The Removal Men: Immigration Detention, Activism and Art

CN: sexual violence, Immigration detention.
I have just seen a play called the Removal Men written by M. J. Harding and directed by Jay Miller. The play is centred on the lives of immigration detention guards and their feelings about their work and the people they detain. I arrived at the play sceptical: I was interested in it as a way of bringing the detention to the consideration of new audiences but I felt uncomfortable about how it was marketed as a ‘love story’ between a guard and a woman in detention. I had the following questions circling in my mind:
  • What is the range of acceptable, interesting or politically useful artistic responses to the violence of Yarl’s Wood?
  • What is the difference between participating in and normalising the racism and sexism of immigration control and helpfully re-presenting the racism and sexism of detention for the examination of new audiences?
For anti-detention activists, the importance of unambiguous condemnation of detention and deportation, of sexual conduct between border guards and people held in detention is important. Because of the political and social exclusion faced by those in detention, it is important that detainee voices and experience are represented and shared as much as possible. And plays that obfuscate, confuse and revel in the controversy of detention serve to normalise detention and extract financial and social capital for the artists without challenging audiences into political action against their existence.
For the artist, developing a play that embodies what is repulsive and oppressive about detention could be a laudable aim. The play reflects back at the audience a vision of detention and of themselves as caught up in logics that enable oppressive violence of detention to occur. Because guards are racist, sexist and homophobic, the characters can say racist and homophobic jokes. Because detention excludes people, is racist and violent, it is legitimate and perhaps politically useful to embody these by for example, failing to depict the detained woman who is in the relationship with the main character.
It is interesting that the artists, I think rightly, decide not to justify the play on the basis of liberal free expression to explore any such story about detention. Instead, their argument justifies the ambivalent depiction of detention on the basis of its instrumental effect that to prompt questioning and further inquiry for the audience about detention. Yet for this to be successful it must be the case that the elements that make the play repulsive and offensive are those things that make detention repulsive and offensive. It would be a failure if the play was repulsive and offensive in ways that obscure the ways that detention is. If this were the case, one couldn’t argue that the audience was being asked to interrogate their relationship to the oppressive institution reflected back at them.
The play explicitly interrogates a number of themes. Through the play’s central characters, Mo and George, the play explores white masculinity that the detention centres themselves embody: insecure in their identity and place in the world, fragile and prone to lashing violently out, and yet placed in positions of power over others. By channelling ‘The Office’ style humour and repeated references to ’empathy workshops’ for the guards, the play explores the ways care, love and empathy are mobilised to facilitate the operation of imprisonment and deportation in ways that empty these words of meaning. The soporific music and dream-like sequences instil a sense that the people working in detention have to remove themselves emotionally from their jobs and, perhaps, leaves the audience examining their own detachment from, and therefore complicity in, detention.
The plot is driven Mo’s ‘relationship’ with a character named Didi who is never present on stage. When Mo is tasked with letting Didi know she is about to be removed, he tries to prevent her removal by cutting her with a broken mug and raping her resulting in Didi becoming pregnant. These are the clearest words to describe what happened, but the play is less than clear about what actually happens. How Didi responded to Mo’s apparent wish to disrupt her removal is unclear because it happens just off stage. Mo thinks she actively consented, the detention centre manager is disgusted at what Mo has done and there is a dreamy music sequence in which the actor playing the detention centre manager seems to take on the voice of Didi persuading him not to try to ‘help her’. It is left ambiguous about what actually happened.
The play was uncomfortable and intentionally so. The line between indulging in the white fetishisation and sexualisation of the absent black women in custody and representing it to a new audience to critique is difficult to discern. And without a way for audiences to digest and get direction, the play seemed to revel in this indistinction and nihilism. While I had attended an aftershow discussion that helped the audience digest the political content of the play – this discussion was an exception and was only put on in response to the open letter by activists.
Art does not need to be didactic and it can usefully explore any of the stories that intersect with detention. I found much of the play’s use of ambiguity quite effective. It was necessary to attempt to think about the social conditions that enable people to work in places of detention. And it is necessary to explore what I took to be the play’s key thesis: that one of the reasons why detention is so concerning is the destruction it does to fundamental human emotions and instincts.
Yet, on the subject of sexual assault of women in immigration detention, I would question whether the same argument can be made. Here, the fact that there is sexual assault in detention is clear – one only has to listen to the people in detention, former detainees and activists that have worked hard to gain recognition of abuse. The ambiguity only results from the exclusion from political participation of people in detention and the culture of disbelief that surrounds both sexual assault and people who make immigration claims. The play, therefore, fails to achieve what the artist wants: represent detention for the inspection of new audiences. Instead, the play’s inability to clearly re-present these stories participates in the damaging cultural trope that maintains ambiguity around sexual assault. On this subject, the maintenance of ambiguity and the mirroring of exclusion of voice fails to support the people who have suffered in Yarl’s Wood and who have provided the subject matter for the play.
It is also unclear that the inclusion/exclusion of Didi a character who was so central to the plot but never represented as a character in the play by an actor aids in re-presenting to the audience problems of detention. I was quite sympathetic to the artists’ argument that by representing people in detention through one person in detention and by refusing to add to the depictions of suffering black bodies was a way to a avoid problematic politics of different kinds. However, I was less sympathetic toward arguments that the play was again mirroring the realities of detention since the absence of voice is difficult to feel without it being confronted directly.
The absence of Didi’s character was made more problematic by the ambiguous presentation of sexual assault, discussed above, and the way the marketing revolved around the question of whether a ‘love story’ could exist in detention. In the pos- show discussion, no responsibility was taken by the writer or director for the marketing of the play. But the framing of the play is an important resource through which an audience will approach the play and it is indicative of how the play understands itself. The fact is we cannot ask whether ‘love’ can exist in detention without a depiction of the agency of the woman in detention because a love story is not an emotion felt by a white man but suggests the collaboration and consent of others. This focus on the emotions of Mo his ‘love’, the indulgence of his white guilt in the last half an hour of the play, I feel took us further and further away from a confrontation with detention and its problems.
In all, reproducing the repulsive reality of detention is a useful pursuit. However, it is important to recognise the fine but definite lines between re-presenting the violence of detention and reproducing the social conditions which enable the violence of detention to exist.
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