On Wednesday 13 March, the West Yorkshire Playhouse hosted the press night of their adaption of Benjamin Zephaniah’s novel ‘Refugee Boy.’ Zephaniah’s novel is a fictional portrayal of a boy, Alem, who leaves Ethiopia during the civil war in the late 90s and seeks refuge in Britain. The set of the play, designed by Emma Williams, is open plan and multi-dimensional, with stacked suitcases alluding to Alem’s quest for sanctuary and to ultimately shed his refugee boy status. Fisayo Akinade’s portrayal of Alem is well-crafted and depicts a sweet, dynamic and enterprising boy who tries his hardest to assimilate into British culture. Such a depiction challenges the negative perception of refugees and asylum seekers; Alem is brave, polite, cheerful and immensely likeable. As the play progresses he develops genuine friendships with his car-obsessed, care home companion Mustafa, and foster sister Ruth. Nevertheless, frequent flashbacks to his homeland and glimpses of marauding soldiers threatening his parents jar with his increasingly stable domestic set up, and remind the audience of his underlying anguish and painful journey.
The play repeatedly refers to a moment before Alem’s separation from his parents, when he is with his father counting the stars in the British sky; his father’s insistence that Alem counts in English re-emphasises his good intentions and aspirations for his son. When Alem’s mother is killed, his father returns to Britain to be reunited with his son; whilst the two of them negotiate the formalities of the Refugee Council, in a bitter twist of fate Alem’s father, having escaped the violence and brutality of his homeland, is murdered in Britain.
Sissay’s adaption of ‘Refugee Boy’ is a humorous, moving and compelling drama with thought-provoking performances. Alem’s story may be one of many, but the play highlights the complexities of his situation and widespread impact of his search for asylum. His foster family provide him with a sense of belonging, yet have to relinquish their care upon his father’s arrival, and the emotional trauma of such an occurrence is keenly felt. Perhaps most importantly, ‘Refugee Boy’ discourages generalizations and impresses that those with refugee status should not be reduced to a mere statistic but, like those of us holding citizenship, are similarly individuals with personal dreams, stories and affections.