Refuge: A Powerful Local Story from Eastern Front Theatre


hugh thompson & natalie tonnous photo by emily jewer

Mary Vingoe’s play Refuge, which is being produced by Eastern Front Theatre with HomeFirst Productions at the Neptune Scotiabank Studio Theatre until October 6th, is a visually stunning, emotionally compelling and intellectually intense piece of theatre.  It not only tells an important Haligonian story, but it also explores the complex issues surrounding immigration and refugees in the post-911 World in a beautifully theatrical way.

Refuge is based on true events and a CBC radio documentary called Habtom’s Path by Mary Lynk. In Refuge Vingoe not only tells the story of Habtom’s journey from Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa, to Halifax in 2008 and how he lost his asylum appeal to Canada’s Immigration Refugee Board in 2010, but she also explores the way in which the story was reconstructed for the radio documentary. In this way, Vingoe not only gives the audience a myriad of perspectives on Habtom’s story but also shows us how they are cut together and manipulated by the interviewer to create the packaged product that will be sold to the Canadian public. It is obvious throughout the play that one narrative is missing, one character is not there and that, of course, is Habtom. His absence speaks volumes in Refuge, as it suggests the massive missing piece to the puzzle surrounding both his life and his tragic death. It mirrors the experience of his friends in the play who are never certain about Habtom either because the facts about his past are sparse or suspicious or impossible to determine unequivocally as truth. How far do we trust? How blind is our faith and our kindness? What happens when our theoretical desire to help a stranger find a better life is tested and put into practice? What happens when it is harder than we had expected?

Shelley Hamilton plays Habtom’s mother, Amleset, who has been in Nova Scotia for quite some time learning English with Pamel, played by Natalie Tannous, an Indo-Canadian Art Gallery curator whose mother is from Cape Breton. When Habtom is incarcerated in Halifax by the Canadian Border Services Pamel becomes concerned and takes his case to Immigration lawyer Saul (Hugh Thomspon), who becomes a passionate advocate for Habtom in his struggle to attain refugee status. Pamel agrees to allow Habtom to stay in her home when he is released pending a review of his case but she grows suspect of him as her husband, Alan, an artist, begins to research into the human rights violations perpetrated by the Eritrean military and begins to fear that they may be harbouring a dangerous terrorist or War Criminal. Muoi Nene plays Membratu, Habtom’s friend and a fellow refugee who explains the context in which Habtom served with the military in his country and the details of his harrowing escape from Africa. As Samantha Wilson’s interviewer pieces the story together we get the sense of one chosen narrative, with painstaking attention to semantics, clarity and the tunnel-vision of one network.

Vingoe’s dialogue, especially that of Amleset and Membratu, comes alive with immediacy, exploring the limitations and challenges of language and cultural translations that often leave gaps in both meaning and understanding. Christian Murray plays Alan who, at times represents the idea of “First Word Problems,” as his inconvenience in housing a refugee that he knows little about, whose behavior can be considered somewhat strange, is contrasted with Membratu’s horrifying portrait of what life was like for him and Habtom in Eritrea. What is most interesting in this dynamic is that Murray and Tannous’ emotions continually run high, as they have told themselves that their interactions with Habtom may be a matter of life or death, while Membratu tells stories of thousands of people dying attempting to escape their country as evenly as one might tell you the weather forecast. This suggests how disparate the experiences that are perceived as “normal” are between the Canadian and the non Canadian characters.

Emma Tibaldo directs this piece with imagination and punch, weaving the characters throughout the stage as Vingoe weaves them through time, which is suggestive of the ways in which these individual’s disparate personalities and life experiences are continually crashing into one another, as everyone tries to fight for their own survival while also attempting to do the “right” thing. Leigh Ann Vardy’s gorgeous lightening design captures the dark sense of uncertainty that the play is rooted in, while also suggesting a recording studio of some kind that puts certain individuals in the spotlight and leaves other individuals out.

Refuge is a thought provoking and important piece of theatre from Mary Vingoe and Eastern Front Theatre that I heartily recommend seeking out. The writing is strong, the direction is inspiring and the cast of actors are masterful in the beautiful depth and complexity they each give their characters. It closes tomorrow, so go get your tickets today!

Eastern Front Theatre/ HomeFirst Production’s production of Mary Vingoe’s Refuge plays at the Neptune Theatre’s Scotiabank Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street) until October 6th, 2013. Show times are Saturday and Sunday at 7:30pm with a 2pm matinee on Sunday. Tickets are $25.00 or $15.00 for students, seniors and arts workers and are available by calling 902.429.7070, at the Neptune Studio Box Office or visiting this website. 

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