BWW Review: A Palestinian Dreamer Builds a Rocket to Land on the Moon in GREY ROCK at The Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival
Imagine a world where the Palestinian flag is planted on the moon. In Amir Nizar Zuabi's play Grey Rock, one of his characters says "its so preposterous, it's brilliant." Apparently this is my week for traveling into outer space, having just seen Or, An Astronaut Play, at the Tank. Both plays explore dreams while commenting on societal oppression. In this interesting exploration, the improbable is embraced from a voice not often heard on American stages.
Commissioned and produced by U.S. based Remote Theater Project, Mr. Zuabi is Palestine's leading playwright and director. This play celebrates the alienable right to dream. For he and his people, "our dreams end at the checkpoint." Grey Rock is a visit to a world and those minds we hear about but seldom experience in the theater.
Yusuf (Khalifa Natour) is jogging at the start of this play. His daughter Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) wants to know why. His wife and her mother passed away a few years ago. Dad is mysteriously coming and going from the house. Does he have a ladyfriend? Not exactly. He is romancing his fantasy of building a rocket. His ambitions are to fully reach the moon, not to create "a suborbital rocket."
In his shed, blueprints and parts are being collected. Money is a concern as he tries to fund his dream. People in this small town are beginning to talk. Is he working for the occupation? He is expending so much cash that the rumors are intensifying. Is he a collaborator? His daughter has to defend him to her fiance Jawad (Alaa Shehada), an ordinary business man. Why, she asks pointedly, does she have to disprove this lie? Instead, why don't the accusers have to prove that he is actually a collaborator? In the internet age of America, we all can certainly relate to her dilemma.
Ivan Kevork Azazian portrays Fadel, a local food delivery truck driver. He accidentally sees what Yusuf is working on. He wanted to be a mechanical engineer and received a full scholarship to Rice University. Love got in the way of his dream. He's now in his mid-twenties and unattached. The thought of participating in this once-in-a-lifetime project is exciting. Together, the two continue developing the rocket in secret.
There is obviously a significant amount of risk in building a rocket anywhere. In Palestine, the stakes are unimaginably high. Why did America reach the moon? How can someone dream so big? Yusuf's passion is in direct conflict with his country's oppressive regime. "We compromise so much we can't imagine what it's like being a free people."
The plot of Grey Rock is romantic both in its thoughtful depiction of fantastic dreams and in its much less successful soap opera love triangle. A conflict scene at the end is completely unnecessary. The philosophy, however, remains the central and most interesting aspect of this tale.
Yusuf ponders the American dream and the difference that is the Palestinian outlook. In order to progress, he surmises, his people need to detach from this old land and its prophets. America, by contrast, is not backward looking. Their citizens can dream. That is how they reached for the moon and succeeded.
That perspective is timely as Americans fight everyday between moving forward or backward in their beliefs and governance. Palestinians may have their ancient prophets but plenty of religions have their ancient books. Christians who feel morally obligated to dominate the American way of life are doing so with teachings from two thousand years ago.
Grey Rock may be a play about dreams, oppression and the Palestinian way of life. I found the questions and commentary to be worldly and universal. The Under the Radar Festival focuses on presenting different perspectives and stories. This play enabled me to experience life from creative artist's foreign worldview while simultaneously jarring my own. I heard a warning loud and clear. That's something to really think about.
Grey Rock is being performed until January 19, 2020.