At the Firehall Arts Centre on Refuge's opening night, I was tense. My position in an unsettling social and political climate came into stark focus as my date and I sat, eating chocolate-covered almonds, leafing through the show's program. The thing is, Refuge, written by Mary Vingoe, is about real and urgent and bewildering happenings. Happenings that either necessitate involvement or persist despite ignorance, creating immense moral tension. It's a heavy burden to bear, and this show does an admirable job under its weight.
Refuge is funny, tense, heartbreaking, and relevant. We follow landed immigrant Ayinom as he applies for refugee status, as well as those supporting him throughout the process of, hopefully, securing a chance at a new life.
Certain things distract from the work. The pacing early on and a lack of fluidity in some of the actors' performances made it difficult to connect with the nuanced themes in the piece at first, but once the show hit its stride I was totally immersed, hapless in the face of the questions that each audience member is tasked with answering for themselves: How ready are you to extend yourself to those seeking sanctuary? Are you suspicious of them? What will you do with that? How accessible is your empathy? What would you do were you in the position of any of the characters? And what makes you think that you're not?
Refuge does the important work of highlighting the uncertainty and suffering that comes with certain types of global circumstance and mobility. The piece was humorous and touching, entertaining in it's own right, but it also solicited from its audience a deeper empathy than perhaps many of us are comfortable getting in touch with. It is vulnerable to open oneself to the hardships that others cannot avoid, to become invested in outcomes over which we have little overall control—but it is worthwhile. Stories like Ayinom’s and writing like Vingoe's create a point of entry into the emotional landscape of these hardships, and transform the deluge of anxiety and stress into humanized narratives. Still harrowing, but legible. By being invited to witness this show, we are also invited into a discourse and solicited for participation. Even if Refuge doesn't provide clear answers to the questions it poses, it still makes a vital request of us: to be present.
Tickets for the final April 1 performance of Refuge can be found here.