BWW Review: ZAFIRA AND THE RESISTANCE at Dowling Studio/Guthrie

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BWW Review: ZAFIRA AND THE RESISTANCE at Dowling Studio/GuthrieThe 9th floor black box space at the Guthrie showcases short runs of plays that foreground diverse voices from local and international companies. This season, they've chosen a string of works featuring Arab artists. Currently up is ZAFIRA AND THE RESISTANCE, by Kathryn Haddad, mounted by the Minnesota based New Arab American Theater Works, a non-profit educational group that's been mission driven for 20 years.

This ZAFIRA is, according to Haddad, a 'cousin' of a 2010 ZAFIRA play that was published in Roberta Uno's second anthology of Contemporary Plays by Women of Color. That play introduced the character Zafira as a female superhero whose weapon was olive oil and whose superpower was empathy.

Zafira is back, with both olive oil (worn as a pendant in a little jewel flask) and empathy. Haddad workshopped versions of the new play this summer, responding to current events. ZAFIRA AND THE RESISTANCE posits a dystopian near-future, where a Great Leader establishes a cult of personality with particular emphasis on recruiting high school students as devotees. He uses them to police their teachers, their communities, and, eventually, the holding centers that are built inside their schools until the 'final solution' camps are ready.

Zafira is a teacher of world literature in such a school, and quickly runs afoul of most of her students and their parents, as well as the school's principal.

Malek Najjar and Zeina Salame are co-directors of this production. In her director's statement, Salame says that New Arab American Theater Works' mission involves creating opportunities for artists who value "lived cultural knowledge even above theater experience." Accordingly, the ensemble of 14 actors here are community members, including high school and university students. Only one of the adults is an Equity actor, and he plays the Great Leader in oversized projection; we never see him live.

It's been said that it takes at least a generation before art works of lasting cultural value emerge in response to historical crises. So we should not expect this play, born in the thick of the cultural tumult of present-day politics, to be a masterpiece. It's really more of a cartoon, a sketch, almost a parody, given the one-dimensional nature of the characters.

The play opens with a Minnesota joke in the teachers' room at lunchtime, contrasting tater tot hot dish with stuffed grape leaves. The white characters are uniformly bigoted. The Latinx girl is sympathetic to her teacher's intentions, but has to play it safe since her parents have been deported and she is responsible for taking care of a younger sibling. She befriends the Japanese-American janitor, whose family suffered through the detention camps during World War II. They conspire to help the Arab women who have been detained.

Nuance is reserved only (and just barely) for those four women of Arab descent who are confined to a room together. Aside from then, only one character--the boy Marcus Jenkins--undergoes much change over the course of the play.

So I can't recommend ZAFIRA AND THE RESISTANCE as world-class theater. But it is an important community event, part of a sequence of commitments that provide a platform for marginalized voices. Thus it's good to see the Guthrie, with all its reputation and privilege, open its doors to this show.

Running time is just over 2 hours, including intermission. Performances run through October 27.

Photo credit: Bruce Silcox



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From This Author Karen Bovard