This week I went to an unusual and rewarding theatre work about migration. London Stories: Made By Migrants, currently being staged at the Battersea Arts Centre, gives you the chance to hear six stories about migrant experiences related to London, told by the people who experienced them.
Who did I meet? An stylish elderly lady who survived Auschwitz, by video. A woman – around the same age as me – who was born in Iran and is now an artist. A Syrian man who came to the UK after crossing the Mediterranean in a small boat and being smuggled in from Brussels on a German lorry, and who is dreaming of working as a dentist again. A Chilean-American man who had spent much of his life in New York but now loves London. A girl who spoke about her Pakistani father and his habit of hoarding as he built a life here. A Ugandan refugee who had fled her country to escape Idi Amin.
The genius of this work is the way in which it mirrors the type and significance of the experience it describes. Separated from the people we arrived with, we were led in small groups around the rambling and artily slightly decrepit Victorian former town hall building that now houses the BAC. This seemed to recreate the dislocation and loss of control that many migrants must endure, though of course in a much more gentle way and entirely without the jeopardy that is so often a part of the migration experience
Six times we arrived in a small room or space – each time differently shaped, decorated and lit – to sit face to face with another person to hear the story they wanted to tell us, each time an unusually intimate, true and valuable piece of art.
Migration and what it means is extremely topical at the moment. This summer’s Brexit referendum in the UK and the campaign and result of the 2016 presidential election in the US have put it at the top of the political and public discourse agenda in both nations. The producers of London Stories: Made By Migrants have not shied away from this, choosing to place posters with headlines and comments of various kinds about migration – some welcoming, some analytical, some hate-filled – on the walls of the building to be viewed as the audience walk around it.
It is a sad but true fact that hatred of migrants and what they seem to represent has not been confined to paper and ink. Hate crime against migrants or those who look like they might be increased sharply astonishingly soon after Brexit – and it seems that the same thing may be happening now in the the US.
Luckily, there have also been some steps taken in London to assert not just tolerance and empathy towards migrants but also the fact that migrants have been integral to the creation of the city and to its nature today. London Stories: Made By Migrants is one shining example. There are others in the arts world – I heard that the next At Home With The Ludskis event, a recurring art/film/theatre night at Dalston’s Rio Cinema, will have a pro-migration theme. This reflects the fact that the Rio’s founder Clara Ludksi, who the event is named after, was a migrant who came to London from Russia in the early twentieth century.
We still need many, many more such arts events, and other actions that achieve a similar effect. Given what it happening in the world, it seems no longer enough in London to not be anti-migration and to assume that people from different countries will always live here and that we will all always rub along together pretty much fine. We need to say that this is what we want and that it is important.
New Orleans is a different city in a different country. But, like London, this city and everything it means cannot be conceived of without its history of being open to and of valuing migration. With recent anti-immigration narratives in the UK now being uncannily echoed in the US, New Orleans needs to speak out now just as much as London.