“We’re going to tell you our stories how WE want to. I am not here to make your conscience feel better. I don’t need you to feel sorry for me.”
A tale of cultural identity, fatherhood, and resilience will make its way to Reading this July.
Phosphoros Theatre, one of the UK’s leading refugee theatre companies, will perform their third play, Pizza Shop Heroes, to audiences at South Street.
The play tells how four refugees tackled torment, heartbreak and imprisonment on their journeys to safety.
And the authenticity of its characters, played by four former child asylum-seekers, promises a powerful retelling of the stories.
Writer and Director Dawn Harrison said: “The play is set in the context of Britain’s hostile environment for refugees and asylum seekers; where migrant men appear as threats, and refugees are seen as victims who are spoken for.
“The actors lead the conversation about child asylum seekers. They shine a light on unseen stories and address commonly held stereotypes.”
The opening scene sees four young men working an average shift in a pizza shop. And this work-based bond sees the growth of a much stronger connection founded on their shared experiences of migration.
Ms Harrison said: “Most of our cast have worked in takeaway shops, so it seemed like a good setting for the play. We use the act of making pizzas to connect them with memories of home.”
The actors take audiences on a tour of their pasts; starting at their homelands of Eritrea, Albania and Afghanistan, and ending in the UK.
Actor Goitom Fesshaye said: “I tell the history of Eritrea and Ethiopia. The countries were at war for thirty years, followed by a period of peace.
“I reveal many of Eritrea’s cultural qualities such as dancing and baptism, as well as playing an Eritrean instrument and singing traditional songs.
“I share personal stories including part of my journey from Eritrea to London, and some of my future plans.”
And although this is the company’s third production, Pizza Shop Heroes offers its actors the unique opportunity to reclaim their stories.
Ms Harrison said: “The play gives a deeper exploration of the word story when applied to refugees.
“When attempting to gain asylum the men had to recount their experiences on many occasions– to solicitors, interpreters, social workers– to which they were often responded to with disbelief.
“This play gives our actors the opportunity to reclaim their stories and tell them how they want to.”
Phosphoros Theatre was founded by former members of Reading Youth Theatre Kate Duffy and Juliet Styles in 2015. Their inspiration for the group arose from their work with the Reading Refugee Support Group and Kate’s roles as volunteer for a refugee charity and manager of a supported housing project.
And it was through Kate’s executive role that many of Phosphoros’ actors were sourced.
Ms Harrison said: “Some of them lived in a supported house in North West London that Kate managed. We held drama sessions in their front room which they brought their friends and college mates to. From that our original group of eight was born.”
“It’s been great working with the same group of young men for the last three years. They have grown from amateurs into confident emerging artists.
“A highlight of every show is seeing the effect on refugee audience members. They often haven’t been to the theatre before but are always really moved and thrilled to hear stories they can relate to.
Since its foundation the production team have put on two plays- including more than 60 performances across the UK- and have received funding from the Arts Council of England for its 35-date tour of Pizza Shop Heroes.
Ms Harrison said: “We visit many communities who don’t have direct experience of refugee issues, only what they read in the papers and see on TV. Sometimes they’ve never met a refugee before and are keen to talk to them afterwards. This dispels stereotypes and builds awareness, empathy and activism in our viewers.”
Goitom added: “Before we started our first tour we hadn’t really been out of North West London (since our long journeys of coming here). It has been nice to visit places including countryside areas such as Derbyshire where we did our first ever performance.
And the response from audiences so far has been positive.
Dawn expressed: “We’ve had great feedback from audiences so far. These include audiences of refugees and asylum seekers, some of whom have seen our work before and are big supporters of our mission.
“We often get comments about the show’s thought-provoking and eye-opening qualities. Audiences identify with the humour, warmth and confidence of our actors, and are regularly inspired by our work.
Goitom added: “We get a lot of motivation from other refugees and people who understand our situation. It’s really important for our communities to see people like them on stage.”
The company’s future plans include collaborating with London’s Unicorn Theatre- a new youth theatre group for refugees and asylum-seekers- on the development of a fourth play.
Pizza Shop Heroes is being performed at South Street, Reading from July 10-11. The show is suitable for ages 12 upwards. Tickets start at £12. For more details, or to book, call 0118 960 6060 or log on to www.readingarts.com