Pictured: Alex Mackenzie Johns (centre) rehearses a sequence about Calais volunteers in the Jersey Arts Centre.
States members have been given an “open invite” to a play aiming to stimulate discussion on Jersey’s closed approach to refugees in the midst of one of the worst forced migration crises since World War Two.
Love Theatre’s ‘HOME’ will bring together Islanders and Syrian and Kurdish former refugees, who have recently been granted residency in the Netherlands, in a stigma-shattering two-part production exploring Jersey’s response to the mounting crisis.
It’s being led by Michelle Smith and Alex Mackenzie Johns, who previously worked together as Performing Arts teachers at Hautlieu School.
Pictured: Alex Mackenzie Johns (left) and Michelle Smith (right) direct the cast.
When the pair learned of the situation afflicting the Middle East and resulting in a human build-up of over 6,000 migrants at Jersey’s doorstep in Calais, what initially started as a simple discussion morphed into an opportunity for activism.
By September last year, they’d booked a trip to ‘the Jungle’, ready to offer aid and learn more.
According to Mrs Mackenzie Johns, what they saw would not leave them.
“It changed me. I remember this one moment where I looked around and thought, “We treat our stray dogs better than this.” That was a shocking moment for me,” she told Express.
“I do love Jersey – I’m raising my children here, I’m from the Island – but I do remember feeling very embarrassed by the decision our government had made to not look to home any refugees and welcome them when this is a worldwide crisis, and countries much father away from us and these tragedies – like Canada, who took 250% of their fair share of refugees – and suddenly Jersey’s made this decision to take none.”
Pictured: Members of the cast study their scripts, while Mrs Mackenzie Johns recreates a scene in Calais, where volunteers dispense aid.
It’s for that reason, Ms Smith says, that they’ve extended “an open invite to all States members”, in the hope of “raising awareness, sparking debate, and maybe to soften some hearts.”
It’s her hope that the politicians will engage particularly with the post-show discussion, in which they’ll be able to interact with the former refugees.
Such interactions should help to “humanise” the tragedy – “one of the great powers of theatre,” Mrs Mackenzie Johns observed.
Equally compelling will be the production’s use of ’verbatim theatre’, whereby all dialogue has been scripted from interviews – sometimes up to two hours – with both refugees and volunteers alike.
“Were not pretending to be Syrian or Afghani refugees, but when there’s a body on stage, I think it can be a very powerful, immediate impact.”
Taking an episodic approach, the narrative will also explore life as a volunteer in some more humorous segments, showing that beards and veganism aren’t compulsory.
But efforts have been just as much logistical as they have been creative with a 26-strong cast. The team have already seen the very real difficulties of refugee life come to light:
“It’s been a complicated process as far as arranging our former refugee friends. They were meant to be arriving on Monday, but still we don’t know 100 per cent that their visas have been approved because they’ve been called in for another meeting.
“Even with Dutch passports, it’s still complicated, and incredibly degrading and difficult for them to travel to Jersey or the UK. That in itself speaks volumes about how difficult things are for them,” Ms Smith commented.
Despite difficulties, the cast remain full of “excitement” for the upcoming play, which has been made possible thanks to a “real community effort,” which has seen the Jersey Calais Refugee Aid Group, the Jersey Arts Trust and Paper Birds Theatre Group all lend their support.
They've also been lent rehearsal space by the Jersey Arts Centre and Communicare, had an original Arabic-inspired soundtrack created for them by a member of Paper Birds, enjoyed tech and set support from Hautlieu School - not to mention the fact that all 26 of their cast are willing volunteers, with just three having had professional theatre training.
"It's been a real community effort," Ms Smith said.
Pictured: Most of the cast are local volunteers.
The message she hopes the States will take home?
“We’re not saying bring over 5,000 war-torn single men who are potentially a threat to our Island – that isn’t what anyone is saying. We’re saying, would it be that noticeable as a member of this society if four or five families came to live in Jersey? These people that we met - Zaynab, who was a nurse in Calais, and Yousef, who is a water irrigation specialist from Iraq – these people are educated, they speak perfect English, they’re family people, they’re looking for somewhere safe to live and could be a real asset to our community.
"We could learn as much from them, as they could learn from us.”