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Theatre Topics 12.2 (2002) 99-118
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The Politics of Participation:
Un Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres Sur Les Chemins De L'Exil
Susan C. Haedicke
On a cold and rainy day in February 1999, an actor greeted me at the door when I arrived at the large "circus tent," a warehouse-like structure that became the performance space for "Un Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres Sur Les Chemins de l'Exil" (A Voyage Unlike Any Other on the Road to Exile) outside the Paul Delcouvrier Pavilion in Parc de la Villette (an arts complex) in Paris. I was ushered into a small area, about ten by twelve feet, surrounded by black drapes. Approximately twenty people already occupied the space, and the one available bench was taken. We waited, patiently and quietly at first, but after about five minutes in this crowded and uncomfortable makeshift room, we began to grumble. We were promptly told to be quiet and wait our turn. Finally, we were led into a large and brightly lighted room, created by temporary walls about ten feet high, which gave the impression of a run-down bureaucratic office. In one corner, a man in uniform was seated on a tall stool behind a high counter. As I approached him, he ordered, "Turn around and choose. Then come to me—not before." On the opposite wall were twelve seven-foot tall placards, each with a life-size picture and a short biography of a refugee ranging in age from twelve to sixty-five. They came from Algeria, Bosnia, China, Colombia, Iraq, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sri-Lanka, Turkey, or Zaire and sought asylum in the European Union. We, the spectators, had to shed our own names, nationalities, and privilege and wear the identity of one of these refugees. We would "live for an hour in the skin of a refugee."1
I, Susan, chose to become Wanmin, an eighteen-year-old girl from China whose family had not been able to support her for years. In fact, soon after her brother was born, she was "exiled" from her parental home although she was still a child. She was apprenticed to a dressmaker in another city and never saw her parents again. Now, she worked in a clothing factory and was barely able to make ends meet. I, Wanmin, stepped up to the very high counter. "Name." "Wanmin." The bureaucrat handed me my passport and summarily dismissed me by gesturing in the direction of a dark corridor. He had never really looked at me.
I headed toward the hallway created by a black carpet and black curtains. Curtains or temporary walls formed all of the many spaces I would visit on my [End Page 99] journey: the entire warehouse-like structure had been transformed into a veritable maze of narrow hallways, small and smoky bureaucratic offices, streets and shops of an unnamed town, a prison—places a refugee would have to negotiate on the road to exile. Soon I reached another desk where the official gave me a racial marking—a yellow dot on my forehead. Each refugee received a dot of a different color to indicate his/her country of origin, and I soon learned that my yellow dot, marking me as Chinese, would determine how the people I would meet on my journey would see me. As I continued along the corridor, I realized that I had begun my "voyage pas comme les autres" as a refugee attempting to enter European Union illegally.
Setting Off on the Voyage
To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations-sponsored Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), CIRE (Coordination et Initiatives pour Réfugiés et Etrangers), a Belgian organization devoted to aiding immigrants, developed the idea for an educational theatrical event, Un Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres Sur Les Chemins De L'Exil. It would be an "interactive exposition" aimed at creating a "moment of emotion which opens the doors of a misunderstood universe . . . and gives the keys to a better understanding...