How theatre is bringing young African migrants and Italians together

Italian theatre company Teatre delle Albe is bringing young Italians and African migrants together in a version of the classic Greek tale, Jason and the Argonauts, in southern Italy.

The cast of Teatre delle Albe’s production of Jason and the Argonauts,  which recruited African migrants in Italy. Courtesy Ismail Einashe
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High in the mountains of southern Italy lies San Chirico Raparo, a poor isolated town which has become the unlikely venue for a theatre project bringing together young African migrants and Italians.

The play is a version of a classic Greek tale, Jason and the Argonauts, by Italian theatre company Teatro delle Albe. It chronicles the adventures of a band of heroes who join Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, and at the heart of this great adventure is the sea and the ship they sail in, the Argo.

Italy has in recent years become Europe’s migrant bottleneck. Last year, 181,000 migrants arrived by boat; the majority came from sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2014, more than 500,000 migrants have arrived. Many of these migrants are African teenagers from countries such as Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal and Ivory Cost. They come unaccompanied, fleeing violence and persecution, before embarking on the dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean.

There is now a new resettlement policy, where the Italian authorities move small groups of child migrants into villages and towns in the south of Italy, often in the middle of nowhere.

San Chirico Raparo is situated in Basilicata, historically part of mafia land. It has 1,200 residents, but most young people have left to find employment. Most of the young African migrants are accommodated in communal buildings and one building in San Chirico Raparo houses 12 teenagers, mostly from Gambia.

Teatro delle Albe (which has previously produced plays about the migrant crisis) spotted an opportunity. It held rehearsals in the village and staged a unique production of the play on April 12, with the support of the local community. Now the players are getting ready for their big performance, on June 26 in Matera, the European Capital of Culture for 2019.

Ali Sohna, 19, is from Gambia and lives in Matera. He is a main voice in the production. For Ali the sea was a deadly place. He arrived in 2015 after a perilous journey from West Africa via the Sahara, before reaching Italy on a boat from Libya. He lost his brother at sea, and some months later his mother died in Niger.

Ali has struggled to make a life for himself in Italy. Without his family, he says, “the others will have their parents to watch them in the play, but I won’t, my brother is dead and my mother is not here”. However, through this production he says he has found a purpose and a voice. “Theatre is an instrument I can use to get rid of the bad feelings in my head, the bad memories; I want to see theatre not just in Italy but back home in Gambia,” he says.

For directors Alessandro Argnani and Emanuele Valenti, those ancient sea voyages of the Argonauts mirror the journeys that migrants struggle to make in reaching Italy’s shores. There are no main characters in the play and about 30 youngsters are part of the production. They have also incorporated elements of African music and dance. “One of the methods we use is we tell them the story, then we ask them to act it by improvisation,” says Valenti.

Papis Baji, 18, from Gambia, who was on the same boat Ali took from Libya, also lives in San Chirico Raparo. “I enjoy living with my friends in the centre; we have a good time,” says Papis. “In the play I am the one who drives the boat the Argonauts are on, and this reminds me of the boat journey I made; we used a boat to come here.”

Papis has enjoyed taking part in the play and has made friends. “There is no difference between us Africans and the Italians; we are all human beings. I like Italy, I want to stay here in San Chirico Raparo – they have done a lot for me here.”

For young Italians like Francesco, 17, from Matera, the experience of taking part in the play has also been positive. He has made friends with Ali and others, and says, “I really have enjoyed working with new people, it has been a fun, great experience”.

Valenti says: “This young Italian generation is ready to be connected to the migrant culture. They can use theatre to connect to migrants.”

Ismail Einashe is a freelance journalist based in London.