When characters of colour become two-dimensional in service of a ‘white saviour’

by  Dena Kirpalani and Kimi Goffe

Warehouse of Dreams is a beautiful title – a lyrical analogy for a refugee camp where thousands of lives are stowed whilst conflict rages around them. This refugee camp is the backdrop where the people connected with the running, reporting on and occupying of the camp interact.

The theatre company is to be commended for trying to tackle contemporary political issues, however sadly in this instance, like many before them, this production falls short of its lofty ideals.

The play highlights questions about how, in the midst of organizing a huge logistical undertaking, can individuals exercise their own agency and preserve their integrity and dignity. However, the play primarily becomes an exploration of the internal struggle an individual may experience whilst fulfilling their role of “the white saviour”.

For those not familiar: the white saviour narrative is a frequently employed story line where a white person rescues a person of colour from their plight and along the way experiences an insight into themselves. In these plot lines, the characters of colour are merely catalysts of change through which the white saviour can fully explore his or her own personality.

warehouseofD

The central character, Moriarty in his role as head planner of a refugee camp, struggles in his embodiment of the white saviour. He is a tortured, conflicted and self-centered man, who communicates some of the moral conflicts that lie in between humanitarian assistance and intervention. He sees himself as a saviour, but acknowledges that his aim is to provide necessities, expressing disdain in the idea of having to take extra steps to provide an environment in which people can flourish rather than merely survive.

In exploring this dilemma, all characters of colour are consigned to living two-dimensional narratives in order to facilitate Moriarty’s self-exploration. The play has a series of dream sequences where Moriarty imagines interactions with the women around him (Sabeen, his superior at the UN & a journalist visiting the camp). They show us a man who is isolated, emotionally detached, and desperate for human connection. We get insight into Moriarty’s growth, but very little into any of the other characters, especially the Syrian characters.

Sabeen, an independent minded Syrian teenager, reminds us that the Syrian population were highly educated, professional, with strong middle classes living comfortable “developed” lives before the current crisis. Sadly, her potentially thought-provoking character is drowned in cheap stereotypes; of being both exotically desirable and innocently virginal. Balqis Duvall, who plays Sabeen, however still manages to deliver a strong performance.

Her aspirations to improve the conditions at the camp require support from the white men in charge as she defies her “primitive” traditions such as the taboo of being alone in a room with men who aren’t her relations unchaperoned by daring to be alone in a room with them. Sabeen turns to Moriarty and James (his deputy) following the announcement of her forced marriage organized by the second Syrian character, the self-styled “colonel”.

warehouseofD2The typecasting continues with the Mafioso-like self-styled “colonel”; a greedy, self-serving Arab. Notwithstanding the likelihood of the existence of unscrupulous people in refugee camps where it is easy to exploit already vulnerable targets, the character of the “colonel” is lazy and purely a prop in Moriarty’s journey of discovery. Moriarty is faced with the choice of intervening in Sabeen’s planned marriage and offending the local order or allowing her forced marriage and upsetting his superiors in Geneva.

He demonstrates the full scale of the white saviour complex that international relief can embody, most pertinently stating, “when God isn’t around someone has to step in to save people. “ (It is  Band Aid season after all).

What was overwhelmingly disappointing is that this is a piece that held a great deal of potential; there are relevant issues surrounding international aid and relief systems operations that were crying out to be brought out more fully into the foreground. There are nuances and cultural conflicts within the Syrian diaspora that could have been explored but were mere whispers.

This piece was trying to send a message, but unfortunately came across as a navel gazing exercise on how to best be a white saviour.

At 90 minutes straight through Warehouse of Dreams’ managed to be both too short and too long simultaneously. At GBP19 a ticket, it was a pricey exercise in unpolished fringe theatre but that does include a £2 donation to War Child, making you a potential (non) white saviour too.

Warehouse of Dreams was produced by Random Thoughts Ltd. (“an independent publisher of individual ideas”) and Angels in Cyberspace with input from WarChild. The piece was written by Chuck Anderson who writes TV plays that have been produced by CBS Television, New York and MGM-TV, Hollywood. In the UK he has authored fiction and non-fiction books. Dan Phillips (http://dan-phillips.com), an active presence on the London fringe theatre scene, directed.

You can see  Warehouse of Dreams’ at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until December 6th.

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Dena Kirpalani is a practicing lawyer in the City of London. She is of Indian heritage and currently based in South London, having grown up in Hong Kong and previously lived in Beijing. She is passionate about theatre and the arts as a medium for modern political and social discourse. She also blogs at Making Herstory, a grass roots organization aimed at tackling abuse, enslavement and trafficking of women and girls worldwide and empowering local networks.

Kimi Goffe moved to London less than a year ago, by way of the US and Jamaica. She works in digital marketing. Theatre is her jam. @kimi_goof

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