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Welcome to the scintillating ‘Jungle.’ Bring your empathy.

Directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin stage an immersive experience about the migrant crisis in D.C.'s Harman Hall

Liv Hill and Ammar Haj Ahmad in “The Jungle.” (Teddy Wolff)
4 min

At last, “The Jungle” has arrived in Washington, in a production that is both a galvanizing human drama and an evening of stunningly teachable moments.

In sold-out engagements in London and New York, audiences were physically enveloped in the myriad travails and tragedies of migrants from across the globe, desperate to reach Britain from a refugee camp in France. An engagement sponsored by Shakespeare Theatre Company and Woolly Mammoth Theatre now invites D.C. playgoers to sit in that evocatively imagined camp in Harman Hall, with a 22-member cast portraying people seeking a better life and volunteers trying to make that possible.

The previous stop for “The Jungle” was St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn — where I returned to the show earlier this month after first seeing it there in the pre-pandemic year of 2018. Several of the original cast members reprise their roles in this sprawling enterprise, eloquently written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson and exquisitely guided by directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin. The production requires a wholesale transformation of the performance space, as ticket holders pass into the camp and many sit at tables that double as a mazelike stage. In the struggle for survival, we are literally underfoot.

The seating is designated not only numerically, but also geographically. The surroundings are modeled on an actual migrant camp set up in 2015 in Calais, France, where hundreds of people lived in makeshift housing, grouped by country of origin. We’re each assigned a spot in that global village, the homelands reflecting the international nature of the refugee crisis: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia all get competing, squabbling enclaves. The Kurds have a place here, too, even if they don’t have their own recognized country.

Over nearly three hours, stories spill out, with Safi, played warmly by superb Ammar Haj Ahmad, acting as a self-appointed major-domo. What binds the tales are the ever-present tensions of dislocation and flagging hope, as governments dither over what to do with the asylum seekers. “Beware of the French, they have absolutely no manners,” one of the camp veterans advises a newcomer.

Smugglers circulate with offers of stowing paying customers in refrigerated cargo containers; local police and officials menace the inhabitants with warnings and threats; aid workers, such as Liv Hill’s Beth and Julie Hesmondhalgh’s Paula, show up with good intentions and end up with frayed nerves.

“The Jungle,” which takes its name from a Pashto word for “forest,” makes the migrant crisis and the idea of sanctuary real in ways news accounts can’t. It’s a kind of interactive documentary. The convening around tables creates the sensation of a family gathering, which made me think that bringing children to these tables — the ones old enough to sit through two longish acts, anyway — is a one-of-a-kind opportunity. The payoff is both an immersion in a humanitarian emergency that otherwise might feel faraway and a great demonstration of theater’s power to build emotional bridges.

The performances are across-the-board exemplary. Ben Turner brings a bracing fierceness to Salar, a chef who opens a cafe in the camp. (It drew an actual thumbs-up from a British food critic in 2016.) In turns as African refugees lobbying for the needs of women in the camp, Ruth Yemane, playing Simret, and Mylène Gomera, as Helene, draw on requisite reserves of endurance and strength. Rudolphe Mdlongwa and Twana Omer affectingly portray Okot and Norullah, vibrant young men with vastly different fates. And Hill infuses Beth with all the impassioned altruism of a worker impatient for the privileged world to wake up.

Set designer Miriam Buether and costume designer Catherine Kodicek take rewarding pains to inject as much harsh reality as possible into a modern theater’s comfortable environs. For all the pain of separation that “The Jungle” chronicles, John Pfumojena’s music provides a welcome sense of disparate cultures coming together.

It would be nice to think that in deeply fractious and dysfunctional federal D.C., there might be a coming together in Harman Hall to take advantage of this unusual immersive experience and maybe even deepen personal empathy. I hold out little hope of that happening. For the rest of us, “The Jungle” is an investment of a few memorable hours, to understand a bit better how people suffer when those in authority fail to act.

The Jungle, by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin. Set, Miriam Buether; costumes, Catherine Kodicek; lighting, Jon Clark; sound, Paul Arditti; music, John Pfumojena; videos, Tristan Shepherd and Duncan McLean. With Waleed Elgadi, Dominic Rowan, Milan Tajmiri, Jonathan Case, Fayez Bakhsh, Yasin Moradi, Beko Wood, Fedrat Sadat, Jonathan Nyati, Max Geller. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Through April 16 at Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. or