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Review: THIS IS WHO I AM at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

"This Is Who I Am" is a joint project between Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, PlayCo, American Repertoire Theatre, Guthrie Theater, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Review: THIS IS WHO I AM at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Ramsey Faragallah (left) and Yousof Sultani (right) cooking together while apart in This Is Who I Am.

In a year in which most of our world has had to adapt to connecting virtually, it's sometimes hard to maintain human connectivity. But in This Is Who I Am - a joint project between DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and its partners, PlayCo, American Repertoire Theatre, Guthrie Theater, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival - we're reminded that this is the way some people need to communicate even when there isn't a pandemic, and sometimes that human connection isn't just possible under these circumstances, but able to thrive.

Amir Nizar Zuabi's play centers on a tumultuous father-son relationship, stretched by both physical and emotional distances. At its start, the men are grudgingly participating in the call, almost in spite of themselves. The father (Ramsey Faragallah), based in his kitchen in Ramallah, has sent his son (Yousof Sultani) in New York a shopping list so they can attempt to cook together. The goal is a traditional dish, fteer, which their missing wife and mother made the first time she cooked for the father, presenting the simple dish with the declaration, "This is who I am." As the two discuss their previous, disastrous attempts at the dish and gather their ingredients, they trade barbs. It's clear, despite this joint project, there's a good amount of hurt and distrust between the two, and even what should be lighthearted barbs about their poor cooking skills or innocuous comments take on an edge. But sometimes, something else breaks through, if only for a moment before one of them changes the subject back to the recipe. Their words, even about ingredients, take on double meanings, trying to convey the things they can't say outright. Occasionally, memories intrude, giving the audience a clearer picture of their division - their differing accounts of the son's childhood are revealing, both of themselves and of how far apart they are. But, as they work, they begin talking more about the things they'd rather not say, about their resentments and regrets, and - it turns out - they understand who they each are better than they realize.

Review: THIS IS WHO I AM at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Ramsey Faragallah (left) and Yousof Sultani (right) in This Is Who I Am.

Zuabi's play is beautifully written, with smart, loaded uses of language that convey all the layers of this complicated relationship (one of my favorite comments was the son telling his father, "you have no sense of measurement"). He shows us how the seemingly simple act of cooking can unlock people - can show us their lives, their thoughts, and their memories - and how the same story or principles can play out differently for each person. Evren Odcikin's direction breathes life into Zuabi's script, and presents a believable, natural performance. The moments as the father and son duck out of frame or busy themselves with an element of their task feel real, and the audience never loses the sense that they're observing an intimate family conversation. Actors Faragallah and Sultani bring the father and son to life with an aching grace and heart, and their emotional journeys drive the show - by the time the characters shed tears as they recount the events that drove them apart, I found myself crying right along with them. Their chemistry makes their relationship believable, and their rounded performances keep you from ever taking sides - both men are flawed and good-intentioned, products of both their environment and the expectations put upon them by their society and each other, and Faragallah and Sultani play the father and son with a keen sensitivity to these elements.

Review: THIS IS WHO I AM at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
The recipe for the fteer made by characters in This Is Who I Am.

Faragallah and Sultani also worked closely with Scenic Designer Mariana Sanchez and Dramaturg Joseph Haj to transform their own homes into kitchens in Ramallah and New York, sending set pieces across the country to put together the prefect background even in a pandemic. Their work pays off wonderfully - one of the most striking elements at the beginning of the show is seeing the father and son's different approaches to the recipe. The son, in a bright, modern kitchen in New York, uses measuring spoons, store-bought oil, lukewarm water straight from the faucet, and (in a moment of levity) a salad spinner. The father, whose kitchen in Ramallah makes up for its lack of modernity with its comforting sense of home, instead relies on eyeballing amounts tossed in by hand, olive oil from his sister's field, cold water mixed with water he needed to boil, and a dish towel. The differences, stark when presented side-by-side on screen, show how far apart their worlds are, and yet their common goal shines through, making this prop work particularly clever. James Ard's sound design helps further set their homes apart, giving the audience the ambient noises of their contrasting homes, and Dina El-Aziz deserves every praise for her costumes, as they genuinely feel like the characters' own clothing, but clearly define their personalities - Faragallah in a collared striped shirt and an apron, and Sultani in a zip-up hoodie, jeans, and a backwards cap.

Review: THIS IS WHO I AM at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Ramsey Faragallah (left) and Yousof Sultani (right) discuss olive oil and memory in This Is Who I Am.

I will note, for viewers who might have technical issues as I did, that the show is livestreamed and cannot be paused. If you experience delays (my visual components lagged behind the audio), be sure to close all additional programs on your computer, and refresh if needed - this did work for me after a member of the team at Woolly recommended it, and I didn't actually miss any part of the show in doing this. Ironically, the lack of a lag might have been the only unrealistic element of the show (Video and Streaming Systems Designer Ido Levran and Livestream Manager Rachael Danielle Albert may be too good at their jobs), though this change from reality definitely made for a better viewing experience.

This Is Who I Am is a compelling emotional tale, defying our expected limits of technology to bring us a deep, profound human connection over a video call. With clever, layered uses of language and deeply poignant discussions, this production is much like the fteer featured in the show - simple on the surface, but full of surprises.

This Is Who I Am is streaming through January 3rd, 2021. Run time is approximately 70 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are available at $15.99 for a single viewer and $30.99 per household on the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company website. Please note this show does contain frank discussions of grief and illness, as well as descriptions of violence and state violence.

Photo credit: PlayCo / Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

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