Leeds has always been a welcoming place so it was natural our city would join a network of cities of sanctuary for refugees from conflicts across the globe and their story is the subject of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s latest hit.
Paul Clarke talked to WYP’s Alex Chisholm about how Refugee Boy came into being and what legacy will be left behind.
So what is Refugee Boy all about? It is about a young boy called Alem who is brought to the UK by his father from Ethiopia. He’s half Ethiopian, half Eritrean and this is set in around 1999 when the conflict between those two countries was much more intense than it is now.
So how does he end up as a refugee? His father then disappears leaving Alem because the whole family is at risk back home and his parents don’t want him caught up in the fighting, so as an abandoned minor in this country he is then taken into the asylum and care system. He goes to a children’s home, then to a foster family and then tries to seek asylum.
In the present media hysteria it is humanising refugees? It’s about what it means to be a refugee, particularly a young refugee, in this country but more than that – it is about what home means, what family means and the human plight of having lost your home. It’s about who takes you in, who cares for you and where you can find safety again.
To be honest some people might think this all sounds a bit depressing… It might be but I don’t think it is. I think one of the things Lemn Sissay has done in adapting Benjamin Zephaniah’s book is bringing Alum to life as a character on stage and his friendships he has, particularly with a young man he meets in the children’s home called Mustapha who is Lemn’s invention, bringing together different characters in the book. The friendship they have is a really beautiful thin, and it’s a truthful young men’s friendship full of humour and rivalry. They both like Ruth who is the daughter of the foster family where Alum ends up so there is a nice relationship between the three of them.
Lemn has done a great job adapting the book but he brings a lot of his own story to this work. He was the perfect person to write this because he has been through the care system, then to a foster family and then back to a children’s home. He was in a home because his mother came from Ethiopia to have him and left him. His journey is not exactly Alem’s but it reflects elements of it.
So he brings a realistic eye to the adaptation? I think Lemn brings a clear and unsentimental approach to this play and if some people who weren’t really inside this story would have a tendency to sentimentalise it. Alem is a lovely character and a good boy, but he’s not sentimentalised as a victim or as ‘poor him,’ He’s a very real young man with all the things that 14 year boys go through and trying to find out who he is.
This has been something of labour of love for the Playhouse taking a while to hit the stage. I’ve been on it since the beginning and it was the director Gaul McIntyre’s idea in the first place. She knows Benjamin, has read the book and thought this will make a really fantastic play so she got in touch with him and he said yes to adapting it. So I was brought in and thought of Lemn as I’d just seen a play of his called The Storm at Manchester’s Contact Theatre which was set in a children’s home which I liked because he wrote well for young people, and particularly young men.
I think one of the most exciting aspects of this production is the way you have got activities going on round Refugee Boy to help educate people what that status actually means. Right from the beginning when we knew we were going to do it we didn’t just want to do the production we wanted to genuinely engage with the refugee and asylum communities in the region, and the organisations that work with them . We also wanted to engage non-refugee communities with the subject matter.
So give me a sense of where Refugee Boy’s legacy might be? We have refugee artists working in schools and those young people are going to come to show their work on the two open days where organisations who work with refugees will be literally setting out their stalls. We have started a community choir for refugee women which also has a crèche running with it so the children are looked after, and they have the chance to do something really pleasurable and enjoyable.