A New Production of The Jungle Revisits a Timeless Crisis


February 27, 2023

In the years since The Jungle—the immersive play set in a Calais refugee camp now running at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn—was first produced, the locus of the crisis has shifted. It was in Warsaw. Then Texas. Then Martha’s Vineyard. Then New York City, where Mayor Eric Adams declared a state of emergency last fall in order to more rapidly house the busloads of migrants who were arriving from Mexico and further South. There is now a new generation of Afghans who fled their homeland after the Taliban’s takeover of that country. There are more than 8 million Ukrainians who have been displaced across Europe since last February, according to the UNHCR’s most recent tally.

This latest production of The Jungle is relatively unaltered from its original form, though the context in which it will be received has of course changed. Zooming in on just one, relatively small corner of the refugee crisis, The Jungle is set in the informal (though highly self-organized) refugee camp of the same name that sprung up in the France port town in 2015, where most migrants hoped they could make it to the U.K. by crossing the English channel. (By the following year, the camp was mostly torn down.) Audiences still sit in a makeshift camp “restaurant”—an evocation of a real-life establishment that British critic A. A. Gill famously, and favorably, reviewed. The same set of characters, playing refugees from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Iran, and the ad hoc aid workers who have come to assist them, form the boisterous and energetic cast. There are stories of desperation and hope, savagery and tenderness. Most of all, there is an overwhelming humanization; a scaling down of the crisis from its epic numbers to its human proportions.

To better understand both the timeless appeal of the play and the new context in which it can be seen (after its current run at St. Ann’s, The Jungle will run in Washington, D.C. from March 28  through April 16), I spoke with actor Ammar Haj Ahmad, who starred in the original version of The Jungle and returns, along with a handful of others, for this production. Haj Ahmad plays Safi, a narrator-like figure who breaks the fourth wall to shepherd the audience through some of the more disorienting moments and offer a poignant perspective on the sometimes confounding tumult. Safi is a sage, a guide, and a refugee himself—and so is Haj Ahmad, who left Syria in 2011, intending to perform for two years in a touring production of 1001 Nights. When that tour was cancelled five months in, Haj Ahmad found himself stranded in Britain, unwilling to return to Syria, where he would have been conscripted into compulsory military service.

Haj Ahmad applied for asylum the day before his visa was set to expire and then began the humbling process of waiting for its approval. It took him two years to get a bank account. He worked as a bartender and in other hospitality-industry gigs. (As a professional actor in Syria, he was supported with a decent salary, he says.) The Jungle offered a breakthrough, and a chance to participate in an artistic exploration of current events as they were unfolding. Several members of the original cast had passed through the Jungle themselves, and their stories were listened to and reflected upon in early workshops of the play.

But this work is not reportage, in part because it is such a visceral and physical production—one that truly makes you feel the power of proximity to these performers and the impact that truly immersive theater can have. The cast runs, jumps, and sometimes does flips amid the audience, their bodies impossible to ignore. The seating is a little uncomfortable; the tables a little sticky; the dirt underfoot a little damp. It is also, importantly, not reportage, in that it discards any verbatim testimony in the pursuit of something larger. “Out of respect to truth,” says Haj Ahmad, “we went away from saying it’s a documentary.”

If, when The Jungle premiered in London in 2017, it depicted something very close to the events of the day, now, in 2023, it feels somewhat timeless. “People are definitely crossing a sea or a border right now—this is all still happening,” says Haj Ahmad, “But artistically, you look at The Jungle and say: ‘I could do it in 30 years.’” With the exception of a small tweak at the end, and the changing composition of the cast, the production remains essentially unaffected by the current dimensions of the crisis. “We can’t turn an amazing theater experience into a vehicle to tick boxes,” says Haj Ahmad. “I think it would be a little bit arrogant if we did that.” And though it is set in a very specific place, the issues it addresses feel borderless as well. In 2018, when this production first came to St. Ann’s, it felt perhaps like a dispatch from “over there”—a problem for other people, other countries. The ocean dividing Europe from America (or the land separating New York from the Mexican border) now seems as narrow as the channel between Dover and Calais.



The New York Times

‘We’ve Experienced the Stories We’re Telling’: ‘The Jungle’ Is Back.

Five years after its American premiere, the acclaimed play about migrants eking out lives in an encampment returns with a mix of new and original cast members.

Clockwise from top left, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Mylène Gomera, Mohamed Sarrar and Ammar Haj Ahmad. Hesmondhalgh and Gomera are new additions, while Sarrar and Haj Ahmad are reprising their roles.Credit…Sara Messinger for The New York Times

By Rachel Sherman

March 2, 2023

At the Afghan Cafe, the smell of fresh dough, soft and earthy, lingers as the bread makes its way to the oven. Boxy televisions with old Bollywood films on a loop perch in the corners where the walls meet the ceiling. The floor is hardened mulch, the menu handmade. And all the patrons are a long, long way from home.

“The Jungle” — an immersive play about the residents of a makeshift migrant camp in Calais, France — is back at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, where it had its American premiere in 2018. As the story unfolds against the backdrop of the improvised cafe, the audience meets characters from Eritrea, Syria, Sudan, Iraq and Iran, who describe their harrowing journeys while confronting treacherous living conditions and impending eviction.

When “The Jungle” last ran in New York (the critic Ben Brantley called it a “thrilling drama” and “a work of absorbing theater”), President Donald J. Trump’s travel ban had virtually blocked citizens of many predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, which meant three of the actors nearly didn’t make it to the stage.

This time, the production — featuring a mix of new and returning actors, many of whom are former refugees themselves — hoped for a smoother entry. Julie Hesmondhalgh, who portrays Paula, a do-gooder English volunteer dedicating her life to the women and children of the camp, and Mylène Gomera, who plays Helene, a Christian Eritrean traveling solo, are new to the company; Ammar Haj Ahmad returns as Safi, the show’s Syrian narrator, along with Mohamed Sarrar as Omar, a Sudanese refugee.

But the return to the Brooklyn set has been a bumpy one.

“We obviously had some trouble last time, but we did find a way to get here in a sort of timely manner,” said Justin Martin, who directs the play with Stephen Daldry. “This time, we’ve actually found it a bit more difficult.”

Once the show was scheduled for 2023, the visa problems began anew. Applications dragged on without explanation. One of the original cast members, Yasin Moradi, a Kurdish martial artist from Iran, is still waiting for his visa in London.

Others encountered obstacles upon arrival in the United States. Gomera, who is originally from Eritrea, was held at the airport for questioning.

“It took me a couple of days to let it go and shake it off,” she said.

The American political context may have shifted, but warnatural disaster and economic collapse continue to displace communities around the world — and the story of desperate people seeking safe harbor still resonates.

“When does a place become a place?” Safi asks at the end of the first act. “When does a place become a home?”

We spoke with five cast members about their connections to the show and where they find a sense of home. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Ammar Haj Ahmad

I am from Syria, and I am British, but none of it, to be honest, means anything. And maybe it’s corny to say, but it’s the truth. I am context, and I am human.

Home for me now is people. After what happened to Damascus, I don’t have the same relationship to places. Anything you build you can lose. Sometimes safety comes from attitudes and thoughts. That’s where home is for me, when someone is kind in nature and has the appetite to understand.

It can be tricky sometimes, because I am performing and people are clapping, and my sisters are sleeping in cars in southern Turkey — the center of the earthquake.

The last time I was here, I didn’t enjoy any minute of it aside from the time I spent onstage. But I couldn’t wait to come back. The cast are amazing and the audience is there around you. There is always the potential for it to be magical.

Mylène Gomera

I’m Eritrean. As cliché as it sounds, I’m really a global nomad on so many levels.

The role I play, Helene, is essentially my story, my route. It’s such an honor to be a voice for Eritreans, especially Eritrean women. The responsibility I feel is immense.

The intention is never to leave your country. That’s what gets lost. And you figure out that it isn’t necessarily better, but it is safer. There is a constant battle of: Am I in a better place now?

To be in New York, to be onstage, to have come this far, to have no connections to the industry, to come from a tiny village in Eritrea — I’m constantly asking myself how this happened.

I’m new to the company, but I feel right at home. We’re all taking care of each other; this play requires that. We’ve experienced the stories we’re telling.

Mohamed Sarrar

I am one of the people who lived in the Jungle in Calais. I lived it in reality, and now I’m doing it again. I’ve moved on, but I go back in my mind to show others what it was like there.

My homeland is Sudan. I fled when I was 25 because of what was happening in Darfur. I fled violence and evil.

Sometimes, onstage, the tears come, because it’s not just about me, it’s about all of the people who are still working to come, who can’t leave.

Julie Hesmondhalgh

I’m U.K. born and bred. I come from a working class family in the north of England and I live in Manchester now, which is a city that is traditionally a city of protest and radicalism.

Back in my history there is Irish heritage, so with that always comes immigration and prejudice, for sure, but my connection to refuge and migration is purely as an activist. Let’s put it this way: It wasn’t me who was taken into a side room to be interviewed.

There’s always a crisis of refugees, and you have to ask the question, “Why?” And racism has to be part of that conversation. That’s why this play is so important: because it takes you right to the refugee stories, which we hear in a really real and personal way. And that’s where art steps in.

It’s an honor to play this role. I wanted this job more than any job I’ve ever wanted before.

Yasin Moradi

I am originally Kurdish from Iran. I am still in my home in London, unfortunately. It’s been a long process.

I thought with Biden in office, we would go to the U.S. more easily, but it seems like it’s harder than before. I am the only person who has been here for three weeks waiting without any explanation.

No one is forced to leave their land unless it is unsafe. I lived in the Jungle in 2015 for six weeks. We Kurdish people, we don’t have anywhere.

The more people see this play, the more sympathy people have. It is hard to hate someone when you hear their story or laugh at their joke.

I am not there, but my heart is with them.

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