Phosphorus Theatre works with refugees and asylum-seekers to create original collaborative autobiographical storytelling. Their new piece, Pizza Shop Heroes, features Tewodros, Goitom, Emirjon and Syed – four young male refugees to the UK – and their stories. They are joined onstage by Kate, a British woman and core member of Phosphorus, who acts as a facilitator. Through the setting of a pizza shop in which the men work, stories of their past and their journeys to the UK from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Albania are presented to the audience. We experience child imprisonment in Libya, heart-wrenching phone calls with families thousands of miles away, and the first steps of a refugee in the UK. Hopes and fears, past, present and future; all on stage before us.
It is an exquisite, moving event to witness; you might not fully realise the weight of it until long after leaving the theatre.
What is most striking about Pizza Shop Heroes is that, though we hear in striking detail the stories of the men’s past in the countries of their birth and their journeys to the UK, the show is ultimately not about any of that but the futures they hope to build for themselves and their children. The performance acts as a seizing of destiny by each man, coming to terms with their many journeys (geographical and otherwise) affirming their identities and pointing to those of their future children by stating the names they will once hold. It is an exquisite, moving event to witness; you might not fully realise the weight of it until long after leaving the theatre. Phosphorus demonstrates a clear understanding of the necessity for applied theatre and of the tangled mess of post-colonialism, but also knows that the best way to work for something true in and amongst this is to start with honest, direct storytelling.
The Decolonial Project is an idea still relatively unexplored at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – something I hope will change soon. A key theme is ownership, which springs to mind when watching Pizza Shop Heroes. Though the piece hinges on the stories and actions of the four refugees, the facilitating arm of Kate is ever-present. Ultimately, a movement must be lead by the people that it is speaking for, and while the ‘heroes’ are very much centre-stage, it is hard to deny the message relayed by Kate’s onstage power and status. This is all a conversation to be had, given extra meaning by the debate over ideas such as ‘White Saviour-ism’. Another issue that becomes apparent quickly is to what extent applied theatre needs not be held to the same dramatic rigour that other theatre does and can settle for doing less – the danger here being that by not attributing dramatic reverence to such productions, we are devaluing the abilities of the people the work is being created by/for.
Pizza Shop Heroes is a very skilled piece of theatre-making by one of the country’s leading applied theatre companies. It’s greatly important that many people see it. It is a theatre for our future.