colleague, Heather, of Ice and Fire delivered emotive, authentic and respectful readings, the voices behind each narrative remained in the spotlight. As the scripts are entirely verbatim, any linguistic errors are highlighted by the fluency of the actors’ delivery and evoke an undeniable pang of sympathy, as if wanting to protect a child.         

What struck me most was the realisation that I had never heard these perspectives until now. It’s comparatively commonplace to hear the failures of western governments in response to the plight of those who have fled their home countries. Yet, the LGBT+ community are too often invisible in this narrative. Fleeing countries where homosexuality is still a criminal offence, subject to legal and vigilante retribution, LGBT+ asylum seekers are then accused of exploiting an immigration loophole unless they can “prove” that they are gay. How is one supposed to document their sexual identity?

“How can we show you any civil evidence if homosexuality is forbidden in my country?”
— Margaret Nankabirwa

The three separate stories told in This Is Who I Am are overlapped, building suspense within each narrative strand and causing the audience to hang on every word. Whenever an external voice is reported, the actors interact, forming an immersive scene without ever leaving their seats.     

The horror of some of these stories is somewhat allayed when the stage lights are dropped and the audience are privy to some realtime updates on the lives of those involved. 

The performance was followed by a Q&A, where Ice and Fire were joined by representatives from Amnesty LGBTI, Migrant Rainbow and Asylum Matters, bringing front-line and even legal counsel. So much more than a reflection on the production or an open forum debate, this Q&A attempted to give some real advice and answers to immigrants and those who want to support them. At once inspired and frustrated, I left the theatre with a fascinating insight into unreported lives.  

This Is Who I Am (photo by  Christopher Thomond )

This Is Who I Am (photo by Christopher Thomond)

For more information on how you can get involved with supporting refugees, participants encouraged researching local grassroots charities and solidarity campaigners. From larger scale organisations, like Amnesty International, to more targeted groups, such as Rainbow Noir, Rainbow Pilgrims, Lesbian Immigration Support Group and Rainbow Haven

See what else is coming up at HOME on their website.

How the Light Gets In, and other solstice reads

How the Light Gets In, and other solstice reads

The Impossibility of a Female Artist

The Impossibility of a Female Artist