HARDSHIPS AND HOPE
New play dives into complexities of migration
When Swallows Cry explores the effects of migration from an African perspective
The theatre is dark until spotlights flicker on two screens on the walls. An Afrobeat tune starts playing. Another spotlight suddenly brings a man into focus — a middle-aged black man coming down the theatre stairs, carrying an AK-47.
He is humming to the music. Without the weapon he carries, the audience might have loved his melody.
As the man reaches the front, the stage is suddenly and fully lit up and we are confronted by a scary sight — two other menacing men, one holding a pistol, his eyes fixed on a chained white man.
The white man, we are told, is a Canadian in Nigeria who teaches at a village school. He has been kidnapped by the pistol-wielding man, who goes by the name of Soldier.
To the outside world, Soldier is an insurgent, but in his impoverished village surrounded by mines operated by foreign companies, he is an activist seeking justice for his people — just like his handler wielding the AK-47.
The locals want to benefit from the mineral wealth and believe their government, in cahoots with the foreign mining barons, is denying them what rightly belongs to them.
So their solution is to do anything that will bring development to their village, including kidnapping foreigners — even the good ones like the Canadian teacher. But when it turns out the teacher is the son of a major shareholder in one of the mining companies, it complicates matters.
Instead of selling him to Boko Haram, the AK-47-wielding commander of the insurgents decides the Canadian must be killed.
An argument ensues between the commander and his soldiers over the decision, unleashing a chain of events that eventually sees the teacher being set free on condition that he raises funds to help develop the village.
This is how When Swallows Cry opened at the packed Mannie Manim Theatre at the Market Theatre in Newtown last week.
The play explores the effects of international migration, depicting the experiences of refugees as they battle for acceptance in the countries to which they flee.
It is beautifully written and well directed, comprising three stories in one.
It depicts in a powerful and emotive way (there is violence, cold-blooded murder and extreme depictions of racism) the hypocrisy of the developed world’s treatment of African refugees and immigrants seeking asylum or opportunity.
The experiences of two Zimbabwean refugees trying unsuccessfully to seek asylum in Australia and a Somali refugee attempting to enter the US are tragically told.
Written by award-winning playwright Mike van Graan and directed by Lesedi Job under the mentorship of Megan Wilson, When Swallows Cry is insightful and pushes audiences into acute discomfort.
The script is the result of Van Graan’s engagement with a unique international collaborative project under the auspices of Norway’s Ibsen International Theatre Company.
He was one of eight playwrights chosen from around the world to meet over a period of nine months in three Chinese cities — Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou — to develop scripts about migration with teams of Chinese actors and dramaturges from Norway, Italy and Slovenia.
“The repercussions are felt in the rise and fall of politicians, building of fences and walls.”
The Ibsen International Foundation will stage all eight works at the prestigious Shanghai International Theatre Festival in October 2017.
When Swallows Cry is the first of the eight productions to be staged.
The three narratives seek to explore the inequities and layered complexities of contemporary global mobility, particularly from an African perspective. Ironically, once forced to "migrate" as slaves, Africans are now among the world’s least attractive migrants for the wealthy economies of the world.
"People crossing national boundaries is a massive political issue posing numerous challenges. Whether it’s migrants searching for a better quality of life or refugees fleeing conflicts, the repercussions are felt in the rise and fall of politicians, the building of physical fences and metaphorical walls and new policies to deal with real or imagined loss," says Van Graan.
"Amidst all this are human beings with unique stories full of anxieties and hopes — some of whom will be embraced, while many will be feared as ‘the other’.
"Globalised economic interdependence and the paradox of increasing polarisation around nationalistic interests is leaving the migrants and refugees trapped between these fault lines."
In When Swallows Cry, three actors — Christiaan Schoombie, Mpho Osei-Tutu and Warren Masemola — play different characters in the three stories set on three continents. While the stories focus on the lives of individuals, the themes are universal.
The play easily connects with audiences who are conscious of the dynamics of the global refugee crisis, but it is not for the faint-hearted — especially those who can’t stomach the depiction of violence and extreme racist behaviour on stage.
There are many instances of this in the play.
When Swallows Cry is on at the Market Theatre until February 5.