By C. CLAIBORNE RAY
The Jungle, which ended a limited run at St. Ann's Warehouse on Jan. 27, then ran for seven weeks at the Curran San Francisco, reconstructs a key part of the large, multinational refugee camp in Calais that came to be known as The Jungle. Within it was a theatre and gathering place called the Good Chance, a geodesic dome that the play's authors, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, operated for seven months before the destruction of the camp. The play's immersive production puts the audience under the dome, inside a restaurant run by one of the refugees, and alongside all the refugees waiting for their "good chance" to be smuggled across the Channel into England. It also introduces the English volunteers who try to help them in the camp.
The cast and crew visited The Players on the evening of Monday, Jan. 7, at the invitation of the organizers of last fall's Players theatre tour of London. Below are edited and condensed excerpts of interviews with three members of the cast:
TREVOR FOX (Boxer, an alcoholic Englishman with vague intentions of helping while escaping his own life)
Q. Did anyone in the cast come through The Jungle?
A. I would say half the people in the cast are refugees, and of those half, three actually came through The Jungle.
Q. How difficult is it for these actual refugees to re-live the refugee experience on stage every night?
A. From my point of view, I imagine that having been through those traumatic experiences, in many ways they find it quite easy, because it isn't the real thing, and they've lived it. The character I play is an alcoholic. He spends most of the play drunk, so I don't have to go to very dark places to bring out my pain and suffering. John, who plays Okot, tells the most heartbreaking stories, so although John as a person hasn't been through that, to find the emotion, he has to go to dark times (in his own life), and I suspect it's harder for him than it is for me. Various people do have to go to some very dark, sad places.
Q. ....at least they're getting paid for it?
A. At least they're getting paid for it and getting to travel the world and tell their story, which is a story that needs to be told.
Q. How different do you find the American audiences?
A. We find they aren't as willing to engage in the participation. I suspect that comes from the British, from the tradition of pantomime, which is most people's introduction to the theatre. In pantomime there is a lot of audience participation, so we often use that, talking directly to the audience. So British audiences are very, very used to it. Perhaps American audiences aren't as used to it. But we find that by the end of the show, they are very engaged. Their response has been incredible. For them, it's a parable, a metaphor for what's happening in the U.S. For us, it was a real story about real people.
Q. New York audiences always root for the underdog....
A. I suspect it would be different if we were playing Boise, Idaho, I don't know, or let's say Texas. It would be the same in the U.K. if we were playing towns outside of London. We have the similar thing with Brexit, which showed that we have the same kind of division. In [my part of the country] the Northeast of England, like the Rust Belt in the U.S., they have seen their livelihood taken away, everything turned upside down, and they're lashing out at the wrong people.
Q. Are any of the characters actually playing their own experiences?
A. Not directly. But John [Pfumojena] is playing a composite character based on Mohamed [Mohamed Sarrar, another actor] and another couple of guys. The character I am playing is a real person from the Northwest of England, and all the volunteers are based on real people.
Q. Did the immigrants resent the "do-gooders," the intrusion of those helpful Oxford types?
A. No, I think they realized they were there for good intentions. But things went wrong, of course they did! Everybody's intentions were good. But nobody knew quite what to do.
DOMINIC ROWAN (Derek, a political organizer)
Q. What's your role?
A. I play Derek, a volunteer from just outside Oxford who sees what's happening in The Jungle on the news and decides to come over and try to help.
Q. A person of exquisite sincerity. Did those involved resent the "do-gooders"? It struck me that every single person in that tent -- and in the audience -- is to some extent confused about what is going on, and the confusion may be the scariest thing of all.
A. Every individual there brings their own set of circumstances, their own past life, their own reasons for being there, their dreams and aspirations. In the case of Derek, those circumstances aren't disclosed. For me as an actor I happen to know who I am, where I come from, why I am there. It becomes an occasion for Derek to try and apply his thoughts about politics, how society should be run, to the situation on the ground. Unfortunately that turns out to be not appropriate, not feasible, so he ends up just trying to deal with the crisis.
Q. Who in the production was actually associated with the theatre in The Jungle?
A. The two writers, the two Joes [Murphy and Robertson], were going to Munich, which had just allowed in half a million refugees. But they started off in Calais, and stayed there for eight months. The building, the dome, it became clear to them they had sort of theatre interests.The people were confused, they'd got to this place, and so much had happened to them, and they had so few ways to process it. They found few safe places to go, to talk, to sing, dance, rap, do plays, try and process where they were going, find out from other people, collect information, to share, so they set up as the theatre.
Q. What is the misunderstood word that becomes The Jungle?
A. "Zhangal." In Pashtu, the Afghan language, it means "the forest," which my character hears and transforms into The Jungle. It's an incredible thing to be involved in. It has touched everybody involved in it. It's a story that needs to be told. It's made me think differently.
JOHN LENNON PFUMOJENA (Okot, a refugee who survives a harrowing journey in which he describes dying several deaths; also the musical director of the production)
Q. How long have you been associated with the production?
A. Since August 2016. I came to England in 2014 from Zimbabwe. I was already an actor.
Q. How did they find you?
A. I just did an audition through my agent.
Q. How did you find this production in comparison to others you have done?
A. I think this one is the most fulfilling. I have done Sebastian in Twelfth Night, I have done Michael Darling in Peter Pan, and before that just new plays.
Q. A lot of theatre companies like this become a family. Has that happened with this one?
A. I don't think I had any choice.
Q. What would you like the audience to know?
A. I find it very important to support refugee organizations, like Help Refugees (helprefugees.org, which worked in The Jungle). Even people who have been saved from the sea still need help; they are still there in Calais. And the Museum of Immigration in Paris, where I went for a week as a volunteer with some of my music. And please support Good Chance Theatre, which set up the theatre in The Jungle.
C. Claiborne Ray retired in 2008 as deputy obituary editor at The New York Times and still writes the Science Q&A column for Science Times. She has used the Players as her drawing room since 2014.