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Fisayo Akinade On ...Refugee Boy

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Based on Benjamin Zephaniah’s novel, a newly-commissioned adaptation of Refugee Boy arrives in Leeds this spring. Written by Lemn Sissay and directed by Gail McIntyre, the play tells the story of Alem, a teenager caught up in the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea who finds himself abandoned as a refugee in England.

Returning to the West Yorkshire Playhouse after success in Waiting for Godot, Fisayo Akinade, who plays Alem, takes a break from rehearsals to discuss his preparations and the challenges of striking the right balance between politics and drama…

How are preparations going? Are you excited about opening night? Really excited. We got to see the space yesterday and it’s a pretty incredible set. It’s quite technical as there’s a lot of movement within the piece. But it’s going to be a lovely show and quite a spectacle. There’s a real sense of journey, which is perfect for Alem because he’s never in one place for too long.

Are you enjoying being back at the Playhouse after the success of Waiting for Godot? I loved doing Godot; it was a great role. And it’s really lovely to be back. Everyone is really friendly and open.

What’s it like working with director, Gail McIntyre, and the cast? I’ve never had a cast that has made me laugh as much! There’s been far too much corpsing and giggling! But we really get on, and that makes us care about the piece even more. The story we’re telling is already important, but all of us coming together has made it even more special for me. It’s my first time with a role this size, so it’s been really nice to have such a supportive company; and to have Gail, who’s got such a clear idea of the show she wants to make. There was a real coming together of ideas, so it’s been lovely. Obviously with a new play there are difficulties, but we’ve had Ben Jancovich, our dramaturg, who has been great at ironing out a few problems.

How did you get involved with Refugee Boy? Were you familiar with Benjamin Zephaniah’s novel? I read the novel when I was younger and I did the reading of the script about six months ago. When I heard it was being cast, I said ‘Gail, please can I do it?’. Originally they wanted an Ethiopian actor, but Gail had the idea of all of us being storytellers, so it didn’t matter where we were from. Fortunately I was cast, which I’m really happy about!

How emotionally demanding is the role? It’s difficult because it is very demanding and there’s a lot of energy needed to put the play on. But Gail let us just go for it at first, so it was a sense of experiencing it in its rawest form. You’d paint with big bold colours, and then you’d paint a fine border around everything. So instead of just a messy collage of colours, you’ve got a nice set pattern you can conjure up night after night.

Did you do any special research? Yes, I looked into Post Traumatic Stress syndrome, which can often happen in refugee situations. We also got to speak with an Eritrean refugee who lives in Leeds. There was an incident where someone threw something at his wall and it sounded like gunfire. He said he was flung back and fell to the floor because he felt that he was under attack. We’re trying to recreate that kind of feeling; having something be in somebody’s head for the audience to see. I like to use images a lot, so I gathered a lot of pictures, specifically of Ethiopia and Eritrea, but also of war in general. So when I’m trying to get myself into this state I can link the images to what I’m experiencing.

Do you find it hard to leave the role behind at the end of the day? There were a few days of very little sleep because my mind was ticking over. But it’s gotten much easier and I think you have to create a distance. You work when you’re in the room and you work when you’re on stage. Then at the end of the day you go home and do something that has nothing to do with the play for a while; then you go back to the script and do some work. But I think it’s really important to distance yourself.

Tell us a little bit about the storyline and your character of Alem Alem is a 14-year-old boy. He’s been moved from Ethiopia to Eritrea and back again because of the war between the two countries. Because it’s too dangerous, his Dad takes him to England. Alem thinks it’s a holiday, so he has a really wonderful time. Then he wakes up in the morning and his Dad’s not there. So it’s basically his journey of being a refugee. He has to deal with being abandoned and never really having time to settle anywhere; always wondering if his Dad will come back. It’s also about how the asylum process works and how that can be quite difficult for a young boy. The system doesn’t cater to how old you are; it’s always the same.

Do you think the play strikes the right balance between politics and drama? I think so. As well as the war side and court side of things, there’s also the joy of finding people that become Alem’s new family. So I think it does strike the balance, which is a difficult thing to achieve in an hour and a half!

Finally, why should audiences come to see Refugee Boy and what would you like them to take away? I’d like people to understand that when refugees come over to this country, they’re not coming because they necessarily want to; it’s because they have to. A lot of them are escaping terrible things that have happened to them. All we see in the newspapers is refugees coming into the country, but we have no idea what they’ve come from and what they’re dealing with. So I think people should leave knowing a bit more of the process a refugee has to go through. But at the same time there’s a lot of hope and sense of innocence. So I think people should come to see a really well-told story and leave with a sense that there is hope after tragedy.

Refugee Boy is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 9 to 30 March 2013. For tickets, contact the box office on 0113 2137700. The Playhouse is also running a programme of related events. For further details, visit www.wyp.org.uk.


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