Italy’s mi­grant drama moves from sea to stage

The China Post - - ARTS & LEISURE - BY AN­GUS MACKIN­NON

Joseph Eyube al­ways felt there was a per­former in­side him wait­ing to get out.

“I’m a funny man,” says the Nige­rian asy­lum seeker. “Some­times when I was watch­ing TV or a movie, I would think, ‘I could do bet­ter than that guy.’

“It all de­pends on your mind. If you know re­ally you can do it, it is pos­si­ble.”

Now Eyube has been given his chance to prove to the world that his self con­fi­dence is jus­ti­fied.

Eight months af­ter he landed in Italy, the 34-year-old is one of the stars of a new pro­duc­tion that has brought the epic drama of mi­grants’ jour­neys from Africa to Europe, across the Sa­hara and the Mediter­ranean, to the Ital­ian stage.

Asy­lum seek­ers make up 20 of the 30-strong cast of “Sab­bia” (Sand), an orig­i­nal piece con­ceived by di­rec­tor Ric­cardo Van­nuc­cini that emerged from a six-month theater work­shop run by the ArteS­tu­dio com­pany in the Castel­n­uovo di Porto re­cep­tion cen­ter on the out­skirts of Rome.

Sab­bia had its first two show­ings at the week­end in Rome’s pres­ti­gious Teatro Ar­gentina and there are plans to take it around a coun­try grap­pling with the pres­sures and polemics gen­er­ated by the ar­rival of un­prece­dented num­bers of mi­grants on its south­ern shores.

Eyube, like nearly all the oth­ers in the Castel­n­uovo cen­ter, ar­rived there af­ter be­ing plucked from a floun­der­ing peo­ple-smug­glers’ boat in the Mediter­ranean.

He grabbed the chance of work­ing with ArteS­tu­dio, a com­pany that spe­cial­izes in pro­duc­ing theater in war zones and pris­ons and in­volv­ing dis­placed peo­ple, the dis­abled and tor­ture vic­tims.

“I never had the op­por­tu­nity to try theater or any­thing like that be­fore,” Eyube said, ex­plain­ing how pre­par­ing for Sab­bia had al­lowed him to off­set the tedium of end­less days spent wait­ing for news on the progress of his ap­pli­ca­tion to stay per­ma­nently in Italy.

“I needed some­thing to keep me mov­ing. A man can­not live only sleep­ing and eat­ing, sleep­ing and eat­ing,” he said in a break from re­hearsals.

His role in­volves de­liv­er­ing the “To be or not to be,” so­lil­o­quy from Shake­speare’s “Ham­let” in his rich bari­tone voice. T.S. Eliot’s epic poem “The Waste Land” and the paint­ings of Jack­son Pol­lock are also ref­er­enced in the con­tem­po­rary pro­duc­tion.

‘Grace of God’

Di­rec­tor Van­nuc­cini’s re­sume in­cludes a piece called “Al Hodood” that was pro­duced in Jor­dan with the help of refugees from neigh­bor­ing Syria and a pro­duc­tion of “Ham­let” in He­bron, in the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries.

He says his latest work is not try­ing to make any par­tic­u­lar point about Italy’s mi­gra­tion cri­sis, in­stead fram­ing his ob­jec­tive as a greater un­der­stand­ing of the forces driv­ing it.

“This year there will be 200,000 peo­ple ar­riv­ing in Italy, in the com­ing years it could be a mil­lion. It is an ep- ochal event, both for those flee­ing and for those at the re­ceiv­ing end.”

Work­ing with the young Africans, he said, had been joy­ful de­spite their to­tal ab­sence of per­for­mance ex­pe­ri­ence.

“There was some dif­fi­dence at first but what we do is not literary theater, it is more a theater of ac­tion,” he ex­plained. “Our ap­proach, is sim­i­lar to that in sport, it is about cre­at­ing a team. And then here is a lot of fun and friend­ship.”

For Ebuye and the other asy­lum seek­ers in the cast, remembering lines and stage marks help oc­cupy minds that oth­er­wise would be filled with anx­i­ety over the fu­ture or haunting mem­o­ries of the re­cent past.

“I re­ally don’t want to talk about the jour­ney,” said Ebuye. “I know what I have passed through and I know what I have seen.

“Find­ing my­self here, I am so happy be­cause some­times when I watch TV I see peo­ple in the sea, dead. I jump around be­cause it is the grace of God.”

For Farba Man­gane, 22, from Sene­gal, the men­tal scars from be­ing forced onto a boat off Libya hav­ing never seen the sea prior to that day have healed slowly.

He was so trau­ma­tized he has only just re­cov­ered the abil­ity to uri­nate with­out med­i­ca­tion 13 months later.

“(In the cen­ter) I think so much,” he said. “Am I go­ing to get pa­pers, am I go­ing to have any money?” he said.

“But since we started this theater my heart has be­gun to re­lax.”

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