In May 2016, the Young Vic became London’s first Theatre of Sanctuary – an award presented by the City of Sanctuary charity in recognition of the Young Vic’s work to raise awareness of refugee communities, and to welcome and include them in its activities. In the same month the Young Vic launched Horizons, a multi-disciplinary programme of work exploring the lives of refugees (much of it available for free) coming a month after the theatre hosted Beyond Borders, a conference exploring the relationship between participatory work with refugees and arts programming.
Now We Are Here forms part of the Horizons season: the writers – Desmond Jolly, Mir Ahmed, Michael Mugishangyezi and Tamara McFarlane – are refugees, creating their pieces in workshops with poet Deanna Rodger and head of the Young Vic’s Taking Part programme Imogen Brodie alongside director Ian Rickson. In a first half shaped from verbatim interviews, three men from Jamaica, Pakistan and Burundi recount how being gay forced them to leave their homelands and seek refugee status in London. The second half, a fictional monologue, is the story of a young Jamaican woman (Golda Roseuvel) who witnesses a lynch-mob beat and burn a young boy for being gay, and fears a similar attack if her own sexuality is discovered. Each half is presented on a bare stage, its focus purely on the stories told, gently shaped by Rickson’s under-stated direction.
The LGBTI experience, here, is an assault against the body. All four stories are threaded with horrific violence witnessed or experienced – Pakistani Mir (Manish Gandhi) is beaten by his family; Jamaican Desmond (Gary Beadle) is threatened by his brother. And for all four protagonists England is a refuge, a place where “it’s OK to be yourself”, a place of healing. As deep as the physical scars are the psychological ones, scored by a lack of understanding. Mir’s family send him to a mental institution, sectioning him on grounds of sexuality; Desmond is relieved by his cancer diagnosis in London as it reduces the chance he might be sent home; Tamara spends decades heartbroken, her relationship vetoed by society.
Paul Mason – who created a short film for the Horizons season – said of his project that “it is axiomatic that the story of the refugees will be told by refugees. But the story of our inhospitable continent, and our forgetfulness about why people leave their homes, and where hatred leads – that is our story and we have to confront it.” In that same spirit Now We Are Here is a tale of London too, and underpinned by an uncomfortable question: for all that we might decry a foreign intolerance, do we, as a London audience, really fare much better ourselves? How many of us who’ve signed petitions advocating open arms and welcome receptions for refugees have also paused to think about what happens next? Perhaps the most powerful insight these four stories offer is into the refugee experiences on our doorsteps – of daytimes spent crossing from one side of a road to the other to avoid the torturous smell of restaurants; of the sheer, ravishing coldness of snow; of hours spent in Jennings, that rare place where you can use a toilet and avoid the often-asked question as futile as it is well-intentioned: “how was your day?”
What shines brightest from Now We Are Here is spirit. Where you might expect self-pity there’s humour, resilience, and unwavering courage. At a time of cultural and ideological soul-searching, the Horizons season is an amplifier for the unheard; a space that encourages people to tell their stories, and makes it easy for anyone to hear them. A space for listening and reflection. A theatre of sanctuary.
Now We Are Here is supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Adrian & Lisa Binks, and all performances are free. The Young Vic is welcoming donations to three charities working with refugees in the UK as chosen by the collaborators on this project – Micro Rainbow International, Room to Heal and NNLA Destitute Asylum Seekers Drop In. Donations can be made via the Young Vic box office.