A New Play Focuses on African Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Ireland

On a recent Monday afternoon, John Doyle was rehearsing with a troupe of actors in a tiny airless room inside University College Cork’s O’Rahilly Building.

The Cork-based dramatist and stage director was working with them to prepare his latest production, No Borders 2, for its Dublin debut in late July.

The nine-act play explores the lives of African refugees and asylum seekers in Ireland. It’s a follow-up to Doyle’s 2016 play No Borders, which focused on Syrian refugees and asylum seekers here.

At the recent rehearsal, Doyle ran from one end of the room to the other, checking to see if the music was on cue while engrossed in a discussion with actors about the possibility of changing some dialogue.

“There will be tears,” he said before an emotional scene in which a young mother (Fionnuala O’Connell) discovers the lifeless body of her small child (Olisa Oniah).

And, indeed, as O’Connell fell on her knees, caressing the young boy with an expression that alternated between horror and disbelief, Doyle’s eyes were brimming with tears.

Doyle said the No Borders 2 cast members are like family to him. Olisa, in particular, has found a special place in his heart.

The young actor from Nigeria danced his way to greet Doyle, listened carefully to his instructions, and effortlessly performed a non-speaking part.

“Olisa and I are buds,” Doyle said.

Deborah Oniah, Olisa’s mother, carried her 10-month-old daughter (who remained smiling and calm throughout the session) in a buggy to the rehearsal. During a break, she put the baby carriage in front of her seat, and breastfed her daughter, while Olisa played on his phone.

Oniah plays the role of Grace on the show, a conservative Nigerian mother who cannot accept her son’s homosexuality. Asked what she liked most about working on the production, she praised the director’s infectious energy.

“John is very energetic, there’s no downtime with him, and I think he knows what he’s doing,” she said. “I think there is a positive vibe about being around everyone, and seeing how everyone supports each other.”

During a break in the rehearsal, Raphael Olympio was resting his head on the lap of his girlfriend, Fionnuala O’Connell. O’Connell, a tall, soft-spoken 22-year-old artist, with a warm and ready laugh, said she joined the cast because she was keen to participate in something that spotlighted migration issues.

“I do a lot of work with people in direct provision, so it is a subject that is very interesting to me. I like how this play shows some of the struggles that people have with migration,” she said. “A lot of stories in the show might seem normal in Ireland, like domestic abuse, like having a different sexuality, but in different cultures, they might be quite striking, and this show exposes those things.”

Doyle, 38, said his interest in highlighting migration stories, stemmed from his time volunteering at a Refugees and Asylum Seekers Support Centre in Tralee. “I never asked anyone’s story, but with some people, you could just see the pain in their eyes, which suggested trauma; that stuck with me,” he said.

Doyle wrote No Borders in 2015, in the midst of Europe’s refugee crisis, and the production ran in Cork’s Granary Theatre and Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre in 2016.

In the follow-up, No Borders 2, Doyle has highlighted acid violence against women in an act called “My Name Is Miremba”. The piece chronicles a woman’s journey to self-acceptance after her abusive husband, maddened by her attempts to get her freedom, throws acid on her face.

“The piece stems from […] a question of what would we do if our faces, the physical representation of ourselves, were taken away from us and how it would affect a woman to have the physical representation of her taken away from her as punishment for being a strong woman,” Doyle said.

(Prof. Bipash Baruah of Canada’s Western University, and Aisha Siddika, have argued that “Perpetrators of acid violence are almost always men, and toxic masculinity – the desire to permanently victimize someone while demonstrating his own power and brutality – is almost always the underlying cause,” they wrote.)

Doyle seemed happy for an opportunity to present his show to Dublin’s human-rights activists. “I think we will get a bigger humanitarian crowd in Dublin,” he said.

The Tralee-born director, was, above all, excited to showcase the talent of the No Borders 2 actors in the capital city. The cast includes 12 members, three of whom live in direct provision.

“I want to show people that we have so much talent in this country that is not being seen. Our cast is predominantly African, and their talent is remarkable,” he said. “At this stage, for me, a lot of it is for the lads.”

Doyle said he was hoping to tour around the world with his No Borders 2 family. “Dublin and beyond, folks,” he wrote on the production’s Facebook page.

The cast is set to perform No Borders 2 on 27 July at Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre. The production is sponsored by UCC’s Student Action for Refugees (STAR) society.

The performance is scheduled to end with a question-and-answer session with cast members and guest speakers Lucky Khambule from Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) and Ellie Kisyombe, founder of Our Table, a non-profit project fighting to end direct provision.

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