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Powerful play at Northern Stage highlights plight of refugees

Theatre and region press ahead with sanctuary status

Scenes from the play Refugee Boy
Scenes from the play Refugee Boy

If you're looking for a certain feel-good something this week then Northern Stage is likely to be the place to find it.

Tonight’s opening of a play which tells the uplifting story of Refugee Boy is part of a series of events which will be raising our spirits over the next few days by bringing home a side of the city that has its heart set on earning a special sanctuary status.

Last year, Newcastle City Council signed a motion in favour of becoming a City of Sanctuary which, basically, would mark it out as a place of safety, welcome and hospitality for people arriving in the UK after fleeing danger in their homelands.

And there’s a national Theatre of Sanctuary campaign too and this is being backed by Northern Stage which, as well as hosting Refugee Boy until Saturday, is marking International Happiness Day on Thursday and hosting an installation, developed by Open Clasp theatre company working with local refugees, as part of an events programme around the play.

First, Refugee Boy is set to make its impact. A newly-commissioned adaptation by Lemn Sissay of the powerful novel by renowned author, poet and musician Benjamin Zephaniah tells of the challenges faced by 14-year-old Alem who’s left alone in London, a foreign but safe city, by his Ethiopian father and Eritrean mother as they flee a civil war.

But the stark realities of his new life are lightened by laughter, poetry and a lot of hope.

It’s a story which struck a chord with Sissay who is also of Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage.

Now an award-winning poet, playwright and performer, he was brought up in the UK’s social care system and his own story is one of a journey to discover his past.

West Yorkshire Playhouse is behind the production; the result of its work in partnership with The Refugee Council which in January saw it become the first theatre to achieve Theatre of Sanctuary status.

Now Northern Stage is keen to be the next.

Scenes from the play Refugee Boy
Scenes from the play Refugee Boy

Kylie Lloyd, its director of participation, said: “We fully support the City of Sanctuary movement.

“Northern Stage already has a reputation for its warm welcome and over the coming months we’ll be working towards achieving Theatre of Sanctuary status, starting with an exciting programme of events around Refugee Boy.”

She added: “We’re working closely with refugee and asylum seeker groups in the region to ensure as many people as possible have the opportunity to come to Northern Stage, to take part in our engagement programme and to see the play.”

This programme includes Open Clasp’s Songlines, a multi-media installation created out of interviews and conversations with women from minority communities in the North East.

Involved were 26 women from Byker Sands Centre – Sure Start East, Open Door North East and West End Women & Girls Centre who worked with photographer Phyllis Christopher, visual artist Taryn Edmonds and filmmaker Kate Sweeney.

Visitors to the theatre will also be able to watch Home, a series of short films about seeking asylum which have been made by the West End Refugee Service and Newcastle University.

Playwright Sissay said: “After working on Refugee Boy for so long, I am delighted at the impact this tour is having on the theatres around the country that it is going to.

“I was thrilled to hear how Northern Stage have really engaged both with the production and the engagement work they have put around it; working with refugees and asylum seekers not just for the duration of the play’s visit but also beyond with their commitment to working with the Refugee Council and also the City of Sanctuary and working towards becoming a Theatre of Sanctuary.”

City of Sanctuary is a national movement which started in 2005 in Sheffield, which two years was awarded the first official status thanks to its council and 70 local community groups working together. The Theatre of Sanctuary strand is a way of encouraging theatres to be more welcoming and inclusive for everyone but particularly refugees and asylum seekers.

The process towards being formally recognised by the movement begins with the making of a public commitment then involves programming events and activities, raising awareness and helping integration, as with Northern Stage’s programme around Refugee Boy.

Refugee Boy runs at Northern Stage from tonight until Saturday. Visit www.northernstage.co.uk or call 0191 230 5151 for tickets. Entry to Songlines is free and the installation is open to the public in the theatre’s Stage 3 between 2.30pm and 7.30pm today and 11am and 3pm tomorrow. Those wanting to watch Home can drop in for free any time from 5pm-7pm on Friday and 6.30-7.30pm on Saturday.


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