The refugee crisis can seem like an abstract, far-off issue. But “The Jungle,” which opened Sunday at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse after a run in London, drops us smack in the center of a camp of asylum-seekers — with all its slapdash infrastructure, clash of cultures and pulsing humanity.
The St. Ann’s theater space has been transformed by set designer Meriam Buether into the Afghan Cafe, where the audience sits in front of long, narrow tables on a dirt floor with wider platforms that serve as walkways for the actors to walk among us.
We are in a re-created version of the Jungle, an actual camp that emerged on a landfill site near Calais, France, for refugees seeking asylum in the U.K. just 22 miles away. We meet people from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Sudan who manage to set aside their religious, cultural and historic differences to create a kind of functioning city with a common purpose.
In due course, we also meet a group of British do-gooders who are initially viewed with skepticism. “You have destroyed my village three times in the last 200 years,” the Afghan restaurant owner Salar (Ben Turner) tells one of the Brits, whose number includes a naive selfie-stick-wielding Eton graduate (Alex Lawther, “The End of the F—ing World”) who describes the setting as “Glastonbury without the toilets.”
Before long, though, the interlopers become part of the community, helping to establish basic services like housing, sanitation and schooling for the increasing number of unaccompanied children in the camp.
But these outsiders have their own reasons for being there, sometimes just as flawed despite meaning well. “Everyone here is running away from something. We’re all refugees,” notes the banjo-playing drunkard Boxer (Trevor Fox), who is estranged from both his ex-wife and young daughter back in the U.K. but finds a sense of purpose in the camps.
“When does a place become a place?” asks Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad), an English literature scholar from Aleppo who serves as one of our many narrators. Playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson address that question in a most vital way — aided by the sharp direction of Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin — by intermingling moments of conflict and horror with lighter moments of warmth, music and laughter.
Because despite their many differences, the refugees we meet share similar stories of deprivation — and of hope that they might yet seek a better life in a far-off land. “A refugee dies many times,” a teenager from Darfur named Okot (John Pfumojena) says at one point as he recounts his remarkable and harrowing journey to a camp that French authorities seem bent on breaking up. (They did just that two years ago — though a video update late in the show informs us that 2,000 refugees, including 200 unaccompanied minors, are still seeking shelter outside Calais.)
“The Jungle” is that rarest of theatrical experiences. It makes us think, it makes us feel and it challenges us to find the human faces in the masses of images we see on newscasts.