Chills run down my spine as I hear the menacing border ask ‘are you in the UK illegally?’ and answers itself by shouting ‘GO HOME or face arrest!’ in the performance of ‘Moving Responses’ by students from Westwood Academy in Coventry in December 2018. I have read and heard this phrase what seems like hundreds of times since the ‘Go Home vans’ campaign by the Home Office in the summer of 2013, but nothing had quite provoked such an emotional reaction in me. I felt afraid. “The border” kept appearing throughout the performance as it would aggressively sort people into the desirable ones that could stay and the undesirable ones that had to leave.
When the border was not sorting, it was making sure everyone knew it was always watching as characters went about their daily lives, telling us their stories and opinions, as if waiting they would slip up. The border was constantly present and all-powerful yet almost invisible. In the final scene tables turned when the border was the one getting pushed and shoved by “the target”, “the concerned”, “the activist” and “the heard” as the performers asked the audience ‘Where should the border be?’, ‘What do you think?’ and ‘Where do we go from here?’
This performance was the culmination of a 10 week theatre and education programme on government communication on immigration enforcement. The questions at the end in particular demonstrate the students’ own learning and engagement with the topic throughout the course of the project. The project explored many questions including: What were the ‘Go Home’ vans? Why did they drive around six London boroughs? What was their purpose? Did it achieve it? What impact did they have on local communities? On immigrants? On those concerned about immigration? What is a border? And what does it mean to go home anyway?
These were just some of the questions we explored in our recent project Immigration Otherwise. Last year actREAL teamed up with researchers Dr Yasmin Gunaratnam (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Dr Hannah Jones (Warwick University) to bring their research and these discussions into the classroom through a bespoke script written by actREAL’s Ida Persson based on their research project Mapping Immigration Controversy.
I was clearly not the only person who had been provoked into an emotional response and a questioning thought process. The question and answer session that followed the performance showed just how many moving responses there were – not just the ones reflected in the play itself but also those provoked by the play. Opinions and perspectives varied. Most people had never really thought about immigration enforcement and the impact it might have on people who are the target of it. Everyone acknowledged how little they knew about this topic. Students in particular learned that the news does not tell you all angles to a story and are now approaching it with a more critical eye. Some people in the audience were concerned about immigration, concerned about ‘illegal’ immigration and what it means. Others were concerned about the negative image portrayed about immigrants in the media and turning this around through more positive messages, action and experiences.
Despite different opinions, everyone came together in an open and engaged dialogue between students, researchers and the audience. Prompted by the students’ theatrical performance to bring empathy into the conversation, perspectives were aired and listened to in a respectful manner. Something that can be rare given the polarised topic of immigration. What prevailed was a mutual investment in dialogue and hearing young people’s voices. It felt we were all part of and contributing to a powerful moment. As one audience member said: “All of you together and individually are really powerful… Never underestimate the power that you have as young people.”
One of the students promptly took up this invitation and also reminded us of our responsibility. She asked everyone in the room to tell someone else about what we learned tonight, tell them what you felt and have a conversation. Good advice I think and something we aim to do in every one of our projects. So let’s go and have conversations!
The project was funded by the University of Warwick and ESRC (grant reference ES/M500434/1).
By: Vanessa Hughes