CW: described depictions of police brutality and attempted suicide
The first things I noticed before watching The Jungle at St. Ann’s Warehouse were the cardboard coat check signs. Here you have a line of disgruntled, well-dressed white people waiting in a renovated industrial site—complete with misted glass and polished wood—handing jackets and bags to people paid to safeguard said items for the duration of the performance. But past the lobby, the interior of the St. Ann’s was crowded, filled with graffiti, loose papers, fake refuse, and television sets from the 1990s displaying grainy videos of smiling people of color. I suppose it was trying to give an audience the sense of what a refugee camp might have felt like; and the sheer numbers of the crowd might actually have been right.
Except instead of refugees, they were people who could afford at least fifty-two bucks a ticket.
I was at the performance with a group from Princeton. The Program in European Cultural Studies paid for around fifteen of us to head into the city and get lunch and watch a play for an evening. The Jungle, directed by Justin Martin and Stephen Daldry, details the relationships among a group of refugees, largely from Middle Eastern and West African countries. They have settled in a refugee camp near Calais, France, called “the Jungle.” Each of them is looking for a new life; for many, this is represented by passage across the British Channel, into the United Kingdom. For now they live without permanent housing and struggle with an apathetic, sometimes actively antagonistic, French government, which at the end of the play attempts to evict all residents from the camp.
Soon, this initial cast of characters is joined by another: White British volunteers who heard about the camp’s difficulties and want to help. At first, their efforts are largely played for laughs; one of the “new arrivals” is a constantly drunk Mancunian who cares more about football (soccer) than life. He makes the comedically bizarre argument that the wayward British are seeking just as much refuge in “the Jungle” as those fleeing war-torn countries and oppressive regimes.
But after initial foibles and faux pas, the British are established in the world of the play as genuine allies and co-organizers. The collaboration, shared emotional toil, and eventual mutual understanding between the groups forms the majority of the play’s dramatic substance. British playwrights Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy based The Jungle, their debut play, on personal experiences volunteering in Calais; many members of the members of the cast are themselves refugees, or were in Calais themselves. The point of the play is to inform the public about Calais, provide a nuanced look at life in the camp, and affect an audience enough to enact change. But despite many successful performances from the actors, the writers were unable to transcend their own limited perspective as well-intentioned outsiders. Much of the portrayal feels exoticized, orientalist, othering; structural problems prevent the play from succeeding as a unified dramatic whole.
Seating for The Jungle was immersive and in the round: The audience sits on all sides of the action, in many cases right in the thick of it. Different areas of the theater were, we soon found out, named after different countries. When we showed our tickets to the ushers, they pointed us towards a sign reading “Iraq”— as close to normal theatrical seating as the space provided, cushioned benches offset from the action. But at the last moment an usher asked us if we wanted to move forwards, to seats in “Afghanistan” that were apparently better (and presumably even more expensive).
We sat on a low wooden bench. Immediately in front of us, there was a raised platform serving as a stage, with audience members seated all around it. The cast moved on and off the platform, sometimes to where more spectators sat around what seemed to be tables, complete with cups, and bottles of Heinz ketchup. For this kind of immersive theater, audience participation is the name of the game. At one point I got handed a piece of flatbread on a paper plate. I wasn’t sure what to do with it—I was wearing a mask—but at one point the classmate sitting next to me nudged me and asked for a piece. I’m starving to death. After a few moments, they turned back to me with a frown. Not the best naan I’ve had.
The play begins with people—some clearly British, some refugees—running across the stage and shouting at the top of their lungs. Something about a restaurant getting torn down. And someone’s died? There’s a funeral procession with a number of men carrying a blue wrapped corpse. Then more shouting, more running, all at top speed, top volume, top energy. It’s supposed to convey a sense of disorientation— and it does, just without any dramatic or structural effect. Characters and personalities bleed together. How am I supposed to care about these people and their angst without knowing their names? Shouting, when sustained and unjustified, ceases to be affecting and becomes grating.
After the opening section quiets, a single figure walks down the stage and begins monologuing. This is one of our protagonists. His name is Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad), and he is from Aleppo. The playwrights are sure to inform us early that he was once a student of English literature. Because of that he knows the best way to start a story is with the ending. Is it really? The play starts with its ending but it doesn’t leave a proper ending for its end. Throughout the play we are introduced to the characters we caught glimpses of early on, enough that we can patch back together what happened. But right before the play seemed poised to return to the chaos it started with, now bolstered by three hours of plot development, it ended.
Safi is the only character to make it out of the refugee camp. The play ends with him expressing guilt for making it out alive; it’s implied that another refugee was killed in the process. Ending with this was a bizarre decision, and entirely unforeshadowed. Much of the play’s tension focused on conflicts within the camp, yes, but these conflicts belied a unity in opposition to the French government. Ending with a sudden act of cruelty and guilt flattens any nuance built up over the course of the show. Perhaps the reversal could have been sudden and intentional, but it wasn’t clarified sufficiently in the denouement. The other refugee, Okot (John Pfumojena), and his death aren’t remarked upon further. This is despite the fact that earlier in the play his pain is highlighted; Okot’s monologue is one of the most moving and remarked upon moments in The Jungle. Brushing his death under the rug retroactively dampens the impact of that scene and his actor’s performance.
That’s far from the only moment when decisions made by the writers and directors do a disservice to their actors. At one point in the play, a character hitherto used primarily for comedic effect, Norullah (Twana Omer), holds a gun to his head. He was maybe five feet from me; I could see the sweat on the actor’s neck and the tears on his face. Everyone on the crowded set grew very quiet. But even moments that seem dramatically effective cannot be taken at face value. Most of the jokes at this character’s expense were about his accent and the broken way he spoke English. In one way, it’s an effective reversal, forcing an audience to consider their comic relief as a person with agency and subjectivity. But in another, it’s just as exploitative: Here the directors are still leveraging him for an easy sucker-punch, albeit of a different kind.
At the end of the show, as we were walking out, the ushers were holding big orange buckets into which patrons could place a dollar or two for the refugees if it was convenient and they were sufficiently moved. Someone—I’m not sure who—had a very real opportunity to place people and mission above the bottom line and do something that, while not unquestionable, could have at least been financially significant, like donating a percentage of the play’s earnings to the refugees in Calais. But they didn’t. They opted for the buckets.
If The Jungle weren’t written by white British men, would it have existed in the first place? If the play had been written by refugees, would we be watching it here and now, in New York? In an ideal world, the answers to these questions would obviously be yes. Clearly, it’s best to have people tell their own stories; work towards that end is of the utmost importance going forwards. But right now, well-meaning British people are inevitable, and because of them The Jungle exists. It will continue to exist. Political purity does not, and searching for it alone won’t get us anywhere. The Jungle did provide a significant platform for refugees to share their stories. There needs to be a better one. For now, even genuinely damaging mistakes made by the play’s white upper management shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the work of the actors, or there would be a disservice done to the play as a polyphonic work of art.
Can we take account of The Jungle without exonerating it, find tangible good while remaining critical of its failures? When you’re putting on a play like this, in a place like this, with an audience like this, and a creative staff like this, one major effect of your play, no matter its motive, will be to give rich white people a chance to feel cultured and educated. (Our group did see the play with Princeton money, after all.) No matter how much the playwrights make fun of themselves for playing into the white savior narrative, they’re still buying into the trope. Any ideological commentary will be in large part performative and ineffective. The refugee camp is going to be exoticized and the refugees are going to be reduced to players in the British people’s emotional games. The Jungle makes serious mistakes, but in these mistakes we find an inadvertent dramatization of their genesis.
A young Black refugee, Okot, stands center stage, injured and limping. He’s just been abused by a French prison official. In France, we speak French. He’s crying. He’s in pain. And the audience is forced to look at him, to notice him. Also on the stage stands another of our protagonists, a young, white British girl whose role has been to start an English language school. She’s watching the scene, and she’s crying, too, making his pain her own. The audience witnesses, in other words, a depiction of their own white tears.
The immersive staging of the show provides an opportunity for self-encounter. The audience—and its reaction—are just as visible as the action on stage. Each person can witness the role they might be playing in the complex system of gaze, sympathy, and exploitation The Jungle represents. The dominant narrative has a chance to be subverted, and unexpected critique has a chance to shine through. Perhaps here, if we look closely, some real change can begin.