<Book Review>
Refugees, Theatre and Crisis: Performing Global Identities
Alison Jeffers
[New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. (210 pp., 9 b&w illus.) ]

In Refugees, Theatre and Crisis, Alison Jeffers explores a panoply of ways that performance can illuminate and affect the issues surrounding refugees and asylum seekers. She begins this riveting study with refreshing honesty, openly acknowledging the limitations of this book. Her conversation opens with a Preface describing a performance project on which she worked that involved refugees. As she stresses, in this part of her research, rather than encountering research opportunities, she has manufactured them, by “running the on-going participatory drama project mentioned in the Preface” (2). In this leadership position, she takes on a role of power, which limits her ability to observe. Jeffers further points out that her research is limited to those refugees who have successfully migrated to western countries, as “it is generally the most mobile that can and do travel” (8). Those who are most mobile have access to financial means that are not readily available to all refugees. Despite these limitations, Jeffers crafts an intriguing study of the performativity and performance of refugeeness and refugees.

In chapter 1, “Refugees, Crisis and Bureaucratic Performance,” Jeffers discusses asylum seekers’ attempts to become refugees in terms of Austin’s speech acts. This is her first use of a concept that might be unfamiliar to some readers. Scholars familiar with performance studies and its terminology will already be familiar with the concepts in the book, but Jeffers offers complete explanations of the terms and ideas she introduces, thus making it accessible to readers coming from other disciplines. Her use of Austin’s theory provides a dynamic look at the obstacles that these asylum seekers face as she utilizes it to dissect the flawed bureaucratic system which prevents them from achieving refugee status. In seeking refugee status, the asylum seeker must perform a speech act, which then becomes an “unhappy” speech act, because the asylum seeker does not have the power to designate him/herself a refugee through the speech act. The bureaucratic powers overseeing the process automatically enforce the seeker’s status—either as a refugee or as having been rejected as a refugee—through the speech act of accepting or denying the claim for asylum. Through this bureaucratic performance, “asylum seekers are not simply described as ‘failed asylum seekers’ when their claims for asylum fail, they are interpellated as such, they become one from that point on (although they may have had to wait for years for this decision)” (39).

Chapter 2, “Hosts and Guests: National Performance and the Ethics of Hospitality,” introduces a compelling discussion of the issues surrounding host countries and their hospitality, or lack thereof, toward refugees. Jeffers explores the dilemma of how we as members of host countries see refugees. Is the influx of refugees a “crisis,” as the media would have us believe? In theatrical performance, how will we respond to their stories? Do they always need to be represented as victims so that the audience will be sympathetic? Can refugees use their own voices and allow their audiences to see them as empowered? Jeffers makes it clear that there are no simple answers to these questions.

Jeffers addresses some of these questions through a discussion of case studies in which refugees have taken a more active role speaking out in Chapter 3, “Taking up Space and Making a Noise: Minority Performances of Activism.” She raises the question of how refugees can break free from the expected, simplistic narrative of victimization and perform complicated, layered narratives which encompass their experience and allow them to use their own voices actively. As Jeffers describes, “Refugee activists are those refugees who challenge their treatment at the hands of the authorities [while] simultaneously challenging cultural assumptions of refugeeness, namely silence and passivity” (83). She performs a compelling examination of the lengths to which refugees will go when they are silenced and their power is taken away, namely self-mutilation. Self-wounding is sometimes the only way to retake control of their own bodies and space when refugees have been incarcerated and denied the ability to speak. She asserts that the pain of lip-sewing and other self-wounding takes people beyond language, to sounds and cries: “a movement to infancy” (105). This move to infancy, through an act associated with femininity, “[l]inks the paternalistic tendency to infantilise refugees with certain conceptions that also feminise” (106). Refugees who engage in lip-sewing have doubly transgressed, by performing an act which speaks when they cannot speak, and by performing an act associated with femininity.

Chapter 4, “’We with Them and Them with Us’: Diverse Cultural Performances,” takes a more optimistic look at refugee performance and activism. In this chapter, Jeffers focuses on festivals and the links between refugee cultures and the dominant culture. In this exploration of festivals, Jeffers calls into question the dynamic between the refugee and the dominant culture. The dominant culture often “dwarfs the small-scale and local traditional dance and music” (126). These festivals provide opportunities for refugees to honor and hold onto their home culture, as well as to interact with people from the culture into which they have transplanted. Throughout the discussion, we encounter the question: What is the relationship between the dominant culture and the refugee’s culture?

As readers, we are not given solutions for the problems raised in Jeffers’ examination of refugee performance and performativity. However, in her conclusion, Jeffers suggests that the first step to finding a solution for the problem of hospitality is to start on the local level and to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with an audience that is willing to change. “That risk is taken on both sides because, in the truly hospitable encounter, both host and guest must be prepared to be changed” (162). If we can’t change the system, perhaps we can start small and be willing to change on the smallest level, beginning with ourselves. It is this call to action that will appeal to a wide range of readers. She discusses universal dilemmas that we can all consider as we think about questions concerning immigration and migration.

     — Reviewed by Melissa Jackson Burns, University of Missouri

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