Yesterday I went to see Sarab by Palestinian Circus School, part of the CircusFest at Jackson Lane. The show is a piece of circus theatre that ”shares with us the plight of refugees worldwide. The seven Palestinian performers use Chinese pole, juggling and acrobatics to reflect on their own history and the repetition of it today for millions of people.”
The set for the show was ever-changing, with the creative uses of boxes allowing the performers to reflect the theme of the scene, from being literally boxed in to balancing on precarious crowded spaces to creating unstable towers that the performers climbed up and jumped down from. Some of the scenes reminded me of Curfew, another Palestinian show by two dabke toupes — both shows included a traditional Palestinian wedding scene, which is then interrupted by violence — in this case, the bride descends to ululations before the scene erupts into panicked movements, a scene of shocking violence and people trying to find a place to hide, knowing that there is nowhere to hide.
There are several wrenching scenes that are best not to spoil, especually one using a persistent symbol in the show — the idea that a refugee’s world, all their posessions, has to be carried in their luggage, that there is nowhere to go back to.
Another very effective scene captured the ludicrous and endless bureacratisation that is part of being a refugee. This scene is perhaps the one that best captures the sarab (mirage) of the title, the false promise of finding sanctuary in a world that is not interested in providing that sanctuary. Each of papers used in the scene, it was revealed in the Q and A session, was the story of a refugee, a story that will not be heard. And that was a recurring theme holding the scenes together — the idea that this experience of fleeing violence being both a shared one, but also very individual, and the impossibility of telling every one of those stories.
During the Q and A, the founder of PSC Shadi Zmorrod and director Paul Evans spoke of the motivation for the show being exactly this, to get beyond the miasma of the dehumanizing statistics and buzzwords like migrant crisis. It is not so much raising awareness about something unknown, but removing the veil of willful blindness towards this reality, a scene that is powerfully captured in a scene towards the end. As Elizabeth Jenkins puts it, ”added to the emotion at the heart of the issue itself makes for a particularly powerful show that it is impossible to look away from. That, of course, is the intention. In a scene of abuse, the audience is faced with its own inaction.”
Shadi Zmorrod made a point of saying that the show was inspired by his vists to refugees in Jordan and on the borders of Turkey, and the way in which this experience resonated with his own, inherited feelings of dispossesion — and the unsettled sense that it can always happen again, that home is never truly home when those in power can take it away.