Stories define lives. Humorous vignettes, accounts of accomplishments, chronicles of courage, tales of failure. These windows into notable experiences form the perceptions that people have of themselves and the perceptions that others have of them. Sometimes stories are not fully revealed. Sometimes they change over time. Sometimes the teller believes the revisions, forcing reality to the rear. Overwhelmingly, these projections of self are harmless, even if somewhat delusional. Only rarely do they determine the direction of one’s life.
In “The Claim,” Serge hails from Congo. Now in the U.K., he seeks asylum. In this farcical three-hander, the immigrant is interrogated by two British bureaucrats – a male who we’ll call A, and a female, who we’ll call B. The pair are intermittently distracted and consume valuable time with their own relationship sideshow while determining the fate of their charge. The absurdity of the situations resonates with Americans as our country confronts unprecedented waves of refugees on our southern border as well as asylum seekers from Afghanistan as a result of our military departure from that country.
The play opens somewhat confusingly with exchanges and crosstalk between Serge and A that don’t seem to go anywhere. Then, when B arrives, Serge’s competent communicating ability turns heavily accented with limited vocabulary. When the light comes on, you realize that he is speaking his native tongue with A, and in his halting English with B.
The interviewers seek to hear Serge’s story to determine his eligibility to stay in the U.K. But how can one retell true stories that brought shame or pain? Is it more important for Serge to tell the whole truth; or to share a partial truth that may be easier to digest; or to craft a hopefully unverifiable fantasy that is the kind of narrative that will win support? Will the interviewers realize that they, too, embellish stories, or, as is common, will they set a different standard for those wishing admission to their club?
The incompetence of the interviewers overwhelms their generally good intentions. Their misunderstanding of a single incident and the translations from A to B takes them down a Kafkaesque rabbit hole leading to a succession of wrong conclusions that could steal Serge’s agency. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to conclude how often this must tragically occur in the real world.
Although the bureaucrats are mostly earnest and trying to be helpful, the baggage that they carry is also in evidence. No matter how many times the immigrant asks to be called Serge, B insists on using his Congolese name, Sese, a testament to the British colonial mentality of disrespecting native people’s wishes. The playwright excoriates the system of dealing with refugees and pointedly criticizes the bureaucracy’s unaccountability and anonymity by not providing names for the interviewers.
The acting of all three performers is superb. In Kenny Scott’s dominating and charismatic portrayal of Serge, he radiates effusiveness when optimistic but can quickly turn conflictual when he realizes that he is misunderstood. Soren Santos excels in his blithe cheerfulness as A. He seems to live in another world almost oblivious to the facts that surround him. Either that, or he’s on some interesting drug. Radhika Rao effectively grounds B with a Type A personality – rule-driven, focused, and determined to accomplish her task.
“The Claim” explores only a small portion of the demeaning and frightening experiences that refugees endure. In doing so, it provokes and entertains. It is full of word plays and misunderstandings by all, though some of the situations and humor seem a bit extraneous. Theatergoers who enjoy absurdism should find this very much to their liking.
“The Claim” is written by Tim Cowbury, produced by Shotgun Players, and is performed live at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, CA through October 30, 2021 and on live-stream October 21 and 28.
Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association