Refugees in Australian Theatre, Finding Their Voices

Showtime: Refugees in Australian theatre

Showtime: Refugees in Australian theatre


FOR many years, Australia has enforced strict rules on illegal immigrants, forcing boats that arrive crammed with asylum-seekers back out to sea, or locking those who get too close inside remote facilities. At the same time, successive governments have also been generous in accepting refugees from the poorest, most strife-ridden places on earth, including single mothers from Africa who managed to fall into the arms of the United Nations refugee agency.

A high-octane new Australian play, performed with dance, music, video and song, explores the positive side of the ledger. “The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe” focuses on the life stories of four African women who escaped war and sexual abuse in Sierra Leone, Kenya and Eritrea. The play, which is named after a Sydney suburb where many Africans have settled, comes to the Women of the World festival in London in March.

Written by a veteran Australian theatre director, Ros Horin, the drama uses short monologues by some of the women to tell the horrors of growing up believing rape was normal. One explains that it was only after coming to Australia that she realised rape was unacceptable. The work, which is leavened with moments of humour, derives much of its power from the presence of the four refugees. They are not actors but have been trained by Ms Horin to brave the stage, and their stories are supplemented by three professionals who sing and dance. At performances in Sydney, audiences have responded with obvious emotion.

Perhaps the most riveting story is that of Yordanos Haile Michael, a 40-year-old Eritrean mother of four, who was abandoned by her father at the age of three after he killed her mother. She was kidnapped by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Force (EPLF), the separatist guerrilla group that fought against Ethiopia and after more than three decades of war won independence.

Western reporters have often written in glowing terms about the guerrillas, who were seen as clever fighters able to organise schools and underground factories. But Ms Haile Michael tells a very different story: of being kidnapped by a senior officer and sexually abused by him over many years. Forced to become a child soldier, she eventually escaped to a refugee camp in Sudan with her three small sons, and arrived in Australia in 2000, traumatised but determined. She returned to Eritrea a few years later to bring her first child back to Sydney with her. This daughter recently graduated from nursing school, and a photograph of her and Ms Haile Michael together provides one of the play’s final uplifting images.

The play has its genesis in an earlier work by Ms Horin, “Through the Wire”, a production from 2005 that examined the lives of Afghan and Iranian male asylum-seekers trapped in the jail-like detention centres. That work had a sharper tone than “African Troupe”, though it also emphasised the grit of the refugees fleeing persecution.

Ms Horin used to run the Griffin Theatre, an off-Broadway style theatre in Sydney, where she launched Cate Blanchett’s theatrical career. She has long been fascinated by the abuse of women in war and the way the victims survive. To extract the four women’s harrowing stories and then shape them for the stage took two years of workshops: talking, crying, dancing, laughing. At times, the women balked, but their mission, Ms Horin says, is to help give other abused refugee women with little education and scarce understanding of Western culture the confidence and courage to make new lives.

“The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe” is showing in London at the Southbank Centre’s WOW – Women of the World Festival on March 5th, 6th and 7th

Source:J.I.P.|Economist.com

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