Overwhelming humanity, extraordinary theater in The Jungle at the Curran

Apr 11

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The cast of The Jungle at the Curran includes (from left) Jonathan Nyati as Mohammed, Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, Dominic Rowan as Derek and Tommy Letts as Sam. Below: John Pfumojena as Okot. Photos by Little Fang

You may enter The Jungle at the beautiful Curran theater in downtown San Francisco, but you exit in an entirely different place – mentally and emotionally speaking, that is.

The idea of immersive theater tends to bring on expectations of fun and intrigue with promises of leaving present circumstances behind and allowing yourself to be somewhere else (possibly someone else or in some other time) for just a little while. But The Jungle is different. Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, the play is based on their experience as volunteers and theater-makers at the Calais refugee encampment that came to be known as The Jungle in its nearly two years of existence in 2015 and 2016. At its height, more than 8,000 refugees from many nations – Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan to name a few – were living in what came to resemble a small city. All of them were there in the hope of reaching the UK, that not-so-distant land just across the English Channel, where, on a clear day, you could see the White Cliffs of Dover.

To be immersed in such a camp, as we are in this intense theater experience, is a complicated thing. On a theatrical level, everything is top notch. Directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin skillfully orchestrate chaos, danger, horror and community building in a way that makes it feel real while still guiding us through character development and plot. The Curran has been completely transformed from its usual majesty into a plywood “café” where most of the audience members are sitting at small tables (the same tables that the actors use as their stage). Set designer Miriam Buether pays such attention to detail it’s almost alarming to re-emerge into the world of the Curran and San Francisco at intermission.

The cast, which includes people who actually spent time as refugees at the real Jungle, brings absolute intensity and commitment to making this realistic environment feel fully inhabited by real people, many of them desperate, scared and angry. We get a cross-sampling of refugees and their stories along with a handful of British volunteers who are trying to bring order to the chaos. There’s a lot of shouting, a lot of noise and mayhem as many things happen at once throughout the play’s two acts and nearly two hours.

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Theatrically, we’re in good hands (and that includes work by lighting designer Jon Clark, sound designer Paul Arditti and costume designer Catherine Kodicek), and that means we’re thoroughly immersed in this world where thousands of people (a small representation of refugees in a similar plight around the world) are reduced to a commodity that must be dealt with, ignored, taken advantage of, or, at worst, eliminated. Because we’re in the same room with them, experiencing slices of their hardships and challenges, we see them as what they are: people. Not blurbs in the news. Not data. Not the enemy. People. With so much news and so many politicized headlines inundating us from every angle (and with so much of it being bad news), we become inured to the reality of what people – so many of them families – are actually going through day to day just to survive.

The Jungle accomplishes that absolutely necessary thing: it personalizes the stories, gives names to the faces and provides stories to the lives. In one of the play’s most wrenching monologues, a 17-year-old Sudanese boy, Okot (John Pfumojena) talks about the smugglers he paid to get him out of Darfour but ultimately used him as a pawn to try and extract more money out of his mother. They sent her photographs of her son under a giant cement slab, essentially telling her that without her additional money, he would be killed. She had no extra money, but somehow he survived, making it across the sea in the hold of a horrible boat and then to Calais, where, in a burst of radical hope, he shares his phone’s ringtone: Vera Lynne singing “The White Cliffs of Dover.”

Amid the noise and bustle of the staging, a sense of intimacy is created, and we experience a vital connection with humans in crisis. What to do about that is almost as complicated as the crisis itself. The British volunteers are sometimes seen as interfering or working in their own best interests (not to mention escaping their own lives) as they attempt to find themselves in their good works. But with the governments of France and the United Kingdom doing so little, there’s a huge void and even more enormous need.

The issue of “home” and what that word actually means pervades this experience (calling it simply a play doesn’t quite suffice). Over the course of these three hours, we feel this slapped-together city begin to feel like a home of sorts, a place of refuge even if only temporarily before the bulldozers begin their insidious work. It’s easy to imagine that everyone who experiences The Jungle as a home to return to when this particular story ends. But we fully realize that this story never ends. It never really changes from decade to decade or, to take the long view, from century to century. Horrible things to happen to groups of people all over the world, and most of us feel powerless to do anything about it. The Jungle doesn’t provide any easy answers, but it does say this: remember that every single person you read about is just that: a person with a name and a history and the capacity for deep feeling and a need for everything we mean when we say “home.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle continues through May 19 at the Curran, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$165. Call 415-358-1220 or visit https://sfcurran.com

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