Phosphoros Theatre’s Pizza Shop Heroes is their latest production to feature refugees and aslyum seekers among the cast. Sabo Kpade meets the players and asks how their own personal stories brings truth to the production
The hot topics of immigration and integration reaches new levels of urgency in Pizza Shop Heroes, the third play by Phosphoros Theatre, whose cast is made up of refugee and asylum seekers in the UK who are from a diverse range of countries. Set in a pizza shop where the characters work, shared struggles of perilous migration, longing for home and hopes for a better life are rendered with unvarnished honesty, especially when the stories are re-told from first hand experiences. The notion and importance of owning one’s narrative is fully realised, even if its efficacy isn’t always conclusive.
While rehearsals are held at Kiln Theatre in north London, Phosphoros Theatre is a touring company whose first play, Dear Home Office (2016), was shortlisted for the Amnesty Freedom of Information Award. In the same year. The follow-up, “Dear Home Office Still Pending” (2018) saw nine productions across England, including one at the London Migration Film Festival.
The company’s current production Pizza Shop Heroes is another close collaboration, this time, between playwright and scriptwriter Dawn Harrison (Emmerdale, Doctors, The Dumping Ground) and the cast of five; Tewodros Aregawe (Ethiopia), Goitom Fesshaye (Eritrea), Emirjon Hoxhaj (Albania), Syed Haleem Najibi (Afghanistan) and Kate Duffy who is British and co-creator of Phosphoros Theatre. A forthcoming production in June this year will be held at Nottingham Playhouse.
“It doesn’t matter who they are or where they’re from – Africa or Asia or Europe, immigrants or refugees – I see everyone the same. I personally look at the first thing which is humanity”
The company was founded in 2015 when Duffy worked as a manager at a housing project for unaccompanied minors into the UK. Dawn Harrison is her mother, and other familial bonds have emerged among the entire team who, Duffy says, celebrate birthdays and holiday festivities together over the four years of the company’s existence.
Najibi, who is in college and hopes to begin a bachelor’s degree in Sustainable Engineering next year, extends this strong sense of community to other seekers of asylum regardless of their countries of origin: “It doesn’t matter who they are or where they’re from – Africa or Asia or Europe, immigrants or refugees – I see everyone the same. I personally look at the first thing which is humanity. It shouldn’t matter where a person is from, or what religion they believe in or what skin colour they have”.
This is echoed by Fesshaye who is in college studying to become an electrician: “(it is fun) to do this as a company, friends and family, brothers and sisters all together. We didn’t know each other before, but when we met we connected”. Fesshaye is also an asmari, a praise-singer and plays the krar, a stringed instrument common to both Ethiopia and Eritrea where he’s from. “I love everything about it” says Fesshaye when asked what he loved the most about being an actor. This ease with live performance has prepared him for stage acting which has, in turn, emboldened his sets/gigs as a singer and instrumentalist.
I ask Duffy, the co-director, if she expects the cast to be judged for their acting abilities despite having no professional training: “I expect the piece to be judged as a piece of theatre. They’re not professional actors and that’s clear in the information the audience has. We’re programmed as a political theatre. We’re not billed as a kind of community piece. So, whilst we don’t have professional actors, we have actors that have been performing to sold out audiences for three years now”.
“The work of Phosphoros Theatre is heightened by the fact that each performance is given by the very people affected by it; every word, laugh or cry uttered on stage is closer to its source, and no doubt has more truth”
This would be a point of pride for any theatre house and especially for one that is fledging and is concerned with some of the most divisive issues of the day such as immigration. Even more than any lauded political play on a big London stage, the urgency in Pizza Shop Heroes and the work of Phosphoros Theatre is heightened by the fact that each performance is given by the very people affected by it; every word, laugh or cry uttered on stage is closer to its source, and no doubt has more truth, than that of the most ventriloquist of actors, however well-rendered.
The real-life challenges the company faces take the form of absurdist socio-realist plays. In February this year, the company travelled to Malta to perform at the Lost In Migration conference, a cross-national effort to ensure the protection of child migrants into Europe. It was also the theatre company’s first international performance but they were refused entry into Malta by immigration officials who grew suspicious of the improbable mix of Afghani, Eritrean, Albanian and English visitors.
Three members of the team had British passports which ensured entry; three others had refugee travel documents and the last had a certificate of travel issued by the Home Office. Neither of the latter two documents, insisted the officials, is a valid Schengen document and could be refused on discretionary grounds.
“It is a painful thing to happen to people like us. At the same time we take it as something positive. It’s why we’re doing it to challenge people like that” says Najibi who has got “discretionary leave to remain” in the UK. He goes on to add that “we will not give up and we will keep doing the work that we’re doing and we will keep fighting. We’re resilient refugees. It made us strong and patient about things”.
The next production of “Pizza Shop Heroes” is on June 18 & 19 at Nottingham Playhouse
Sabo Kpade is a culture writer and regular contributor to Okay Africa, Guardian Newspapers Nigeria and Media Diversified.Follow @Sabo_Kpade