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In ‘The Jungle,’ refugees act in show inspired by their journeys

At the Shakespeare Theatre’s immersive theater experience, the actors — former refugees — and audience share the stage: A re-creation of a migrant camp

Twana Omer, center, in the 2023 production of “The Jungle” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. The immersive theatrical experience is being staged by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. (Teddy Wolff)
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Floorboards creak and dirt crunches when Shakespeare Theatre Company patrons find their way to the wooden bench seating of “The Jungle,” an immersive play in which the audience and cast share the same performance space and occasionally interact. The transportive experience is meant to be eye-opening. But to actor Yasin Moradi, it’s all too familiar.

It was seven years ago that Moradi arrived at the place that inspired the play — a migrant encampment near the French port city of Calais, about 20 miles from the English coast — with hope of starting a new life in the United Kingdom. But as the Kurdish refugee from Iran quickly realized, dreams and despair were intertwined in the shantytown known as the Jungle. As upward of 8,000 migrants there sought passage to the United Kingdom or awaited French asylum requests, they bided their time in an encampment short on such essentials as food, running water and health care.

“I was in my tent, hopeless, disappointed. I didn’t know what was going on with my situation,” Moradi recalls during a recent video chat. “We all had this one common thing: to find a safe country to live. Unfortunately, we’d been ignored by the U.K., by the European government, and nobody cared about us. No food, no shelter. The only hope we had was such lovely volunteers. They came over there and they helped us, but it wasn’t enough.”

Despondent, Moradi initially declined when a friend told him about the commotion coming from a large, domed tent in the Jungle and suggested they check it out. Eventually, though, Moradi relented. Upon arriving, the duo discovered something unexpected: a cacophonous collision of singing, dancing, painting and other arts.

Billed as the Good Chance Theatre, the performance space was the brainchild of British playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, who spent several months volunteering in the Jungle. Although the encampment was dismantled by French authorities in October 2016, it lives on in Murphy and Robertson’s “The Jungle,” which premiered in 2017 at London’s Young Vic and is now onstage at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Harman Hall (in a co-production with Woolly Mammoth Theatre).

Co-directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin of “The Crown,” this production includes three actors who were residents of the Jungle — Moradi, Mohamed Sarrar and Milan Tajmiri — and now relive the experience onstage.

“I was there for six weeks, but it seems like it was a long time more,” Moradi says of the encampment. “Anytime I do ‘The Jungle,’ it seems like I’m still there. I can feel it because I had that experience.”

When Murphy and Robertson arrived at the Jungle in September 2015, with a car full of kitchenware and food — and loose aspirations of helping however they could — they discovered an encampment burdened with logistical challenges but blessed with a rich sense of community. Restaurants, supermarkets, barbers, houses of worship — all had formed in the self-governed society of some 30-plus nationalities.

“It already had the outlines of a town, and that just blew us away,” Robertson says. “So many of our misconceptions and preconceptions were broken down in the face of this incredible humanity.”

As other volunteers and humanitarian groups took the lead on providing essential resources, Robertson and Murphy reflected on what they could contribute. Dwelling on the songs they had seen performed around campfires, or the tales exchanged from one refugee to another, they decided to do what they do best: facilitate storytelling.

“We don’t claim to be good carpenters,” Murphy says, “but what we do know, we think, is how to bring people together in an artistic space.”

So they purchased a geodesic tent, erected it with dozens of refugees’ help and created the Good Chance Theatre. After Moradi came across the venue, he informed Robertson and Murphy of his background as a kung fu expert and began teaching martial arts classes. Sarrar, a drummer and singer from Sudan who left his country amid the war in Darfur, was inspired to offer his musical talents after seeing a performance at the theater from Tajmiri, a guitarist and singer from Iran.

Reflecting on his journey, Sarrar says: “I crossed the sea from Africa to Italy. Till this moment, I don’t know how to swim — and I crossed in a small boat. So if I didn’t have to, I would never do that. Everyone’s got a story because something forced them to go into that unknown trip.”

When Robertson and Murphy decided to write “The Jungle” — an ensemble play set in an Afghan cafe ahead of the encampment’s demolition — they reached out to Calais refugees who had made their way to the United Kingdom about performing in the production. The playwrights also shaped certain characters around the real-life stories of the actors playing them; when Sarrar’s character performs a song, for example, it’s a tune the musician wrote during his time in Calais.

“That lived experience of being there is a complex thing to try and relay,” Murphy says. “But it’s a really, really crucial part of the dynamic of that place, and one of the reasons that I think we felt there was a real story to tell here.”

Robertson adds, “This is such a gift that they offer. They have such patience and kindness and generosity to continue telling this story and to believe in it — to believe that it needs to be heard.”

Over the past six years, “The Jungle” has been staged a half-dozen times — twice in London, twice in New York, once in San Francisco and, now, in Washington. Yet its harrowing depiction of the refugee crisis remains no less timely. As of mid-2022, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, there were still 32.5 million refugees and 4.5 million asylum seekers across the world.

“This show literally shows that these people have family,” Moradi says. “They have friends. They have a dream. They are human like you.”

If you go

The Jungle

Shakespeare Theatre Company, Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122.

Dates: Through April 16.

Prices: $49-$170.