‘Gum,’ not ‘gun’: Asylum seeker subjected to absurd interrogation in Shotgun Players’ ‘The Claim’

Language barriers, indifference and ignorance by civil servants lead a Congolese refugee’s interview for asylum to disastrous results.

The title of Shotgun Players’ The Claim is an homage to Kafka’s The Trial. “The experience of those who find themselves claiming asylum [in the United Kingdom] was described to me as the living embodiment of that novel,” playwright Tim Cowbury says. Credit: Benjamin Krantz

In this bold, sometimes heartbreaking and occasionally humorous 80-minute play from the United Kingdom, we follow the ordeal of Serge (Kenny Watkins), a refugee seeking asylum from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who becomes a victim once again at the hands of two British bureaucrats. Problems involving language barriers, pre-conceived notions, indifference, and ignorance by the civil servants lead Serge’s interview for asylum to disastrous results.

The interview begins on a friendly note with Serge talking to an immigration official identified as “A” (Soren Santos). Serge tries to articulate the tragic story of his father’s murder, which occurred when Serge was 10. But he meanders through the nonessential parts of the incident, describing the book that his father was reading to him before the murder. It appears that the two events of the storybook and the murder are inexorably linked in his memory.

“A” keeps interrupting Serge with his own irrelevant and happy childhood memories and doesn’t allow Serge to articulate his childhood trauma. It seems that they may be speaking in French, although we experience it in English.

The colder, more suspicious and skeptical interviewer “B” (Radhika Rao) then enters the conversation. With no language skills other than English, she first tries to speak with Serge and insists that he tell her the truth. At one point, she actually speaks louder to Serge, as though that will overcome the linguistic obstacle. She next insists that “A” serve as an interpreter, and absolute chaos is followed by tragic consequences. The linguistic inabilities, irresponsibility and insensitivities in this three-way round-robin wind up more like the childhood game of “Telephone” than the life-altering interview it is. At one salient point, the two questioners mistake “gum” for “gun,” leading to a devastatingly wrong conclusion.

Complicating the bedlam is the relationship between “A” and “B,” in which “A” wants “B” to join him for a week’s vacation on the Greek Island of Ios. In their conversation, “B” blithely acknowledges fabricating a story of one of her island experiences. So, the double standard of truth-telling is palpable and painful.

It is a bit too obvious that playwright Tim Cowbury intends The Claim to be an object lesson. He said, “The title is my homage to Kafka’s The Trial – the experience of those who find themselves claiming asylum [in the United Kingdom] was described to me as the living embodiment of that novel.” As directed by Rebecca Novick, there is a lot of Theatre of the Absurd, especially Samuel Beckett, in The Claim as well.

The three actors perform their roles admirably, and our attention never wavers from them. Radhika Rao, as the officious “B,” is appropriately sharp-tongued. And I mean that in the best sense of her fine acting. Kenny Watkins’s Serge engendered our frustration, anger, and sympathy as he valiantly tried to grasp his situation. Soren Santos’s “A” was glibly and superficially benign yet tone-deaf to Serge’s condition.

I squirmed in my seat out of emotional discomfort while watching Serge’s frustration as his claim goes unheard and unheeded. The Claim is a sharp and thought-provoking play with a poignant and powerful message.

The Claim runs live at the Ashby Stage through Nov. 6. Proof of vaccination is required to attend in-person performances and masks are required, but seating is not distanced. Advance reservations are necessary. Ticket prices are $8-$40. In addition to live, in-person performances, Shotgun is offering two live-stream performances on Oct. 21 and Oct. 28. More information can be found on the theater’s website

Longtime East Bay resident Emily S. Mendel has been Berkeleyside’s freelance theater and art critic since 2012.