Seeking Refuge, produced by Thick and Thin Theatre, is performing as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival. According to the UNHCR more than 65 million people were displaced worldwide in 2015. That’s the highest number since World War II.
Here in Canada, we’ve seen fear mongering in the conservative media leading to growing racist sentiment against refugees. A show about the plight of refugees couldn’t be more timely or important.
Written and composed by Rick Jones, Seeking Refuge is the story of two sisters; Mara (Liana Bdewi) and Saleet (Trisha Talreja), caught in a war and forced to flee their homes. They have enough of their mother’s jewelry to barter a smuggler to get one of them out of the country, but the other must stay behind in the hands of a local warlord, Tobim (Nabil Ayoub).
While the costumes vaguely suggest a setting in the Middle East, I thought it was a clever choice to not reference any specific setting; it could be Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Yemen. The point is that ultimately, the specifics of a conflict aren’t important. The result is the same: war and violence forces innocent people to flee for their lives.
While Jones’ plot hits all the right points, at first I struggled a bit to connect with this story as a musical. The subject matter is heavy, the issues are complex, and I wasn’t sure if a musical was the right format. Afterward, I became convinced it could work as a musical but I think it still needs a bit more work to really make things click into place.
The greatest challenge in telling refugees’ stories is in humanizing and creating empathy for them. Right now the characters in the show feel more like archetypes than fully fleshed-out people. As a result, the show comes off feeling a bit cerebral and didactic.
Most of Jones’ songs are recitative (talk-singing where characters describe what’s happening in song), but I think the book scenes (the scripted dialogue between songs) would be able to advance the plot more effectively and efficiently.
Where I think the musical theatre format could best serve this story is in humanizing the characters. In a musical, a character often expresses their internal emotions and states their greatest hopes, fears, and desires in an “I want” song. When done well, these songs serve to create an emotional connection with a character. We empathize with them, we feel their emotions, and we root for them. It’s one of the greatest tricks in the musical theatre handbag.
Right now, I’m left intellectually knowing that I *should* care for these characters and really wanting to care for them but finding that the show speaks more to my head than to my heart. I think the show would be better served using book scenes to advance the narrative and economically using musical numbers to flesh out character, and create emotional resonance at key moments in the plot.
That being said, I thought the performances were superb. Bdewi and Talreja as the sisters, and Noah Beemer as Manu—the younger sister’s love interest—especially imbue their characters with as much emotion and humanity as the text will allow.
Overall, Seeking Refuge is an important if imperfect work. I’m all for anything advocating empathy for refugees, and I’d love to see how the show develops.
- Seeking Refuge plays at the Randolph Theatre. (736 Bathurst St.)
- Tickets are $12. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Fringe Club at Scadding Court, and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- Content Warnings: Gunshots, Sexual Content, Off-stage Sexual Violence.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible through a secondary route. We recommend checking in with the venue box office at least 20 minutes before showtime.
- Friday July 7th, 03:30 pm
- Saturday July 8th, 09:15 pm
- Sunday July 9th, 03:00 pm
- Tuesday July 11th, 09:00 pm
- Thursday July 13th, 07:00 pm
- Friday July 14th, 04:00 pm
- Sunday July 16th, 05:15 pm
Photo of Trisha Talreja, Jennifer Walls, and Liana Bdewi by Dahlia Katz