Stage Door Review

Homes: A Refugee Story

Monday, March 6, 2023

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by Winnie Yeung & Haysam Kadri, directed by Haysam Kadri

Grand Theatre, Auburn Stage, London

March 2-19, 2022

Father: “Fear cannot stop us from living"

I feel extremely lucky to have caught one of the final performances of the world premiere run of Homes: A Refugee Story at the Grand Theatre in London. It is co-written by Winnie Yeung and Haysam Kadri based on the 2018 book of the same title by Syrian refugee Abu Bakr al Rabeeah as told to Yeung. It is an eye-opening picture of how an ordinary teenager comes to be a refugee and what his life first in Iraq then in Syria was like. What Bakr comes to accept as normal would seem horrifying to any of us with comfortable lives in Canada. Nabil Traboulsi gives such an extraordinarily natural performance as Bakr that you completely forget that he is an actor performing a role.

The book that forms the basis of the play came about when Yeung, who was Bakr’s high school ESL teacher, recognized that the story of this Syrian refugee needed to be told. Dennis Garnhum, Artistic Director of the Grand Theatre thought the story should be told on stage and put Yeung in touch with Haysam Kadri, currently interim Artistic Director of Albert Theatre Projects. The two worked together to fashion a play that is both true to Bakr’s story and vividly dramatic.

The production takes place in the Grand’s smaller space, the Auburn Stage, that seats only 144 and is ideal for this solo show. Traboulsi tells us he is Abu Bakr, a Syrian refugee to Canada, but that his family is really from Iraq. Bakr was born and grew up in Basra, Iraq’s main port. The difficulty that the al Rabeeah family encountered in Basra was that the majority branch of Islam in Iraq is Shi’ite and the majority of inhabitants in Basra are also Shi’ite and their numbers were increasing. The al Rabeeah family belongs to the largest branch of Islam, the Sunni, who make up 85-90% of all Muslims. Abu Bakr has the misfortune in a Shi’a-dominant society to have a name that immediately gives him away as Sunni. (Abu Bakr [573-634AD] was appointed by the Sunni as the first caliph after Muhammad, a decision that Shi’ites consider a grave error.) Bakr, the child, recounted that on his first day school when the teacher took roll call, the teacher called him to the from and slapped him for having such a provocative Sunni name.

In 2010 the al Rabeeah family moved to what Bakr’s father thought would be a safer place – Homs, the third largest city in Syria, known at the time for the religious diversity of its population. Several of Bakr’s uncles already lived there. On first seeing Homs, Bakr is delighted at how colourful a place it is and notes that not all women wear hijabs or niqabs.

Soon after the family’s arrival Bakr’s father, sensing that Syria might be no safer than Iraq, applied to the UN for refugee status. Bakr’s father’s worry, unfortunately, proved well founded since in 2011 the ongoing Syrian Civil War began when protests against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad were violently suppressed.

The action begins when Bakr aged 13 is on his way home from the noon prayer service at the local mosque. The service is one of his favourite times. He enjoyed, “The comfort of belonging ... the soothing prayers of peace murmured shoulder to shoulder with friends”. Just upon leaving Bakr experiences his first car bomb. Bakr had thought he had become numb by now and he and his family, once they check they are fine, automatically help the wounded. Bakr is happy once he is home, but then his mother notices something on his bird cage. It’s a piece of a human jawbone. Although the public had been instructed to bring heads or limbs to the hospital or police station, Bakr could think of nothing else to do with the jaw bone but to bury it.

Horrific as this is, Bakr still has more to experience, like his first mosque shooting. He learns from his father when the best time is to run during sniper fire. On a trip to Damascus, one of the shabiha, Assad’s private death squad, points a gun at Bakr’s head and undoes the safety catch.

Yet, despite all this distress, Bakr is still a young boy. What he and his friends most care about is soccer and Bakr’s hero is Cristiano Ronaldo. When Bakr and his friends have free time they take to their PlayStations and play Counter-Strike: Global Offensive where Bakr and company take on the roles of Counter-Terrorists fighting their Terrorist enemies. The idea that children subjected to real gunfire would choose to play a game with simulated gunfire may seem illogical, but as Bakr tells us, in playing the game he feels he has control.

Punctuating Bakr’s stories are scenes of Bakr’s father trying to find out if there has been any progress on his case. He has to wait four years before there is any news. And it is good news.

In 2014 Bakr and his family move to Canada. They are settled in Edmonton in December. Bakr notes that from the airplane the ground looks like prayer rugs side by side and end to end as far as he can see. Yet, contrary to what one might think, safety from sudden death does not equal happiness. Bakr misses his friends and relatives whom he will likely never see again. It is kind of his school to find him an empty place to pray in, but in praying all by himself he misses exactly the sense of community that he enjoyed so much back home and he is overcome with sadness.

I can think of no better way of understanding the refugee experience than this play. Bakr and Yeung shows us what life during war is like from a child’s perspective. We see that people can get used to anything, no matter how terrifying. We see that children remain children and still want to play despite the omnipresence of death. We see their resilience and their capacity for hope despite experiences we would think would extinguish any positive feelings. The first expression of depression Bakr feels is when he is in Canada and supposedly safe. But the play helps us to understand why that is.

Besides the text itself that Yeung and Kadri have crafted, the chief factor in making the play work is the fantastic performance of Nabil Traboulsi. I have seen him sing and play the piano in A Tonic For Desperate Times in 2021. I have seen him act in French, his second language, in the 17th-century comedy Le Menteur and the 18th-century comedy La Seconde Surprise de l’amour. This year I have seem him act in English, his third language, playing a crazed fundamentalist Christian in the contemporary play Martyr. Now in Homes, I have seen him act in Arabic, first language, and English. I’m simply floored by how much talent this one young person possesses.

Traboulsi plays at least eight clearly distinguished characters in Homes, though the main two are Bakr himself and Bakr’s father. Traboulsi has such an expressive face and voice we know exactly what his character is thinking before he says anything. When Bakr’s father phones the UN refugee agency for the nth time, Traboulsi shows us a stern face that is trying to suppress any hope in order to avoid another disappointment. During the short call, Traboulsi’s face falls and strives to regain composure. There is no need to tell us what has happened.

When Traboulsi as Bakr prays alone, we see from his face and demeanour the boy’s happiness to be performing one of his favourite activities. Yet, Siobhan Sleath’s precise light places two prayer rug-sized rectangles of light next to Bakr’s prayer rug. Compared to how he had prayed earlier in the show, Traboulsi shows Bakr complete his prayers hastily. We see his face contort before he falls on his side in a ball. He speaks in Arabic several times but we know what he is saying before he speaks his thought in English: “I want to go home”.

Traboulsi perfectly captures Bakr’s innocence as well as the necessary numbness to violence we know he has to develop to carry on. Bakr’s father’s repeats “Fear cannot stop us from living” and that is the motto, as Traboulsi so ably demonstrates, by which Bakr bravely strives to live.

The play has a major technological component with Corwin Ferguson’s projections, Sleath’s lighting and Jordan Lloyd Watkins’s sound design. Corwin’s projections show us the scenes from Counter-Strike when Bakr is playing or the screen of Bakr’s phone when he is texting friends. For scenes of the places where Bakr lives, Corwin’s projections cover the three walls surrounding Traboulsi, fully situating us in the beauty of Homs, the chaos after a bomb or the chill of Edmonton. Corwin has chosen to use rendering of the places as if they were in a graphic novel likely in order to make us feel we are seeing things through the eyes of a teenager. Sleath’s lighting and Watkins’s sound are precisely synched with the projections to create an immersive experience. Luckily, the video background is not continuous and therefore does not overwhelm the excellence of Traboulsi’s acting.

Haysam Kadri’s direction of the project is exemplary. My main regret in seeing the play so late in the run is in not being able to recommend it to friends to see. My greatest hope, therefore, is that the play goes on tour since it offers an insight like no other into the world that refugees come from as well as an insight into the pain of being uprooted from one’s family, friends, community, culture and language. Homes gives us much-needed understanding into the trials that refugees like Bakr have been through in the past and face even when “safe” in Canada. Should the play tour, know that it is not to be missed.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Nabil Traboulsi as Abu Bakr, © 2023 Dahlia Katz; Nabil Traboulsi, Dennis Garnhum, Winnie Yeung and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, © 2023 Caitlin Core; Nabil Traboulsi as Abu Bakr, © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit www.grandtheatre.com.