British playwright Abi Morgan has always sought to strike a connection between the political and the personal — and her influences come from the left. She reveres the thorny lack of compromise shown over the years by a radical filmmaker like Ken Loach, and she makes no apologies about injecting unabashed polemic into her own work. But she is also so good at her craft that producers were ready to entrust her with the screenplay for The Iron Lady, a portrait of a major political figure, Margaret Thatcher, that she and her family hated.
Morgan is, in brief, a writer worthy of attention, and Ottawa’s Third Wall Academy deserves our warmest thanks for introducing Fringe audiences to Fugee, a lacerating account of how the system is failing refugee children. In her 2008 script, Morgan was zeroing in on the British situation, but with its sense of emotional horror and hopelessness, the play’s implications occupy a wider canvas.
The central character, Kojo, is a child from the Ivory Coast, an innocent whose once idyllic existence was brutally changed forever on his 11th birthday. When he first meet him, he has seemingly made it to safety and a new life. But he has no English and no passport, and his age is in question. Even within the security of a children’s refugee centre, the system is about to start tearing him apart — be it through latent prejudice, outright hostility, or bureaucratic indifference. And we keep being pulled back to the play’s first horrific image — of Kojo fatally knifing another youth on the street. And we keep asking why that tragedy happened.
Abi Morgan was fuelled by anger when she wrote this play. But so, on occasion were playwrights like Bernard Shaw, John Osborne and Arnold Wesker during their own careers. With Fugee, she is always demanding that audiences examine the issues.
Still, Morgan needn’t have been quite so resolutely Brechtian, particularly she wants us to see through her own prism. We don’t really need the constant reminders that we’re seeing young actors performing a play. We can still take in its scalding message without the Fourth Wall being knocked down.
However, Morgan also conceived this play as a vehicle four for young performers with both the ability and the smarts to inhabit the turbulent lives depicted here. As such, Fugee is an outstanding training gift for anyone prepared to take advantage of it.
James Richardson’s edgy, driven production offers a textbook example of what ensemble acting should be all about. There are moments of unnecessary stridency: the business of the screaming girl is over the top — but any director would be challenged here by what seems clearly to be a playwright’s directive. But in general, this is a beautifully integrated presentation, with cast members ably adjusting to the demands of multiple roles.
Patrick Bugby, clearly a gifted young actor, offers a multi-faceted portrayal of Kojo — helpless and uncomprehending but still pathetically hopeful in the present, weighted down with sadness when the script, in one of its frequent flashbacks, returns us to the murder of his parents and his terrifying induction as a child soldier. Kojo is being forced through the worst kind of arc, from an initial brave but flickering resilience to a final, terrible defeat. It’s a sterling performance, and one that gets solid support from fellow cast members, especially Helen Thai as another refugee child who tries to look out for him.
(Fugee continues at Academic Hall to June 25)