Off-Broadway Review: THE JUNGLE (St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on March 3, 2023

in Theater-New York


When Dorothy emerged from her ill-fated farmhouse just after landing in Oz, she held tightly to her tiny dog and spoke the immortal words, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” Upon entering St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, now taken over by a sprawling refugee camp, it’s easy to have a similar thought: “Toto, we’re not in the United States anymore.”. Because for a fast-moving three hours, this immersive theatrical experience titled The Jungle, written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson and directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, transports the audience to an immigrant encampment, nicknamed “The Jungle”. This A Good Chance/National Theatre/Young Vic co-production tells the story of a makeshift community of displaced people that actually existed from January 2015 to October 2016 in Calais, France. Facing extremely difficult journeys to get to the camp and then horrific conditions upon arrival, the show successfully drills down from the political positioning and global brinksmanship to put a human face onto the thousands of people who are dehumanized by perfunctorily being referred to as refugees or worse. It’s a huge production, brilliantly mounted and performed. The show brings the audience face to face with a disturbing situation most only see on the evening news – thereby creating an experience that is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.

The show begins with action and distress – people running, police with bull-horns, yelling, flashing lights, sounds of bulldozers. Then thirty-something Safi (a captivating Ammar Haj Ahmad), steps from the crowd, explaining that we have actually started the story with the ending and now we must go to how it all began. With that Safi establishes himself not only as a lead character but he also as the story’s narrator. The history of the actual camp is then streamlined into three hours with representative characters from Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Syria among others. Within the camp, these multiple nationalities must learn to overcome philosophical, cultural and practical barriers to create a place that can serve as temporary dwelling for all, even though situated on unwelcoming land. As Safi poignantly asks, “When does home become home?”

All the action takes place in a tented restaurant that serves the entire settlement and any outsiders who venture to enter (i.e., the audience). Not only is the creation of The Jungle dramatized but also many of the challenges the inhabitants face including racism, duplicitous smugglers, well-meaning but self-centering volunteers, death, dashed dreams, gender inequality, lack of supplies, lack of housing, lack of toilets, unaccompanied children and unyielding hope. The owner of the restaurant is middle-aged Salar (a powerful Ben Turner) and he is especially wary of the UK volunteers and any promises regarding life outside of the tent city, having already lost close family members in his own journey to the UK. He also clings to his adopted teenage son Norullah (a brilliant Twana Omer) who helps at the restaurant and embodies the hope that things will get better. Some do manage to leave the camp but is their next circumstance really much better?

With a cast of approximately twenty-two actors, some who lived in the actual Jungle, directors Daldry and Martin orchestrate the proceeding with expert precision – especially impressive considering the cast size, high energy of many of the scenes, multiple storylines, shifting focus, sprawling playing space and the rapid fire, overlapping, multilingual dialogue that fills most of the play. Yet they are also able to offer quiet and devastating moments of sheer humanity that are sometimes difficult to watch. In one particularly gut-wrenching scene, fifteen-year-old Okut (a mesmerizing Rudolphe Mdlongwa) matter-of-factly explains to the somewhat naïve, eighteen-year-old British volunteer Beth (a moving Liv Hill) a horrendous experience he and his mother lived through in Darfur. It’s a brilliant piece of acting and writing that tears at the heart of young Okut and the overall situation of many of the camp inhabitants.

However, the production also offers moments of great joy and resilience as the well-written script, which sounds so natural it often feels improvised, ebbs and flows with the gamut of human feeling. Video design by Duncan Mclean and Tristan Shepherd and Sound design by Paul Arditti help to make the performance visceral and affective. The stunning and enclosing set design by Miriam Buether cuts off any visual connection to St. Ann’s Warehouse, leaving the audience feeling a bit isolated and displaced when inside Salar’s restaurant. The immersive set consists of dirt floors, wooden benches and walls covered in posters, flags, wood and corrugated metal. There are narrow walkways throughout, with actors and audience sometimes only mere feet, or even inches, apart. “Yes”, the set seems to be saying, “…we are all in this together.” Also, special note should be given to the casting by Julie Horan CDG. Ms. Horan has assembled an impressive international company that all seem perfectly suited to their roles and consistently give fully realized performances.

It’s a bit odd to sit in the privileged position of New York Theatergoer and be entertained by life in a refugee camp. While most Americans don’t have foreign refugees to deal with on a daily basis, the parallel between The Jungle’s rag-tag city in France and the growing homeless population in the U.S. is not hard to miss. In both cases, great poverty and desperation sit in close proximity to wealth and access. Writers Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson (both of whom served as humanitarian volunteers in Calais) seem to be aware of this juxtaposition and try to shift the audience from observer to participant, not by guilt or screed, but by empathetic human exchange. Which makes this trip to The Jungle very worthwhile, indeed.

photos by Teddy Wolff

The Jungle
St. Ann’s Warehouse
Brooklyn Bridge Park | 45 Water Street, dumbo BKLYN
ends on March 19, 2023
for tickets, call 718.254.8779 or visit St. Anne’s Warehouse

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