Mafwa Theatre: Using theatre to bring diverse communities together in Leeds this Refugee Week

A Lincoln Green theatre group is using creativity to bring communities together, by using art to celebrate diversity in Leeds.

Friday, 11th June 2021, 4:45 am
Updated Friday, 11th June 2021, 6:14 am
A movement workshop at the Mafwa Theatre, which is a all-women theatre group working with refugees, asylum seekers and the local community. Photo: Tom Arber

Mafwa Theatre was founded in 2018 by co-artistic directors Keziah Berelson and Tamsin Cook, who met while studying at the University of Leeds

Combining Keziah’s work in refugee support organisations and Tamsin’s theatre background, the pair decided to set up a theatre group for refugees and asylum seekers in the city.

Tamsin, 29, said: “We both knew that they wanted to work with sanctuary seekers.

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“We want to welcome people to the city, whatever their journey or story may be.

“We approached the Leeds Refugee Forum, who are a fantastic charity that work with asylum seekers and refugees, and they were needing some more provision for women in the city so it was perfect timing.

“We have been working with women who are from all over the world, all different ages, since then and in 2019, we opened the group up to women in the area.

“We wanted to bring together people from all different cultures because the women coming to the group were interested in developing language skills, meeting people and feeling part of their local community.“

Tamsin Cook, the co-artistic director who founded Mafwa Theatre with Keziah Berelson

Since starting Mafwa, based in the Leeds Refugee Forum in the One Community Centre, the group have put on a number of performances.

In 2018, they produced a performance at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds, while in 2019 they toured an installation and short performance about journeys at places such as the Leeds City Museum, Migration Matters festival in Sheffield and the Journeys Festival in Leicester.

Last year, the women were supposed to perform a show about cooking, food and eating together but it was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

Instead, the group created a cookbook, made entirely of member's recipes, poems and stories and also hosted a podcast series called 'In Our Hands', as well as starring in a short film ‘A Picnic Together’ directed by Hope Strickland.

It is this sense of togetherness that has been key for the members of Mafwa, as it offers a safe space to find friendship and also build confidence in a new environment.

Tamsin said: “A lot of women who come to the group say it really positively impacts their confidence.

“It's a safe space to experiment and to fail. It’s a place where you can practice language in a scene, for example, something that you that you might not have been able to say in a real world setting

“I think that's one of the things that people really appreciate and we create a really fun environment to play with these things.

“By using creativity as a tool we are kind of inviting people to experience something new and something that might be a bit scary or a bit strange, but because they're all doing it, it creates that confidence.”

She added: “The key thing about Mafwa is that it has enabled friendships to form with people who are completely different to themselves.

“One of the oldest and the youngest members of the group have formed a beautiful friendship even though one is 24 and Leeds born and bred, and the other is 70 and from a completely different background.

“They live near each other so they walk each other to and from and from town, show each other around and are always popping by to have a chat with each other.

“There's quite a few different friendships that have blossomed in what otherwise might be quite an unlikely community within the city.

“There's definitely a sisterhood about it. I think the fact that we are an all female group really helps with that.“

As part of Refugee Week, which runs from June 14 to June 21, Mafwa and its Kuluhenna Drama group, have created an interactive art installation called Sit With Us.

For Sit With Us, held in East Street Art's Convention House, the women worked with local artists to create the set design and performances to be delivered in the space.

Sit with Us will feature printed textiles, poems, soundscapes, filmed monologues and invitations to go on guided ‘soundwalks’.

Much of the art is inspired by online sessions hosted by the theatre during lockdown, which have been developed with local artists and broadcasters such as Ora Ataguba at Sable Radio.

Tamsin said: “We've seen from our evaluations that across the board, women's mental health has deteriorated over lockdown.

“We hope that we'll come back by creating the space where their contributions are really valued, and we're creating something beautiful.

“During our online sessions [in lockdown] we started to think about home, and what home means to us, and comfort, and that being comfortable mean to us and how we find comfort in some quite scary times.

“That was one of the kind of starting points we really wanted to share the work that had been created in the last six months, and also provide the women with further opportunities are in from the weekly group was further opportunities to do in person workshops in smaller scale

“We are creating space, we're inviting people to come and feel comfortable and to come and reflect on their feelings of comfort and homeliness."

Sit With Us will be in Convention House from June 14 to 21.

Mafwa will be hosting an online premiere in collaboration with Migration Matters and Wharf Chambers on June 14.

The theatre is always looking for new members, who can sign up on the website: www.mafwatheatre.co.uk