Mare Nostrum Theatre Project in Italy

By Jeff Biggers

BRINGING MIGRATION VOICES AND STORIES ON STAGE IN AN AGE OF CLIMATE CRISIS 

Every two seconds someone in the world is displaced from their home.

This line repeats in my mind, as if it’s a cue for an actor to enter the stage. But it comes from the latest report of the UN Refugee Agency, which counted nearly 80 million people forced from their homes in 2019, many due to climate and environmental crises. 

“They all have stories,” Amara Sacko tells us.

We’re sitting under a stand of pine trees, to the side of the Podernuovo villa in the Tuscany forests in central Italy. Our chairs are arranged in a circle, a dozen actors with scripts in hand, still stumbling over our first readings in this experimental theatre troupe. A dozen actors, along with a cadre of musicians, I should add, from over 10 countries – including Mali, Gambia, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, Brazil, Ghana, New Zealand, Italy, France, Ethiopia, the US, and Italian-raised citizens from Colombia, Sri Lanka, and India.  

Thanks to composer James Demby, an Italian musician and professor at the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini in Florence, we’ve been invited to rehearse during the summer in this historic villa and forest grounds, for the Mare Nostrum Theatre Project, our intercultural theatre initiative, prior to our performance at the Museo di Antropologia e Etnologia di Firenze. James has also brought in acclaimed Ghanian Ewe drum master Ruben Agbeli, along with a European classic orchestra. 

A former medical student from Mali, Amara has placed down the script of our play, Damnatio Memoriae, after we reached a scene about a boat journey of Africans departing from Libya, across the Mediterranean. Having fled his own country during violent political unrest, losing his sight in one eye from an attack, he quietly recounts his harrowing journey across the Sahel, into Algeria, and then the chaos of Libya, the point of departure of boats for nearby Sicily and the Italian coast.

“When you’re on the boat, you have nothing but your stories,” Amara continues in Italian, our lingua franca among the multi-lingual troupe. “You have no idea if you’re going to survive at sea. Many don’t. And we don’t even know who we lose, who they are, what their stories are. It’s another form of ‘damnatio memoriae.’” 

The title of our play, Damnatio Memoriae, juxtaposes the Ancient Roman edict that granted emperors the right to condemn someone’s presence or memory from public view or historical record – to literally remove someone’s existence and destroy any artifacts, including statues, coins, paintings, engravings – with current efforts to deny or forget the African and Arab histories and contributions in Italy during a period of increased migration.

As an American writer and playwright who has been based part of the year in Italy for decades, I have always been fascinated by this official Roman process of forgetting, and its ramifications today in Italy. I believe there is a presence in Roman ruins, especially among its African and Arab histories, which needs to be recovered and reconsidered. Through theatre, I believe we can begin the process of reconciliation with the victims of “damnatio memoriae,” especially those from African countries and the Middle East, as a symbolic first step in reversing historical denial.

That includes my own role as the playwright and director, and the roles of all actors in the theatre troupe, even before we take the stage. The intense training in a remote villa, the exchanges among meals, the long walks and drumming sessions – all of these have served as points of references for adding voices and stories in a new play. 

Damnatio Memoriae draws on years of research and dispatches in Italy, including the draft of a play I wrote on immigration in Bologna in 1989. It’s also based on interviews with recent immigrants, including those I met in Sicily, when 3,500 deaths at sea in 2014 marked the passage from Libya as the deadliest migrant crossing in the world.

Last week, 45 people from Mali, Chad, Senegal and Ghana died off the coast of Libya, when the engine exploded on their boat. 

After a tragic boat accident off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which resulted in 366 deaths in 2013, “Mare Nostrum” became the official name of Italy’s maritime policy of assisting refugees – who were labeled as “clandestines.”  We reclaimed the ancient Latin term, mare nostrum – our sea – as a way of reclaiming the stories lost at sea and in the process of historical conflicts. 

Returning to Bologna, I approached theatre director Guido Ferrarini, who founded Teatroaperto in 1974 in the tradition of the “Nuovo Teatro Popolare” movement, and shared our sense of urgency to pull back the curtain on the immigrant experience, often lost in the endless political debates, and provide a stage for immigrant voices from Ancient Rome to modern Italy.

“In the theatre,” Ferrarini told me, “we can touch on one of the most important, compelling and unavoidable issues of our times: the integration of peoples. This process is inescapable, and our role is to reintroduce in the theatre the challenges of immigration, or better, the migration of people on earth.”  

Damnatio Memoriae unfolded as our struggle to recover the past, and its presence in modern times. We open the curtains with an Italian troupe doing Shakespeare and his portrait of “Aaron the Moor,” in his outrageously bloody play about Ancient Rome, Titus Andronicus. Borrowing a time-bend device from Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello, we bring to stage a troupe of immigrant actors in search of a stage, attired in Ancient Roman costumes, led by the historical Septimius Severus, a Libya-born Ancient Roman emperor who died in present-day York, England, and whose son, the eventual Emperor Caracalla, enacted the historic Antonine Constitution, which granted citizenship to all free men in the Roman Empire – a right to native-born citizenship that no longer exists. 

In our troupe, Caracalla and Geta, the real life sibling rivals for the throne, are played by Loua Hervé from Guinea and Don Lukasz Senghore from Gambia. 

From the clash of two theatre troupes, one Italian and one composed of immigrants, a new play comes into view, weaving together the stories of the actors and their ancient and modern conflicts over migration, birthright, citizenship, family conflict, fatherhood and motherhood, redemption – and even love.

Amara, playing the role of Emperor Severus, is part of bringing these new stories and voices to the stage, in his own way.

“It’s one thing to watch films or reportages on migrations, including problems of drought and environmental crises,” says Guy Lydster, a celebrated sculptor in Italy and a New Zealand-born actor who trained in the theatre in California. “But when you hear these stories from the very people who have experienced them, and incorporate them into characters, it places a new sense of urgency and meaning on the stage.” 

In Damnatio Memoriae, Lydster plays the role of the director of the Titus Andronicus Italian theatre troupe, who is confronted by the intrusion of immigrant actors demanding the stage for their side of the ancient story.

At first offended by their unprofessional arrival on his stage, the veteran director must wrestle with his own conflicts over who has the right to tell their story on stage, and what role the theatre plays in giving life to certain voices. Or, whether the stage can provide a safe, healing and creative space, as well as a historical and narrative context, for immigrant stories to be voiced and heard and expressed in more authentic and compelling ways.

Countries like Mali, among others in the central Sahel, are facing mega droughts, floods, and other environmental crises from climate change that have transformed the region’s agro-pastoral systems and led to conflicts over natural resources and land. In actor Luciana Milani’s native Amazon rainforest in Brazil, fires have increased by over 80% last year, destroying one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks in staving off cataclysmic climate chaos. 

The roles of the actors on stage also reflect the roles of our own counties in climate change: the average American or Brit, for example, emits more CO2 in two weeks than someone from west or central Africa over the entire year.

Standing on the shores of Sicily years ago, the jagged remains of a shattered boat at my feet, I listened to an Italian villager describe the voyage of migranti across the Mediterranean. The survivors of the boat crash, which had been launched from Libya, included Somalis, Nigerians, Eritreans, and Syrians, among others. Framing the issue as part of a cycle of migration, on an island whose ruins and current ways betray millennia of migration realities, the Sicilian fisherman understood better than anyone what the UN Refugee Agency recently termed a “paradigm change” in unprecedented levels of forced displacement. 

As we see in Damnatio Memoriae, today’s immigrants in Italy continue to walk along the ancient road of Via Appia in Rome, where a mysterious Septizodium monument constructed by Severus in Ancient Rome once welcomed their arrival from Africa.

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi, the Ancient Romans declared: From Africa always something new.

That includes the theatre and our stories on stage.

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Jeff Biggers is the founder of the Climate Narrative Project, and author of numerous books, most recently Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition. More on his play, Damnatio Memoriae, can be found here

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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