Play about refugees fleeing as relevant today as it was 12 years ago

We have all travelled, no matter how short the distance. We know what it means to traverse space and time, and to land in someplace new. We all know movement. For some, moving is not as simple as packing up and leaving. It comes with rules and regulations.

In Europe, there is a surge of right-wing movements against the flow of refugees and immigrants journeying there. In the United States, legislation and actions against migrants has drawn heavy criticism. The administration of President Donald Trump’s policy of zero tolerance has left hundreds of children separated from their parents.

In May 2008, South Africa’s ideas of nationhood and belonging ignited and Africans and other migrants had their homes and shops burned and looted. In the span of 14 days, 30 00 people were displaced and 65 people had been killed, 21 of whom were South Africans.

In 2006, just two years before the xenophobic attacks, Every Year, Every Day I Am Walking was commissioned by the African Theatre Festival for Children and Young People in Cameroon. The play drew on the killings of Ethiopians and Somalis in Cape Town.

Created with Cape Town’s Magnet Theatre and directed by Mark Fleishman, with actors Faniswa Yisa and Jennie Reznek and music by Neo Muyanga, Every Day I Am Walking is the company’s longest-running production. It tells the story of a mother and her daughter who flee a Francophone country in Africa and their journey to Cape Town.

Back in Cape Town for a five-show stint, the production has been performed in 25 countries. Yisa says the endurance of the production has to do with the fact that “there are no boundaries in terms of the language with this particular piece. It’s a human story.

“In a way, the show predated what was going to be the theme of the years which we’re living in, which is migration and movement, whether it be forced or not forced,” says Reznek, who is also a co-director at the Magnet Theatre.

The production reminds Reznek of the common themes that have emerged in her recent work. For her, Every Year, Every Day I Am Walking is about family and loss and how — or whether — a person recovers from the loss of a loved one. “Maybe one can only make one play in one’s whole life; it’s just the same themes over and over. Do you know what I mean?”

Told through a mix of gesture and minimal dialogue, the play relies on a visceral understanding of displacement. Beyond that, it makes clever use of images.

“When I look back at it, we were quite brave,” Reznek says, as she recounts the making of the play more than a decade ago. “Faniswa wanted to burn. There’s fire on the stage. Real fire. It’s hectic!”

Yisa lets out a raspy laugh.

“And then I said I wanted to make this image with the packets,” Reznek continues, “and then we had this thing that we’re going to move a machete. We fought for these images and I think they’re quite brave in a way.”

“They are brave,” affirms Yisa.

Yisa and Reznek are sitting on black chairs on the Magnet Theatre’s stage. Reznek speaks with her hands. Yisa opens her eyes wide when she becomes excited and occasionally folds her legs up on the chair.

“I will never ever forget when we were in Cameroon. Whenever the machetes came everyone …” — she searches for words as she becomes increasingly animated — “I mean … this one performance we had little kids, all of them put up their hands and started going like this: ‘No no, no!’”

Yisa raises her hand into the air, her finger pointing upwards. She leans forward, eyes wide. “It meant something to them. It was a language they understood. We didn’t understand what it meant to them. They knew. All of them knew what a machete represented.”

Even between Yisa and Reznek, meaning is not static. Yisa speaks about one of her favourite scenes. “Right at the beginning of the play, when the sisters are playing, there’s a bird that comes, which for me represents innocence. It represents home. It represents language. But when we’re travelling we lose the bird. We pick it up much later when the mother brings in the shoes, because the bird was always kept in the shoes.”

Reznek asks: “So you think the mother puts the bird in the shoe?”

They look at each other and then break into laughter.

Reznek and Yisa recount a performance they did at the Baxter Theatre, where they had invited refugee women and their children from a centre they had visited while doing their research.

“That was quite tender and hard to do,” recalls Reznek.

“It was scary,” echoes Yisa. “I was too scared to even ask them what they thought. But it was beautiful because there were things that they knew so well. They would act it back to us after the show as if to say, ‘We know this so well’. For instance, learning how to speak English. There’s a whole scene in the show where we say, ‘This is my nose, this is my ear’, they laughed and they laughed because they know …”

I ask Yisa what the most striking thing she’s learned while performing the play. “Travelling [with the play] is scary, because you’ll never fully understand the people,” she says. “You’ll never fully understand the audience and what they’re used to.”

The play has resonated with audiences the world over, even if the meaning shifts depending on the context. After 12 years Every Year, Every Day I Am Walking remains relevant. The power does not lie in a harrowing account of displacement and movement, but rather in the evocation of memory and the centralising of our human connections. And we remember what it feels like to begin a journey and the uncertainty that brings, as we move towards a destination that may or may not be welcoming.

Every Year, Every Day I Am Walking will run from November 6 to 10 at the Magnet Theatre in Observatory, Cape Town

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