BWW Review: Lebanese Import JOGGING at Kennedy Center
In her one woman show, Hanane Hajj Ali quite noisily warms up, stretches and approximates her morning routine of jogging the streets of Beirut. The activity lets her mind run free as well. She thinks of roles she'd like to play. Medea, for example. And that brings to her a more immediate story of a woman and a tragedy further inland in Lebanon.
Thinking these things may be allowed; talking aloud about them in her home country less so. And the idea of presenting her piece there altogether illegal.
So "Jogging" has become an internationally touring piece, and an acclaimed one at that. A prize-winner at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival, she's performed it many other places including most recently two nights at the Kennedy Center as part of their World Stages season in collaboration with The Sundance Institute Theater Program.
In black hajib and athletic togs, Hajj Ali is a most expressive performer, her guttural vocal warm ups to begin the piece suggesting the range of her growl; her face coming out of the darkness of her garb seeming that much more expressive by the contrast.
While there are heavy things on her mind in a city where war waged so long, she's hasn't relinquished her humor and sense of mischievousness. She'll occasionally look up at the English supertitles that try hard to keep up with her Arabic and add commentary, in English or in French. To a story about an erotic dream about a politician, she ad libs something about Trump.
Most of all, she drew in her audience at the Terrace Gallery with some participation, asking one man to hold her feet as she did sit-ups, having a couple of volunteers read specific bits, and, most darkly, passing out a fruit dessert to three patrons, immediately after telling the stark story of a mother who poisoned her three children that way.
Hajj Ali gives voice to women whose voices are not heard and brings points of view not always expressed, as when she tries to explain why mothers would pack risky migration boats by quoting "no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land."
In a repressive culture where her words may be allowed in book form but not in performances (theaters stand to receive large enough fines to close them down), she's found a way to express herself and bravely share her stories amid the threats.
That's not to say she is entirely free to say everything she wants to say everywhere she performs. At the Kennedy Center, she confided in an audience talkback after the first of her shows, she still had to cut one line.
Running time: About 70 minutes, no intermission.
Photo credit: Hanane Hajj Ali in "Jogging." Photo by Marwan Tahtah.
"Jogging" was presented at the Kennedy Center and Sundance Institute March 12 and 13. Information online.