Sicily’s theatre scene shines spotlight on refugee tragedies

Directors, actors and migrants raise awareness and empathy on Italian island that has witnessed several boat disasters.

Zappalà Dance Company
A scene from the Odyssey dance show by the Zappala Dance Company [Courtesy of Antonio Caia]

Sicily, Italy – On a serene night in February, Alessio Di Modica’s deep voice filled the auditorium of Catania’s Piccolo Teatro, while the audience sat in darkness.

For Bitter Sea, a solidarity event for the many migrants denied landing at Italian ports, Di Modica was asked to perform a Sicilian cunto, a theatrical form of oral storytelling from the local fisherman tradition.

“Sicily has always been an island where the smell of orange trees mixes with that of the sea,” Di Modica said on stage. “We are attached to the sea and everything connected to it, in good and bad times.”

Increasingly in Sicily, locals and migrants are using the stage to portray the tragedy of refugee deaths on the Mediterranean, in an attempt to fight misinformation.

“Unfortunately many, despite living on a longtime migration hotspot, have always been distant – either emotionally or geographically – from ports and arrival points, and have no idea what it actually means to see such scenes. The artistic process helps figure that out, through its non-conventional, yet empath, approach,” said Davide Enia, a theatre director who has been telling stories of migrant landings on stage in Sicily for the past 15 years.

Zappalà Dance Company
Emanuela Pistone founded a company that offers migrants acting opportunities, and says the process encourages them to realise that ‘new beginnings are possible’ from tragedy [Stefania D’Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

Enia spent years in Lampedusa collecting accounts of humanitarian workers, fishermen, migrant survivors and people who took care of burying unnamed bodies.

“In my plays, I never use the word migrant. I was inspired by the citizens of Lampedusa, who call them simply people. Because that’s who they are, and what we are forgetting,” Enia said.

“Before migration became a media phenomenon, Lampedusa was already welcoming hundreds of people crossing the sea every year, but no one would talk about it. It was normal, and still should be.”

In Catania, Sicily’s second city, Roberto Zappala prepares for the summer reruns of his two most successful conceptual dance shows, Odyssey and Shipwreck with Spectator. 

“I’d never believe these shows would still be relevant 10 years after their debut,” Zappala said. “This should make us think how things haven’t changed, but also that migration has always been the norm here, not a sudden emergency.” 

Through simple body movements, his shows try to explain the psychological implications of sea crossing and the dangers of forced migration.

In one scene, two characters sit on a boat and experience common feelings of hope and fear to eventually cannibalism.

“Theatre is an authentic education tool that encourages introspection and criticism. It’s a duty for us artists to talk about current events in a simple, yet poetic, manner, to support those processes.”

Scenario Pubblico, the theatre where Zappala’s dance company performs, has become a safe outlet for migrants over the past five years. Unaccompanied minors come for workshops, internships and, eventually, job opportunities. 

“I’m now a technical assistant, and I help keeping the spaces clean and in order. Sifting through the archives, I watched recordings of past shows, and they somehow reminded me of my journey,” said 19-year old Maka Dndanfoko, from Mali, who landed in Sicily in 2017.

He spent seven months in Libya waiting to embark on a dinghy to Sicily. 

“I like working here, to have the chance to start a brand new life.”

Six migrants die on way to Sicily
Italian police stand next to bodies of refugees at the beach in Plaia, near Catania, on the island of Sicily, Italy, August 10, 2013 [File: EPA]

While refugees and migrants work behind the scenes, they rarely appear on stage.

“In my work, for instance, I only use white actors because the Western world is responsible for what’s happening in the Mediterranean,” said Lina Prosa, a Palermo-based playwright. “I think seeing Italian actors on stage paradoxically helps the audience identify more with the migrants, because they realise it’s something that could happen to us too, if we weren’t living on the right side of the sea.”

However, following two major shipwrecks that took place in Lampedusa and Catania in 2013, Emanuela Pistone felt the need to offer her help. 

As a director involved in integration projects, she founded the Liquid Company, a theatre troupe that uses the stage as a therapeutic space – some asylum-seekers are slowly becoming professional actors.

“We started this as a hobby to get the local community involved through non-formal learning. But as the years passed, they became able to transfer their experiences and emotions onto the public easily,” Pistone says. “When we received national funds to sustain our shows, I was able to pay them. The first thing they told me was, ‘Are you crazy? You give us money to have fun?’.

“It encourages them to realise that, also from tragedies, new beginnings are possible.”

Mithat Munir Ghitas, an Egyptian survivor of the August 10, 2013, shipwreck in Catania and now a Liquid actor – alongside his main job as a waiter – believes acting can be healing and said he enjoys the communication with locals. 

“I’m happy that Sicilians are lending an ear to listen to what we have to say. The increasing audience is a confirmation of that, despite the harsh times [in Italian politics],” said Ghitas.

Stefania Di Pietro, Ghitas’s co-star, said the experience has allowed her to learn more about what she calls journeys of hope. 

Zappalà Dance Company
A scene from the show ‘Lampedusa Way’ by Lina Prosa [Courtesy of Leda Terrana]

“I used to be an audience member when they started playing in 2013. Something inside me broke when I began seeing people on TV dying during their journeys, while as a European citizen I’m allowed to travel safely anywhere just with my ID. So I decided to pass from observer to active player,” she said.

As Zappala directs a rehearsal, he says the current political climate in Italy will make his work more necessary.

Matteo Salvini, far-right interior minister and deputy prime minister, has whipped up anti-migrant hatred, rallying against them and leading efforts to stop the undocumented arriving in Italy.

“I don’t want to change facts or policy-making through dance shows, because that would be utopian. But it’s possible to build resistance and help civilians challenge their stereotypical views through our work,” said Zappala. “If we go back to theatre as a tool for education and social criticism, then even a small drop like our shows in Sicily could help shake the status quo.”

Zappalà Dance Company
‘Lampedusa Beach’ by Lina Prosa follows a woman’s attempt to stay alive after a refugee boat sinks [Courtesy of Leda Terrana]
Source: Al Jazeera