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For these refugees, theater plays a 'vital role' in healing


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: In the aftermath of that Syrian conflict, millions of people fled their country, joining migrants and refugees from across the Middle East and Africa seeking better lives in Europe and the United States.

Jeffrey Brown reports on a new play putting a spotlight on their stories.

It's part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Actor: When does a place become a place?

Jeffrey Brown: It's a question at the heart of the new play "The Jungle."

Actor: By November in the Jungle, I could walk from Sudan to Palestine and Syria, bump into a Pakistani country on Oxford Street near Egypt.

Jeffrey Brown: The Jungle is also the nickname for the play's setting, an informal refugee camp in the port city of Calais, France, where, beginning in 2015, thousands of refugees and migrants, mostly from the Mideast and Africa, began squatting while attempting to enter Great Britain.

The camp became one focal point for the global migration crisis then playing out, and the "NewsHour"'s Malcolm Brabant was there.

Malcolm Brabant: There is increasing frustration among migrants who have established a squalid camp in the sand dunes called the Jungle.

Jeffrey Brown: Around that same time, two young British playwrights, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, traveled to the jungle to learn more.

Joe Robertson: You couldn't turn the television without seeing these horrifying images of tens of thousands of people arriving on the beaches of the Greek islands or that infamous picture of the little boy Alan Kurdi from Kobani in Northern Syria who washed up on the beach of Bodrum.

And we, like a lot of people, went, what's going on? And it was from that need to try and find out, I suppose, to bear witness, for want of a better phrase.

Jeffrey Brown: I mean, everybody saw it and everybody probably said, what's going on? But I'm still wondering why you went, as writers, as artists.

Joe Murphy: Yes. I think the key word there is artist, and it's probably worth trying to interrogate what that word means.

I think an artist is an adventurer, somebody who seeks to try to more deeply understand a situation, who's not necessarily willing to listen at secondhand or at third-hand often, and wants to explore.

Jeffrey Brown: In all, the Joes spent several months in Calais, meeting refugees and raising enough money to buy and erect a secondhand geodesic dome that would become a theater called the Good Chance, a reference to those who made it undetected across the English Channel by train, truck or boat into Great Britain, where they could then claim asylum.

The Good Chance became a gathering place for migrants to share their stories through music, poetry, painting, theater and dance.

In this awful setting, it's not obvious that what's needed is a theater, right? But it somehow was obvious to you two.

Joe Murphy: People who are in that situation have need for food, water, shelter, all those very basic things that we need to survive. But the realization for us was that people, to be people, need more than that.

Joe Robertson: I also think it says a little bit about all of our understanding of what art is.

You know, I think we have come to think of it as a sort of very privileged kind of form of entertainment that is disposable. But, actually, it's got a vital role in somewhere like that. It's got a vital role for people trying to understand and reflect on what's -- on what's happening.

Jeffrey Brown: A year-and-a-half after leaving Calais, they captured their experience in "The Jungle," staging it first in London's and then New York, before bringing it to San Francisco's Curran Theatre last month.

Actor: When does a place become home?

Jeffrey Brown: The play itself is a chaotic series of scenes, each interrupted by another, much like life in the Jungle itself. It's immersive, with the audience seated among the actors in a makeshift Afghan cafe, which the Curran Theatre was transformed into in three weeks.

Actor: This song gave Amid and 200 others a safe passage.

Jeffrey Brown: And it tells the story of people from many languages, religions and cultures who'd all fled their homes in search of something better, but for the time being are stuck in between that previous life and an uncertain future.

On stage, 11 countries are represented, including three cast members who were refugees in the real-life Jungle.

One is Mohamed Sarrar from Sudan.

Mohamed Sarrar: No one wanted to stay in the camp. It's not a place to live, actually. It's just like maybe a temporary station for us, if I can say.

Jeffrey Brown: Nahel Tzegai plays Helene, a refugee from Eritrea, where Tzegai's own family is from. The play offered a way into her own understanding of her upbringing in Great Britain.

Nahel Tzegai: One line there is that I say in the show, which is I walked from Eritrea to Sudan, which is the journey that my mom made. So, now I feel like, in this weird way, that I'm able to connect to her more, connect to my country more.

And, yes, it's allowed me to confront a grief and a guilt that I have always had for being someone who has been allowed to live in England and choose a life of myself.

Jeffrey Brown: Driving the story is the arrival of idealistic British volunteers, who come to the Jungle to build homes, teach English and organize the community, trying to help, but often falling short.

Rachel Redford plays one of them, named Beth.

Rachel Redford: You have claimed asylum, you still have to live in this hellhole.

I think volunteers are people who are just trying to understand. And they go in with incredible intentions. And sometimes they are faced with really, really shocking situations that they themselves don't know how to resolve.

Jeffrey Brown: There are echoes of these well-intentioned volunteers, good and bad, in the Joes themselves.

Joe Murphy: I'm very, very happy to admit that, actually, because, in a sense, I think it was our lack of understanding and our naivete that took us into a situation that otherwise, if we had known a little bit more about it, perhaps we wouldn't have gone.

Joe Robertson: There's an enormous sense of trying to understand what our duty is and whether we have the right to, yes, write this, or the right to help, or the right to get involved.

And I think that's what we have spoken about, understanding what our responsibilities are. And I hope the play is an interrogation of that.

Jeffrey Brown: In 2016, French authorities demolished the Jungle. Yet, today, hundreds of migrants and refugees continue to come, hoping for their own good chance.

"The Jungle" is at the Curran Theatre through May 19.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in San Francisco.

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