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A play to touch hearts and open minds.

From the Sky to Your Hands, Live Theatre until today THIS short but thought-provoking drama is part of the Freedom City 2017 programme which is to reach its high point on Monday when it will be 50 years since Martin Luther King came to Newcastle.

Dr King spoke of the great problems of war, poverty and racism and that anniversary has provided the opportunity to look at what has changed.

Joana Geronimo came to live in Newcastle in 2003. She was just 16 and had a one-year-old son, Osvaldo. This is her story, told in a slice of what is known as 'verbatim theatre' with a script by Juliana Mensah and directed by Paul James.

It is billed as "the true story of a young mum's search for refuge and belonging".

Joana plays herself and young Live Theatre actors, as the Chorus, play various roles with Osvaldo, now sounding like a Geordie teenager, playing himself.

There are many horrors in Joana's past.

She grew up in Angola or, rather, in Cabinda, a province cut off from Angola by a strip of land along the Congo River which is owned by the Democratic Republic of the Congo Both Angola and Cabinda were once part of the Portuguese Empire but after Angola won independence from Portugal in 1974 and following a subsequent bloody civil war, many in Cabinda agitated for independence.

Joana's father was murdered for supporting that cause and other family members also lost their lives. She herself was imprisoned and tortured. All this we learn in the play - along with the fact that eventually she managed to escape, with Osvaldo, and was helped by a man she knew as an uncle to board a plane to the UK where she claimed asylum.

Having come out of the sky and into our hands, she was very much alone with her baby. Her first language was Portuguese. She knew as much about Newcastle as most of us will know about Cabinda. Identified as an 'unaccompanied minor' she was handed to social services.

On reaching 18 there was a serious risk she would be deported. Her case was taken up by wellwishers in the North East and reported in the newspapers.

She is still here, a British citizen now. Osvaldo is still here too and seemingly a happy and well adjusted North East lad.

But it has been a struggle. After re-enacting her treatment in Angola, where she was beaten and threatened (and worse, if those newspaper reports are correct), she turns to her time in the North East.

With the help of the Chorus, she explains that the North East has a good record when it comes to welcoming those from other countries. But there are still few black faces here. There is laughter when Joana ticks off the black shop assistants she has seen, one here and another there. She was struck dumb in London when a shop assistant fetched the manager and he was black.

Osvaldo says he doesn't see racism as a big issue in the North East. Joana implies there is some way to go before that can be said categorically. She loves Newcastle, she says repeatedly, but sometimes despairs of it too.

Joana's tale, which unfolds on a set by Alison Ashton incorporating the Tyne Bridge, is inspiring.

She lost close family members in horrific circumstances and can't go back where she was born.

But her talent for drama would seem to be her salvation. She had a cleaning job a few years ago but now has a degree in acting.

She speaks glowingly of her successful audition for a play by Newcastle theatre company Open Clasp (that would have been Monsoon, back in 2013). And there is a confidence about her which was not so evident when I spoke to her in the run-up to that play.

It is always useful to understand how others see us and here's a good example of that.

Refugees and asylum seekers often get a bad press but they are people just like us. Hearing stories like Joana's should make us count our blessings and perhaps try to be more accommodating.

David Whetstone

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Joana Geronimo
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:6ANGO
Date:Nov 11, 2017
Words:697
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