Theatre Review: “Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner” Sheds Light On Humanitarian Aid Industry

The play gives us a peek into the ugly politics inside global organisations that try to do good

Photo: Checkpoint Theatre / Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures

(This article contains SPOILERS for Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner.)

The world is facing its fastest growing refugee crisis right now, but that’s all happening far away from us, right? Not quite. Many of today’s refugees fled the Middle East and are seeking safety in Europe, but Singapore has a close neighbour that is also displacing more than a million people. The violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar since 2017 has created one of the world’s most alarming refugee crisis. And countries are looking at Singapore to respond.

More than just the government, the first responders that provide aid are the NGOs and humanitarian workers. Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner, a new play by acclaimed local theatre company Checkpoint Theatre, zooms in on the inner workings of a refugee camp from the perspective of the humanitarian organisations and workers. Our group of protagonists are six humanitarian workers, the ones on-site, enduring the dangers of staying at the camp in order to ensure that the displaced persons receive good welfare: proper access to sanitation, healthcare and nutrition, and protection from abuse from others at the camp. Caring for the numerous needs of 60,000 displaced persons at their camp, with more arriving regularly, the characters struggle against the bureaucratic regulations that impede access to essential supplies.

In not assigning names – the characters work for a fictional organisation called the “OEA,” which operates the camp located in the “host country” – the play suggests that the extreme stress and corruption can happen in a refugee camp anywhere, or everywhere.

Photo: Checkpoint Theatre

To pen the play, Huzir Sulaiman not only read up a lot about the topic, but also spoke to many humanitarian workers about what they experienced in the aid industry. The depth of research and its personal angle really show in the play’s organic delivery of the tensions in a refugee camp. We learn the motivations that led a few of the characters to become humanitarian workers and go on “missions,” and the traumas they have since faced. We learn the intricate procedures of running a refugee camp through dialogue so fast, the opening few scenes are a little difficult to follow. Yet, having to catch up quickly is how the audience can experience but a small degree of the fast-paced, high-stakes energy of working at refugee camp. The facts and problems are not dumbed down for us audiences, and neither does the play soften the blow of the violence threatening everyone at the camp, not just the refugees but the humanitarian workers too.

Sound, composed and performed by local electronic duo .gif, plays a big part in creating the tensions and suspense. Director Claire Wong also makes interesting choices to incorporate lots of movement and dance, exaggerating the characters’ physicality to express their emotions. At many points of the play, the movements felt a bit too abstract and thus distracting, but as a whole, they added a unique flavour that complements the emotional intensity of the play.

Photo: Checkpoint Theatre

The play’s title comes from a proposed idea that the characters argue over, an idea that the displaced persons would serve dinner to Hollywood A-Lister Gwyneth Paltrow who is to visit the camp. This absurd publicity stunt reveals the power plays in the aid industry, while creating some laughs. (In spite of the heavy and intense mood of the play, it is also dotted with humour, and not only the satirical kind.)

The dinner never takes place, though. A surprise attack by rebels, resulting in one of the characters being kidnapped, forms the main action that the OEA needs to investigate. And linked to it is the main conflict: Sarah, who’s ironically in charge of protecting displaced women from sexual abuse, is raped by her colleague at the camp. She goes through the OEA to press charges against the man, but the organisation is more concerned about their reputation.

Photo: Checkpoint Theatre

We did not expect the focus to shift from the refugee crisis and activism to sexual assault, although to be fair, the issues were constantly weaved in together. The aid industry is a global one, and so is the staff of humanitarian workers an international one. The play gives a nuanced look at the messy power dynamics of having diverse nationalities, genders and ethnicities in an institution already rife with politics. We are invited to examine the human condition in the context of crisis, where cruelty emerges alongside compassion. How can we rise up against the invisible forces of institutional power? How can we care for the emotional and psychological well-being of the people who are putting themselves in dangerous situations to take care of others? The play leaves us with these questions that we cannot find answers to except in what we do for and to one another.

Watch the trailer of Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner:

Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner is a play by Checkpoint Theatre specially commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2019. The last performance of the play as part of SIFA is on 26 May, 3pm. Get your tickets to see it here. Don’t miss other highlights from SIFA 2019.