“The Jungle” Reveals the Wasteland Within Us
In the summer of 2015, two young British playwrights, upset by the growing refugee crisis in Europe, traveled to a camp in Calais, France, to see what the situation was. After spending a week there, they went home, raised 5,000 pounds, and came back with a used geodesic dome which they set up in the camp as “The Good Chance Theatre.” For seven months, they helped members of the refugee community—which numbered around 8,000—to put on shows and conduct educational programming for each other.
Out of the experience of being immersed in this refugee community, these men—Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson—wrote a play called The Jungle, which recently finished its run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. And from the moment you walk into the theater area, they bring you into the experience of the camp. There’s a sort of hut you can walk through representing the home of one of the refugees. Under their old geodesic dome sits a bar and areas where you can hang an image based on a daily prompt, such as “When does a place become home?” or “If you had to flee from your home unexpectedly, what would you bring with you?”
The play’s set is itself a recreation of one of the refugee’s camp actual Afghan restaurants. Theatergoers sit at tables surrounding a raised area where most of the action takes place, grouped in sections named after the different countries from which the Calais refugees came, including Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq. If you’re seated close enough you’re even served chai tea by members of the cast and drawn into the action, as though this is a real restaurant.
The tale being told focuses on the owner of the restaurant and several other members of the camp: a hopeful Christian Eritrean woman; a Syrian man who is the community’s soulful wisdom figure; and a Sudanese refugee. But what sets the tale in motion really is a group of British people who come to the camp, just as the playwrights Murphy and Robertson themselves did, to “help.” Although their actions do provide some services to the community, they also end up doing it harm and to some extent cause the camp’s demolition in October 2016.
The conflict posed by the British aid workers is actually captured in the title of the show: the refugees named their community zangall, a Pashtun word which means “The Forest.” But the Brits mistranslate that as “The Jungle,” and can’t be bothered to listen when someone tries to correct them. So that’s the name that sticks.
The Jungle is not an easy play to watch, but not in the ways you might expect. This isn’t a show filled with tales of trauma or violence. There is just one such story told, near the midpoint of the play. “I have died many times,” the seventeen-year-old Sudanese refugee Okot says to the earnest young British woman who mistakenly claims she understands his situation, before enumerating the different horrific experiences he has gone through on the way to Calais, and how each represents a fundamental loss of who he had been. The Okot we are meeting is not just a traumatized version of the child he was, he explains, but a completely different person. It’s a powerful, heart-rending moment. Fundamentally, his goal is more to illuminate that experience, to enable us to understand.
But therein lies the trap of The Jungle, the aspect that actually makes it difficult to watch. Early in the play, one of the refugees begins to condemn the British and the world for their inhumanity. Safi, the Syrian academic and wisdom figure of the community, corrects them: “Do you truly believe they would leave us here if they knew?” he asks. No, the problem isn’t a lack of care, he insists, but a lack of information.
It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense and gives the play a kind of justification. This is Murphy and Robertson attempt to help us understand. It’s not the lives of the refugees that they’re shining a light on, but our own. It’s quite literally true: the play takes place with the house lights on. Ostensibly, that’s part of the immersive experience; however, it also means that we are each part of the story that everyone else is watching. And at some point there is no room left for any of us to insist we didn’t know what was happening there or that we don’t understand.
The show finds other ways to reinforce that discomfort. Roughly half of the main characters are the well-intentioned British people who in various ways take over. Even though their efforts do sometimes help the refugees, still, their presence constantly grates. Who are these people to claim any authority in this situation? The only one who truly wins our hearts is the often-drunk old man Boxer. In part, we love him because he is the only British character who actually seems to grow.
But more than that, I think we love him because, rather than ascribing any authority to himself, he instead presents himself as exactly what they each are, a complete mess operating in large part out of their own woundedness. In a sense he, too, is a mirror meant for us, but the play’s most compassionate one.
There’s also the way that the play begins: not at the start of the story, but near the end, during which in quick succession a number of terrible events happen. It quickly becomes too much to take in. In that moment, I found myself criticizing the play for this device: having people shouting over each other as a cascade of bad things happen is not how you start a story if you want your audience to stay with you.
But later I wondered if the point wasn’t again to force me to see my own reaction, to become aware of how I actually shut down when confronted with the chaos of these people’s lives. I feel as though the play is inauthentic because I believe that life has a clear, easy to comprehend narrative. That belief is itself the false thing; it’s a shield I use as much as a lens. In a sense, the play is a story about the stories that we tell ourselves, the ways our views of the world protect us from the realities of others, and any sense of culpability or responsibility, as well.
Weeks later, I can still hear Safi saying, “Do you truly believe they would leave us here if they knew?” and I feel myself nodding along in agreement as I sip my chai tea, completely unaware of the contradiction between what I think and the reality all around me.