In the Firehall Arts Centre rehearsal hall, two actors and a director are negotiating the loaded, precarious terrain of Canada’s refugee system.
They’re staging a central scene from the new play Refuge. In it, an English-speaking friend of a man who’s fled Eritrea is trying to explain to an immigration lawyer why his friend should be allowed in the country. The attorney, Saul, played by Robert Moloney, is concerned the man’s refugee application will be turned down because he served as a captain in the army. “No. No,” says Aadin Church’s Mebrahtu. “No choice. In our country they have no choice.”
At another point he tries to explain, “He doesn’t like what he sees. He does what he has to do.” The pair replay the scene multiple times to show the slow route to trust.
Director Donna Spencer tries to provide Eritrean historical context to her actors as they work through the scene: “When you do the research, you find that people enlisted for many reasons, but once they were there there was no way out.” Then she offers to Moloney: “You need to ask how well do you know this man and how much do you trust him?”
Trust, suspicion, and the shadow of violence from faraway lands: these are the themes that haunt Mary Vingoe’s new work Refuge, and that dominate today’s headlines about the refugee crisis. Who can we trust to let into the country and how can we provide sanctuary while protecting our families?
Firehall artistic director Spencer’s choice of the play could not be more timely, with proposed travel bans sending people over our southern border and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opening Canada’s doors to Syrians. But none of this was happening when she was first struck by a reading of the work at the Playwrights Theatre Centre. “What compelled me at the time was that the more we look to the globe, the more we don’t know who to trust,” Spencer says. “I’ve always felt that theatre is a political tool and believed we needed to talk about this.
“None of us thought we’d get to a point where we’d be seeing people come across the border in winter without proper shoes.”
The piece was inspired by a real CBC Radio documentary about what happened to a young Eritrean man who fled through the desert of Sudan to get here, only to get hung up in the refugee process. In the play, a half-Indian Haligonian woman named Pamela takes him in to live with her family, but starts questioning their decision to take him in when he begins isolating himself.
“It was really about, ‘How would I feel if this person came into my family and they started to do something odd?’” Spencer explains. “I get it; people are fearful for their jobs and security and the pushback comes from that.”
Making the discussion even more timely in recent weeks, she points out, are new studies that have shown we’re more racist in Canada than we admit to, and that we’re not as welcoming to refugees as we like to pretend.
The show has sent Spencer delving deep into the little-known history of Eritrea and Ethiopia, researching online and in the old encyclopedias willed to her by her parents. It’s taken her right back, inevitably, to the colonization of the region by Italy, and how that set a chain of events into action. She’s sought out firsthand information, too: on the day the Straight visits, the East African Society is going to visit rehearsal to give input.
As far as the set design (by Lauchlin Johnston) goes, Spencer wanted to show the way the situation in Africa hangs over all that is going on in the play in Canada: “The set is constructed out of things you would find in a refugee camp, with lots of tarps and fibreboard, and on top of that we’re layering the contemporary Canadian world.” It was her solution, she says, to a challenge she felt: “How do we talk about this place that we don’t know anything about?”
The play should prompt discussion about issues that are top of mind as Canadians face the latest wave of refugees The Firehall invites audiences to confront the issues and consider them, and is even running an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to provide free and deeply subsidized tickets to secondary and postsecondary students. “We decided to do this as young people can lead positive change, and we are hopeful that by attending this piece they will want to gain a greater awareness of those who are coming into their classrooms that may be refugees to Canada,” Spencer explains.
Just don’t expect Refuge to set out easy answers; amid our global refugee crisis, it seems there are no such things.
“The play sets up a debate,” Spencer says. “Do we assume that refugees are coming here to do terrorist acts? But some are deported for the wrong reasons. How do you as a government set guidelines?
“That’s another reason the play appeals to me: there are no pat answers.”
Refuge is at the Firehall Arts Centre from Saturday (March 18) to April 1.