BWW Interview: OSLO's Anthony Azizi Makes Peace a Priority
OSLO, the thrilling original play by J.T. Rogers, reveals the tense, behind-the-scenes action preceding the signing of the 1993 Oslo peace accord in President Clinton's White House. Anthony Azizi plays the tightly wound PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie, who helped bring about this short-lived peace between two adversaries.
OSLO is the story of a hidden history that lies behind a public history, Rogers has been quoted as saying. Every character is named for a real person, and the locations and chronology have been compressed. It is a riveting drama that feels like a shot of adrenalin.
OSLO is finding its audience since opening at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center. It played last year in the smaller venue downstairs.
This year the vast space is thoroughly used by actors who push furniture around, position door frames, imbibe and eat waffles. A lot of waffles. It's a busy, noisy show with a lot of gesticulating, yelling and tables being shoved into place.
Azizi plays an impassioned PLO representative whose outbursts belie his innate hunger for peace. "It sounds crazy but I have best friends that are both Arabs and Israelis," said Azizi. "I was always a kind of intermediary." Azizi has Iranian and American roots and is a member of the Baha'i faith.
"As a Baha'i I was always committed to peace in that region," he said referring to the geography of the play. "I was brought to this show oddly, by something divine." A political science major at Muhlenberg College, Azizi wrote a 1991 college paper on the possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinian state. "No one wants to live in misery and difficulty," he said. "We're all part of the human race and must learn to live together."
Azizi credits fellow actor Tony Shalhoub for helping him in his career. They were both featured in the movie AMERICANEAST, about relationships between Muslims and Jews living in Los Angeles. "The film did very well," he added. The 2008 movie has won many international awards and has been an official selection for worldwide film festivals.
"Here I am, a guy who's never done anything on this level, and I was frightened," Azizi said of his experience with Oslo, which is directed by Bartlett Sher. "But everybody's been so warm and kind," he said. "We got great reviews off-Broadway at the Mitzi. First of all, the material is fantastic, we love these characters and who doesn't want to work with Bart Sher and J.T. Rogers?"
The play has gotten rave reviews since its Broadway opening. Azizi said the cast has grown into the characters even more now that the production has transferred. It's a busy, highly physical show and the actors seem to be in perpetual motion. Some actors play multiple roles.
"Doing this show has been a whirlwind. It's the same cast as before and we love the characters. It's very taxing to do this play. But these are very accomplished theater people," Azizi said. "This is what we do. And I don't want to self-destruct so before shows I meditate, pray, maybe do some acting warm-ups."
Azizi hopes the message of the play is not lost in the noise of current politics. He believes peace can be negotiated all over the world, and especially in the Middle East.
"Peace in that region is good for everyone and as human beings they can make this happen again. Love is the most powerful commodity," Azizi said. "More than oil, more than money and if we learn how to mine love within ourselves, I think we will see major change," he added.
"I try to bring that into every day of my life.
"And the material," he exclaimed. "It's all true." Terje Rod-Larsen, the real Norwegian diplomat (played by Jefferson Mays), and his wife, Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), had covertly organized back-channel talks between the state of Israel and the PLO that led to the 1993 peace accord. In spite of the seriousness of the subject matter, the play generates laughs from the audience.
"The play gets a lot of laughs," Azizi said. "Especially in the second act. It's nice to play an Arab who doesn't blow himself up. Archetypes shown on film are pretty negative so it's beautiful that I can play a guy to humanize, who has the ability to understand, love and negotiate."
Azizi started writing and staging his own plays when he was 8. He was a child actor at the Touchstone Theater in Bethlehem, Pa., founded by Bill and Bridget George. He continued in the arts, even though he initially couldn't express himself on stage. He's been in plays, movies and television ever since.
He's not only a skilled negotiator in Oslo, he's been actively using that skill with his two boys.
"I allow them to express themselves fully and candidly with no judgment," he said in an email.
"They each get a chance to share their point of view and the other side gets the same time.
Recently they had to negotiate where we were going to eat. So they suggested that to be fair instead of choosing one place, we should just go to both. And we did."
Azizi hopes that audiences can understand the importance of respecting other views. "Can we please just sit down, talk and see what common ground we humans have?" he said. "We just have to follow that compass."
Oslo is playing at the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont.