As part of a three-year project entitled Local Stories / Global Times, Birmingham-based Banner Theatre has been working with asylum seekers in Sandwell in the West Midlands and Salford in Greater Manchester to create Migrant Voices, a new piece of multimedia documentary theatre based on their real-life experiences.
The show is touring in October during Black History Month.
Banner Theatre’s new production of Migrant Voices is the result of a residency with Iraqi Kurdish asylum seekers living in Salford in Greater Manchester and tells the stories of why these people have fled their homes and countries and what they have found in twenty-first century Britain. It follows a similar residency in Sandwell with Iranian asylum seekers.
‘Our motivation in developing this show was to highlight what it really means to be an asylum seeker in contemporary Britain, rather than what some newspapers want us to believe’, explained Banner’s artistic director Dave Rogers.
Starting from the real-life stories and experiences of the asylum seekers, Migrant Voices explores the history of Iraq and the Middle East during the twentieth century to show how the Kurdish people of northern Iraq have been prevented from establishing their own country and taking control of their own destinies, and how they subsequently became the victims of Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime.
Alongside the history of Kurdistan, the show traces the history of Salford and puts the arrival of asylum seekers there at the beginning of the twenty-first century into a wider context. It shows how immigration to this part of north-west England is a long-established pattern, from which the region has benefited.
Using video and audio interviews with both Iraqi Kurds and members of the host communities, Migrant Voices presents a powerful and thought-provoking piece of contemporary drama, combining live performance – theatre, music and song – with still and moving images.
The show features original songs – written and performed by the company – as well as traditional ballads, including the work of former Salford folk singer Ewan MacColl, who was one of the co-founders of Banner Theatre in 1973.
Banner Theatre writes:
‘We believe the issues surrounding asylum seekers are one aspect of the trend towards globalisation and the increasing political instability in the world that is a result of that. We hope the show will help people to understand how globalisation can impact on local communities and affect different people’s lives. There is also a very direct link with what is happening in the Middle East where military action has increased the number of refugees and people seeking asylum.
In choosing to work with Middle Eastern asylum seekers, we particularly wanted to enable them to tell their own stories to British audiences, because so often their real-life experiences are denied by the British tabloid press or replaced with lurid sensationalism. They have left their country in order to save themselves and have arrived here in an alien culture, often with little or no means of support. They need sympathy and understanding, but too often have been met by hostility and hatred, sometimes not least from immigration agencies.
Migrant Voices represents something of a new departure for us in the sense that, for the first time, we are working with an experienced film and video maker – Pervaiz Khan, who is a director of Duende Theatre Company – in creating a new piece of work. We are, also for the first time, using digital video technology and are really excited about the possibilities this opens up for us.
Earlier in 2002, we had funding from West Midlands Arts to experiment with this technology and find out how best to harness the power of digital technology in the context of live performance. We were able to bring in theatre and video professionals like Pervaiz, Don Bouzek, from Ground Zero Productions in Edmonton in Canada, and theatre director Maggie Ford, with all of whom we have worked in the past, to explore the potential of this new technology without the pressures of being actually engaged in producing a new show.
We are also excited about the opportunities for cultural exchange that exist in working on a project of this sort. We were able to involve two Iranian musicians on our first tour of the show and to illustrate how Iranian and western musical styles and traditions can be fused to form music that is accessible to – and strengthens – both cultures. Now we have an Anglo-Iranian musician and performer, Jilah Bakhshayesh, as a company member, and are able to mix English, African-Caribbean and Middle Eastern musical styles in the production.’
Banner will be touring Migrant Voices during the autumn, with performances already scheduled for Birmingham (Sept 26), Bath (Oct 10), Plymouth (Oct 11), Hackney (Oct 15), Crewe (Oct 17), Liverpool (Oct 18), Peterborough (Oct 22), Bedford (Oct 23), Norwich (Oct 24), Salford (Oct 29/30) and Huddersfield (Oct 31).