Two plays performed near Kuala Lumpur this month, including a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” offered a new twist at looking at staged dramas: both were directed and acted by casts of refugees from war-torn and strife-ridden countries.
The twin-billed “Romeo and Juliet 2000+” and “Screaming in Silence,” which featured performances by people who had fled upheavals in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and other places, were presented at the Damansara Performing Arts Center (DPAC) in Petaling Jaya, Selangor on Feb. 1-3, according to organizers of the plays.
The real-life refugees behind these plays who are sheltering in Malaysia belong to the Theatrefugee and Parastoo troupes. These seek to give playgoers an appreciation for the plight of people affected by conflict and to give refugees an opportunity to express themselves through the medium of dramatic arts, production managers said.
“I’m still going through some challenges but I’ve decided to channel my energy into something more positive in art, culture and society,” Saleh Sepas, a 35-year-old theater director from Afghanistan who directed “Screaming in Silence,” told BenarNews.
The refugee-run theater companies receive management and production support from the Geutanyoe Foundation, a humanitarian charity that was established in Aceh, Indonesia in 1999.
The two productions were funded through a seed grant from the Malaysian office of the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, as well as public donations to Theatrefugee and Parastoo funneled by the Geutanyoe Foundation. Proceeds from the performances will fund programs to support Rohingya women and other projects backed by Theatrefugee.
The Queen consort of the Malaysian state of Johore, Raja Zarith Sofiah, donated 100 tickets to refugees in Malaysia so they could attend the plays.
“Geutanyoe Foundation is proud to work with these two talented refugee theater troupes as part of our refugee arts program. The directors are highly professional and the actors are very hardworking and talented,” Lilianne Fan, Geutanyoe’s co-founder, told BenarNews.
The productions of the two plays debunked a dominant perception that refugees are always helpless victims, Fan said.
Death ‘could take you at any moment’
Sepas, who is from Kabul, said he and his family were forced to escape from Afghanistan and come to Malaysia in 2016 after the Taliban had threatened them. The journey was not easy, he said.
“Screaming in Silence,” an original play that Sepas also wrote, explores the tragic tale of a 12-year-old Afghan girl forced by her father into marriage to an older man as a result of a gambling debt.
The play ends with the protagonist running away only to realize that the very institutions responsible for enforcing the law have failed to protect her rights.
Life as a refugee is a frustrating and depressing one, according to Sepas, but he said he hoped his plays could provide an outlet for refugees to reflect on their experiences, as well as “be entertained while entertaining others.”
As of December 2017, more than 152,000 refugees and asylum-seekers were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. More than 133,000 were from Myanmar, officials said.
Despite the number of refugees and immigrants, the stage directors said they were having difficulty casting the right actresses to play certain roles.
“I have been trying hard to choose actresses among Afghan women and girls. It was hard because nobody had a strong desire for theater and my actors had no prior knowledge of the principle of acting and theater,” Sepas said.
“Romeo and Juliet 2000+” was directed by Omar Alkhammash, a 19-year-old artist and refugee from Syria.
Alkhammash, a professional musician, said he learned to play the oud, a pear-shaped Middle Eastern stringed instrument, and piano when he was nine years old. He began performing around Syria when he was 15.
The first theater production he was involved in co-directing was at the Syrian Private University in 2012, following the killings of several students there. It was at university where he fell in love with the power of theater to “communicate messages in a pure and inspiring way.”
The Syrian war, Alkhammash said, molded his experience of “being alive.”
“When you live in war, with the constant threat of being killed, at some point you don’t care anymore about whether you will live or die,” Alkhammash, the creative director of Theatrefugee, told BenarNews. “What you care about is how you live until you die because death could come and take you at any moment.”