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BWW Review: NOURA Anchors Celebration of Arab Artistry at the Guthrie

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BWW Review: NOURA Anchors Celebration of Arab Artistry at the Guthrie

Heather Raffo's NOURA, a variation on themes from Ibsen's A DOLL'S HOUSE set within an immigrant Iraqi family, serves as the mainstage anchor for an ambitious, multi-month series of four shows plus a distinguished panel talk at the Guthrie Theater. Collectively, these comprise the theater's Celebration of Arab Artistry. It's been a vital, eye-opening, boundary-crossing initiative. Artistic Director Joseph Haj says, "Expanding the idea of what the classical canon is and should look like is very much in the Guthrie's charge."

Beginning modestly last fall in the Dowling Studio black box with ZAFIRA AND THE RESISTANCE (see my review here) by local writer Kathryn Haddad, the series continued in January with the opening of NOURA in the Guthrie's expansive proscenium space. Meanwhile, two passionate shows written and performed by touring artists from Palestine and Lebanon touched down for just five performances each in the Dowling Studio. More on these two plays, GREY ROCK (see Megan Siemieniak's review here) and JOGGING, below.

But first, NOURA, which runs at the Guthrie until February 16. Playwright Heather Raffo is Iraqi American and grew up in Michigan; she has a strong resume as an actor in classical roles. She came to fame as a playwright with 9 PARTS OF DESIRE, a solo piece comprised of monologues by nine distinct Iraqi women, all played by Raffo. (Raffo names Ntozake Shange's FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF as one of the inspirations for this piece.)

The first image we see at lights up on NOURA at the Guthrie is a woman alone, wrapped in a shawl, crouched near some scattered rocks and rubble on the apron of the stage, smoking in silence. Behind her we see a simple apartment with a Christmas tree and an eat-in kitchen. The walls of this space are made of UHaul boxes with their orange logos and a repeated turquoise image of the Statue of Liberty. Beyond all that, at the perimeter of the large space, are tall concrete blast barriers. This suggestive space was designed by Matt Saunders.

Raffo's good at exposition. We quickly learn, in ways that seem natural and effortless, that Noura (Gamze Ceylan) is a wife and mother. She and her family left Mosul, Iraq, more than a dozen years back as refugees escaping active warfare. They settled in New York City eight years ago. In Iraq, they were part of the professional elite: she was an architect and her husband, Tareq (Fajer Kaisi), a surgeon. Neither is able to practice those pursuits in the US, though they have been comfortable enough to sponsor an orphan girl back in Iraq at a Catholic boarding school run by one of Noura's aunts. They've become American citizens and just received their US passports, in newly Anglicized names: Nora and Tim. They are raising their much adored son Yazen (played in alternation by Aarya Batchu and Akshay Krishna) with strong awareness of his mixed cultural heritage.

It's Christmas Eve, and Noura has been cooking for weeks to prepare the traditional Iraqi dishes needed to welcome guests with the kind of lavish hospitality native to her home culture. The cast is rounded out by these two guests: her age-mate and family friend from Mosul, Rafa'a (Kal Naga), and the Iraqi orphan girl, Maryam (Layan Elwazani), now grown, who is attending Stanford University on scholarship.

As an immigrant doing her best to, as she puts it, "hang on and let go at the same time," Noura is clearly on edge. Ceylan as Noura is vital and loving and funny, and also anxious and agitated. Her energy will seem familiar to many women in our culture today, trying to honor their personal needs while managing marriage and motherhood--as Nora in Ibsen's source material decided she could not do, which propelled her to walk away from her family. Noura's dilemmas are exponentially complexified by her bicultural identity. As in the original A DOLL'S HOUSE, she also holds family secrets that have truly seismic potential.

To say more would be to ruin the detective pleasures that this play affords an attentive audience. NOURA is essentially an updated family melodrama kitchen-sink play: familiar in structure but novel in content with no grasping after oversimple answers. This makes for a highly engaging 90 minutes without intermission. Credit must go not only to playwright Raffo and her strong, charismatic cast, but also to director Taibi Magar. In program notes, Magar reveals herself to be an American of Egyptian heritage, deeply committed to the power of storytelling in the face of cultural erasure.

That theater can be a means of connecting across cultural chasms is made abundantly clear by GREY ROCK, written and directed by the eloquent Palestinian artist Amir Nizar Zuabi. The grey rock of the title refers to the moon. At the center of the plot of this moving, funny, thought-provoking play is an aging Palestinian TV repairman, inspired by the US moonshot of 1968, who takes up the challenge of engineering and launching a space rocket from Palestine. Performed by five actors in English--not their native tongue--this is one of the most beguiling and effective pieces of theater I've seen in years. Zuabi has a knack for extended metaphor, and for blending physics and philosophy with humor. He describes the play as being about many types of love, and it is. In Minneapolis for just five shows, this piece has since moved on to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

The final performance piece in this series is also up for just five performances. A solo show by Lebanese actor Hanane Hajj Ali, JOGGING displays her ability to hold the attention of her audience for nearly two hours without a break. She speaks in Arabic most of the time, with English supertitles. Using the structure of her daily exercise and run through the streets of Beirut, she takes us on quite a journey through her thoughts. These range widely, with humor and horror both, and return repeatedly to contemplations of Medea, a role she (and, she says, all great female actors) yearn to play. For her, this role became personal when one of her children developed cancer and was suffering mightily through treatment, and she had moments of wishing him dead to spare him this pain. (In a Q&A session after bows which Hajj Ali sees as an integral part of the show, we learn he survived into adulthood.)

Hajj Ali has performed JOGGING, which varies some in each performance, more than 170 times in Lebanon for free; it stirs controversy frequently. She's avoided government censorship by not selling tickets, but instead selling copies of the text (in Arabic, English, and French) which take the place of tickets for some of these audiences. Fully veiled, dressed in black from head to toe, she addresses the audience directly, and asks for their help from time to time, usually by reading printed statements. The text includes references to current events and to Dario Fo, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and the Q'uran: Hajj Ali earns her stripes not only as a great actor but also as a public intellectual, deeply committed to using theater to "stir stagnant waters."

Listening to her voice is hypnotic, a bit, and that's both because of her skills and because of the nature of Arabic. One of the characters in NOURA says "Arabic dances; English flies like an arrow." During the artists' panel, Amir Nazir Zuabi said that he wrote GREY ROCK in English, in part because he finds writing in English quicker and easier than writing in Arabic, which is a complicated, dense, poetic language, where many phrasings can suggest verses from the Quran. Thus, he said, every word choice carries responsibilities and this seems more true in Arabic than English. JOGGING is the first time in the history of the Guthrie that a play has been delivered in that tongue. So one theme running beneath many of these events has to do with language itself, and its flip side: silence.

Family secrets are one of the things we do not talk about. The necessity of such silence and the destructive power in those silences is another recurring theme in these plays. It also is key to two other plays running currently in the Twin Cities: A DOLL'S HOUSE PART 2 at the Jungle Theater, and BERNARDA ALBA at Theater Latte Da. I feel fortunate to have seen all of these fine shows (you can find my reviews of both these pieces on this site) in part because of the way they converse with each other.

It's worth noting that, with the exception of ZAFIRA back in the fall, none of the plays in the Celebration of Arab Artistry centers warfare or terrorism or political conflict despite how pervasive these subjects are in movies and television that involve Arab characters or settings. Joseph Haj recounted personal experience from his time in Los Angeles looking to be cast as an actor. His agent recommended that they change his last name on his union cards. Haj, whose parents are both Palestinian and who spoke Arabic at home as a child, demurred for a time, until it became clear that he would only be considered for stereotypical roles of terrorists and thugs as long as that was true. Once he became 'Joseph Hodge' a much wider variety of parts became available.

Haj begins a program note about this series by saying "No single play can represent the breadth of a cultural worldview, which is why we are sharing multiple stories that celebrate Arab artistry this season." However true this may be--and I recommend Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie's TEDtalk "The Danger of a Single Story" as eloquent proof that it is--it's really hard for a single theater to devote the considerable resources required to mount multiple shows addressing a particular culture that is not mainstream in its geographical setting. I give the leaders and funders of the Guthrie great credit for choosing to do so. Haj voiced his gratitude to Dowling Studio Associate Producer Michael Perlman for his steadfast support for this project.

Theater is a way of thinking; live theater is also a way to forge "immediate connection with a bunch of strangers" as Amir Nizar Zuabi put it in the panel discussion. Joseph Haj added this: "If an enemy is a person whose story you do not know, theater matters." Indeed.

Photo credit: Dan Norman




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