Refugees in France steal your breath, break your heart in ‘The Jungle’

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Anyone who walks into the Curran in San Francisco during the coming month and expects a typical theater is in for quite the shock. Instead of a stage, the actors walk upon a series of tables forming the Afghan Café, serving warm chai to all who enter; instead of auditorium seats, audience members are led to different sections in the “restaurant,” each dedicated to its own country. Here, in this intimate and vibrant space, one can leave behind the city and enter the great “Jungle.”

“The Jungle” follows the creation and destruction of a refugee camp known as the Calais Jungle in northern France, where people of different religious and ethnic groups were united by the dream of asylum in the United Kingdom. Its playwrights, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, based the work off of their experiences running a theater company in the Calais Jungle in 2015 before its residents were evicted by the French government the following year.

At the center of “The Jungle” are two men, one Syrian and one Afghan: Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) and Salar (Ben Turner). English literature graduate Safi serves as the Jungle’s very own narrator, while Salar, a former restaurant owner, runs the café in which most scenes take place. One could call them the heart and soul of the camp, one sentimental and the other indomitable; both actors are purely captivating in their roles, with Ahmad’s soft-spoken lyricism balancing out the stoic force of Turner.

Talent is abundant in this cast, to say the least. Beyond the excellent portrayals of Safi and Salar, as well as those of younger characters such as Norullah (Khaled Zahabi) and Okot (John Pfumojena), the production is filled with musical sequences showcasing Middle Eastern and African artistry. From the dancers whirling around the atypical stage to the drummers and guitarists swelling the house with their music, it is clear that each cast member has their own role in turning the Jungle into a home.

Still, the writers of “The Jungle” were wise not to frame the events in Calais as simply an uplifting story of diversity and community-building. While that element is certainly present — Safi says that, in the Jungle, there is “more hope that you’ve seen in all lifetime” — to center the play around it would risk trivializing an all-together frightening situation. There’s a scene in the second act in which Paula (Lorraine Bruce), a British volunteer, begins a heated speech about how society ought to lose its obsession with “helping.” She points to how the residents of the Jungle had built an entire community as proof that they were stronger than any white helper sent to save them. Helene (Nahel Tzegai), a woman who has just claimed asylum in France and given up her dream of the U.K., stops folding clothing. Does Paula, Helene challenges, truly think that refugees don’t need help?

Evidently, the writers were also prudent in their portrayal of British volunteers. Even for young Beth (Rachel Redford), arguably the most conscientious of volunteers, it takes a harrowing and brilliantly performed monologue from Okot in order for her to begin the process of “understanding” the refugee experience. Whether or not that task can be completed is a question of its own.

While all of these volunteers admittedly take up a lot of stage time, the writers make an effort to keep the refugees at the center of the story — quite literally, in Safi’s case. Facing a difficult decision in the second act, Safi begins to retreat into himself; the delicate and almost buoyant way in which he would spin phrases in act one dissolves into quiet resignation until he eventually stops talking altogether. As debates about the camp rage around him, Safi sits in the center of the stage, silently mouthing along to phrases spoken by the other actors.

That single image — a deeply traumatized man echoing the words of a British volunteer and French government official as they argue over his own future — is enough to leave the audience reeling for days.

In the end, none of the characters who come to help in Calais necessarily know which issues to address and how to address them. This makes sense — after all, “The Jungle” isn’t attempting to be a sort of guidebook for helping refugees. At the same time, the play doesn’t reject the humanitarian impulse that brought volunteers over in the first place; it encourages such a tendency, as surely as Helene does in Paula, and shames the culture of cynicism that keeps onlookers passive. “The Jungle” is a production that will steal your breath and break your heart, but never let it be said that it takes away your hope.

“The Jungle” will be running at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco through May 19.

Lauren Sheehan-Clark covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the character Safi is an Afghan man. In fact, he is Syrian.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the role of Paula was performed by Catherine Luedtke. In fact, the role was performed by Lorraine Bruce.