Haj Ahmad, left, and John Pfumojena are excellent in “The Jungle” at the Curran. (Courtesy Little Fang)

Haj Ahmad, left, and John Pfumojena are excellent in “The Jungle” at the Curran. (Courtesy Little Fang)

Love tempers immigrant experience in ‘Jungle’

Curran’s West Coast premiere a timely, vibrant true story

If you didn’t know better, you might think it was a new neighborhood in a city not unlike our own — the kind that springs up where its residents have the drive and ingenuity to make something from nothing and, in the process, create a community.

Look closer, though, and you realize that most of the people in “The Jungle” are migrants. For them, home is both a devastating memory and the place they can never return to.

Based on actual events, this riveting drama co-written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson is set in the refugee camp built in 2015 on an old landfill site on the outskirts of Calais, France. It’s where more than 6,000 migrants (from war-torn Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, Eritrea, and other countries) found refuge — until the French government bulldozed it in 2016.

A hit in London and New York, the nearly three-hour play is in its West Coast premiere at the Curran Theatre. It’s a knockout: vibrantly theatrical and pointedly contemporary, it offers a side of the immigrant experience we seldom see.

Directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin bring the camp to life in the show’s first moments. The narrow raised set (by Miriam Buether, vividly lit by Jon Clark) runs the length of the room, with corridors on three sides for additional playing space.

The audience, seated at tables and on low benches, is always close to the action, whether it’s a tense fight scene, a bit of back story from narrator Safi (an articulate Ammar Haj Ahmad), a moment in the Afghan café run by Salar (the magnetic Ben Turner), or one of the impromptu meetings that bring the camp’s inhabitants together.

The first of those encounters happens right away, as it’s revealed that the French government has issued an eviction notice. That raises the central issue running through the play: Should the camp inhabitants abandon the site, or stay and resist?

It’s not an easy choice. Most of the characters have applied for asylum — England is their country of choice — and are still waiting. Others are paralyzed by memories of the harrowing journeys they took to get to France. The conflict reaches its searing high point when a Sudanese teen, Okot (a poised and brilliant John Pfumojena), recalls the ways that escape can be deadly; Ahmad’s Safi offers a haunting coda in the final moments.

The nearly three-hour show is undeniably dark, but it’s not without bright moments – games, bursts of music, the easy camaraderie of the camp’s inhabitants (Trevor Fox, as the frequently inebriated Boxer, contributes several comic episodes.)

Three English volunteers, played by Rachel Redford, Dominic Rowan and Tommy Letts, demonstrate the hope and hopelessness of the place.

Mostly, what shines through is love: fathers for sons, women for children, the bonding of comrades in adversity.

Still, the appeal of “The Jungle” isn’t just the clarity with which is recounts recent history. It’s the way it upends our beliefs about what it means to be an immigrant.

“The Jungle” reveals the suffering and resilience of the camp’s inhabitants in a way headlines can only hint at.

REVIEW

The Jungle

Where: Curran, 445 Geary St., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes May 19

Tickets: $25 to $165

Contact: SFCURRAN.com/jungle

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