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A gay asylum seeker struggles with the isolation of a hostile England
Ishmael is one of the people who make up those immigrant ‘swarms’ we’ve been hearing so much about. He’s also the narrator of Zodwa Nyoni’s monologue, which comes to the Arcola after a nationwide tour. It’s a stark, sparse piece that urges, above all, kindness.
After fleeing Zimbabwe, where the authorities found out he was gay, Ishmael is in limbo in the UK as he awaits a verdict on whether he can stay.
Lladel Bryant darts around the stage in this energetic performance, building the world and characters he’s describing with gestures, accents and leaps.
Director Alex Chisholm keeps the stage completely bare. A suitcase, a light bulb: that’s it, that’s all Ishmael’s got. No contact with his family, no friends, pitiful amounts of money on which to survive, and just the lonely turmoil in his head. He is completely exposed to the audience in a play about the fear of being exposed.
Nyoni writes with a gentleness that doesn’t seem designed to provoke shock or outrage; instead it seeks to humanise Ishmael – and all those people who have been degraded and humiliated by governments, border agencies and ignorant, fearful racists.
By giving Ishmael’s character depth and warm wit, and by focusing on how intensely solitary it is to live in a strange country where people hate your presence, Nyoni fights against the toxic language that populates lazy tabloid headlines and political speech. It’s easy to lump immigrants into one scrounging mass or treat them as statistics, but doing so erases the individual identities of desperate people and empties them of their humanity.
Ishmael’s is only one story, but that’s the point: it’s his and his alone. He’s not a swarm anymore. He’s human.