Did You Come By Boat?

Challenging our attitudes towards race and immigration

Did You Come By Boat? is a new play co-written by Patricia Byrne of Sole Purpose Productions and Elly Omondi Odhiambo, the former chair of the African Caribbean Association of Foyle.

The three characters in the play – Maoliosa from Derry (played by Gemma Walker) and Akinyi and Okech from Kenya (Abby Oliviera and Shuggar Andela) – are friends, but a series of events provokes them to reveal their secret attitudes and assumptions about each other.

Akinyi speaks of constant verbal abuse at her work in a care home, where one elderly resident is especially unpleasant; she has a postgraduate business qualification and wants a more challenging job. Maoliosa is sympathetic, but her understanding of Africa is limited and drawn from tabloid stories of dictators, famines, and immigrants abusing social welfare.

Okech also has a journey to make: he wants to employ only immigrants in his shops because he feels they have few opportunities elsewhere, but through his dialogue with Maoliosa he begins to reflect upon his decision. She argues that local people have also suffered during the decades of the Troubles, and that they, too, have a right to compete for good jobs. Gradually, her friendship with Akinyi and Okech changes her attitudes to race and immigration, as she finds out more about their lives.

By discussing the characters’ shared experiences of civil violence, emigration, unemployment and discrimination Boyle and Odhiambo encourage the audience to reconsider their attitudes to migrant workers and refugees, to recognize a shared humanity. In a country where incidents of violence against ethnic minorities are not exactly few and far between, such a message is drastically needed.

In a recurring theme song, songwriter Rachel Naylor celebrates that shared experience, and argues that we are all on the ‘one same boat’. While this is clearly not the case – both in the play and in the world – the song perhaps invites audience discussion and reflection on the stark differences between the characters’ situations, while also seeking points of comparison.

The song is sung during the scene changes, and at points in the performance the three actors sing directly to the audience, dancing as they sing. This playfulness could perhaps have been developed further, to avoid an overt didacticism in the work.

Sole Purpose Productions have a history of using theatre to explore social and political issues: recent productions have investigated domestic violence and the abuse of elderly people. The company is skilled in presenting issues in a way that engages the audience and raises debate, and Did You Come By Boat? attempts to present a range of attitudes. Maoliosa, for example, argues strongly that Okech should consider employing local people, but mispronounces both Kenyan names, and blithely assumes that European cultural values are self-evidently superior.

This strength is also the play's weakness, however, in that the show provides the audience with an excess of information. Each of the characters has a distinct back story; there is an attempt to rebut popular misconceptions about immigration, and the racism represented on stage ranges from Maoliosa’s well-intentioned ignorance through verbal abuse to the terrorism of the thugs who attack Okech. But in such a short performance, it might have been more effective to focus on one aspect of the issue and allow further information to emerge in a post-show dialogue.

Unfortunately this premiere performance at the Playhouse is not followed by a discussion. For many in the audience much of the information in the play is likely to be unfamiliar, and is at odds with the impression of immigrants lavishly provided for at the tax-payers expense as suggested in the media and at times by the government. The ten performances in community venues across Derry that follow would presumably provide an opportunity for people to discuss what they have seen on the stage and their responses to it.

Lisa Fitzgerald