Review: Curran’s white-hot ‘Jungle’ forces us to look within our souls

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Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) stands near Okot (John Pfumojena) in “The Jungle,” playing through May 19th at the Curran in San Francisco. (Little Fang photo)

“You have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.” – Warsan Shire

It is a haunting, brutal image.

Blue short pants.

Red shirt.

A little boy on the beach. Not playing, or building a sand castle, or picking sand from his tiny toes.

Three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who appears to be sleeping on the shore as water pelted him in sickening repetition, is an image that is burned into anyone who even knew a hint about Europe’s refugee crisis in the middle part of this current decade. That one visual greatly shaped the understanding and fury that came to both sides of the divisive issue that permeates so many societies, with one simple, central question – who is allowed to come into our countries?

As you sit inside the theatre, look to the screen on your left, and there it is. Look away to your right, it’s there once again, ocean waves crashing on the shore never feeling more cruel.

If you’ve ever set foot into the Curran theatre at any point in your life, whether in its former “Phantom of the Opera” days of the early 1990s, or any time in the last few years after its extensive renovation, the only thing that would be recognizable in the most recent production is the marquee outside and Starbucks across the street. The grand palace on Geary has been scaled down to only 600 seats, now filled with a passionate production that surrounds every ounce of the audience.

Describing the Curran’s exquisite production of “The Jungle” is like playing a game of Scrabble. How many words can you come up with to explain this brutally stellar production? Searing, torturous, visceral, haunting, joyous even in moments – take your pick. The show is immersive, putting you right into the thick of the Calais, France migrant camp in 2015 and 2016, telling the stories of these memorable characters. Those migrants came from the Horn of Africa, Sudan, Eritrea and Iraq among others, 25 countries in all. Thousands of these brave and desperate folks attempted to enter the United Kingdom via the port of Calais, with viciously disastrous results for most.

While the mezzanine level features seats that come from the traditional house, the floor seats are loaded with a feast for the senses. Delicious naan bakes in the back corner, warm chai is poured inside your little cup, ketchup bottles adorn each wooden table. Despite the harrowing nature of the characters and the profound pain and humiliation they endure, there are many moments of levity that capture beautifully a day in the life, the script of Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson presenting a varied, potent experience. Characters chop each other down with good humor, and collectively save their ire for London’s Arsenal F.C. Football Club.

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(L to R) A conflict arises between Mohammed (Jonathan Nyati) and Salar (Ben Turner), as Beth (Rachel Redford, center) looks on. (Little Fang photo)

There is one character that is the epitome of so many migrants and their journey, and that is the young, 17-year-old Okot, played with harrowing detail by John Pfumojena, one of many who recreated their roles from the off-Broadway production at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. What’s so spectacular about his portrayal are the fine details he brings forth. The pained eyes, the tortured torso, the scars we see on the outside, the ones we feel from his inside. His is the life of an old man, with the pain of so much trauma fit into his chiseled, teenage frame.

Other characters have no problems matching his visceral energy. As the Afghan cafe’s owner Salar (a magnificent Ben Turner), the dashingly handsome man with a pepper beard is quick to warm a tummy with bread, but also knows, among the others, he lives on the edge of freedom and famine, toeing the line between the two worlds his fellow citizens occupy.

The ensemble is, in a word, phenomenal. The British activists, led by a magnificent portrayal by Rachel Redford as the passionate Beth and the warmth of Catherine Luedtke’s Angela create so much of the play’s urgency. The powerful Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) is a course study in passion and resilience. There is also Little Amal (Zara Rasti), who moves throughout the space in silence. It’s a wonderful touch of many by directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin that continue to show the rancid effects of this extremely structured society, on Miriam Buether’s stunning set.

While the play clearly proselytizes its viewpoints, it does so effectively by focusing on the story of the migrants who want nothing more than a place to call home. Certainly, in our media today, where terms like Brexit and Muslim ban fill our many screens, it is Angela and the boozin’ busker Boxer (a delightful and very necessary Trevor Fox) that get to the heart of our responsibility.

After seeing the picture of little Alan in September of 2015, a woman named Cristal Logothetis used the painfully unsettling image as a call to action. As parents, many of us have carried our children through malls or Disneyland at the end of the day, when their little legs can move no more. But to walk mile after mile through suffocating heat carrying a child to escape death?

Logothetis and her organization, entitled “Carry the Future,” provide baby harnesses and diapers, among other supplies, to other parents. Saying they provide the supplies to migrants doesn’t tell the entire story. They provide them to other parents, fellow parents.

This action is what is at the heart of the play. Angela and Boxer sing a little ditty, and it’s impossible not to be moved by that song’s final line. These children that come across our news feeds need to belong to all of us. Little Amal belongs to all of us. Alan Kurdi belonged to all of us. The little girl being tear-gassed at the border belongs to all of us. And until we can accept that, we will never see peace in our world, and our children will never see a warm bed or hot meal to end their full day of smiles and play.

“The Jungle” hurts us with its reality, yet moves us with its humanity. May the end of the play be the moment for our renewed idealism, where every child can sleep in peace.

And little Alan can rest in peace.

To learn more about Help Refugees, a refugee charity that is partnering with the production, click here.

To learn more about Carry the Future, click here.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

The Curran presents “The Jungle”
Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin
The Word: A play that is all-encompassing, with equal parts thrill and agony. A necessary piece of theatre that makes us question our responsibility in the world conflicts.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes with a 20 minute intermission
The Curran
445 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA
Through May 19th
Tickets range from $25 – $165
For tickets, call (415) 358-1220 or visit https://sfcurran.com/

 

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