Review: HOME? at Voices Festival Productions

The workshop premiere of Hend Ayoub's solo autobiographical play runs through November 13th.

By: Nov. 06, 2022
Review: HOME? at Voices Festival Productions

The New York-based Palestinian-Israeli actress Hend Ayoub knew she'd been at it a while when, after being in America for a few years, the roles she was asked to audition for moved from terrorist's daughter and terrorist's wife to terrorist's mother.

"Mother?" she exclaims in her autobiographical one-woman play "Home?" "I'm getting old!"

That's part of the self-deprecating humor that is sprinkled in the workshop premiere of her story, whose full title is "Home? Or, A Palestinian Woman's Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness." It's the final production of this year's Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival from Voices Festival Productions at The Corner at Whitman-Walker in D.C.

Displacement is part of the 22-year history of the festival as well, which was originally presented at Theater J, moved to the Mosaic Theater Company and is now at the former storefront off of 14th Street NW. Its movement followed that of founding partner Ari Roth, who told his tale in another premiere at this fall's festival (that also had a long title), "My Calamitous Affair with the Minister of Culture and Censorship or Death of the Dialogic in the American Theater."

At any rate, the festival continues and is the perfect setting for Ayoub's story of her career, which eventually led to starring roles in "A Thousand Splendid Suns" at Arena in 2020 and "First Down" earlier this year off-Broadway, not to mention many TV roles in shows that include "Homeland," "Orange is the New Black," "The Looming Tower" and "Madam Secretary" - and not always as a connection to a terrorist.

In "Home?" we see her displacement began early as she began play-acting with friends in an otherwise all-Israeli apartment building in Haifa. Her joy of dressing as a princess at a Purim party at age 5 is lessened when kids there wonder why she's not Jewish - a term she's not familiar with.

In school, she's called "a stinking Arab" and told by her mother not to speak Arabic on the bus. At 11, she makes the mistake of drawing a Palestinian flag in school and her parents are called in.

Her dream after graduation was to just be a waitress, something also denied to her until McDonald's came to town. She signs up for engineering at the university but is miserable; a career guidance workshop determines she may be better suited for acting, which her mother, in failing health, strongly recommends.

Growing up she had to adjust her behavior and language everywhere she went to fit in, so she finds herself well suited playing different roles. But there are other complications: an Arab accent is unacceptable especially for women on stage. Traveling with a troupe, she's stopped at the airport. Leaving her country for more opportunities, she's chided for not staying and fighting for the rights of Palestinians.

But in Egypt, she's looked down upon for being from Israel. She eventually makes it to America, but it soon showed its own type-casting. It's all very disenchanting until she begins studying with the influential artistic director Wynn Handman, then very elderly, who encourages her to write this very play.

Covid plays a role in all this, though unspoken in the work. Handman died a month into the pandemic at the age of 97; the era also affected development of the play, which was workshopped earlier this summer by Golden Thread Productions in partnership with Z Space and San Francisco Playhouse. Masks are required for audience members in the current workshop.

Director Carey Perloff uses the white-walled Corner at Whitman-Walker well; big projections on a back wall are so effective you'd wish they were used more. The thumping of muffled dance music might seem part of the production but is only sound bleeding from another hopping 14th Street NW bistro next door.

Though she stays mostly at one end of the performance hall, Ayoub eventually takes advantage of the entire space. She's a captivating performer who of course is the best suited to tell her own story; it involves not only her own voice at various stages in her life, but those of dozens around her in her family or out in the world. Her fluency in Hebrew, Arabic and English underscores both her ability to adapt to her surroundings and her uneasy footing in any one of them.

Although still offered as a workshop performance, "Home?" seemed to have a solid and satisfying dramatic shape already.

Running time: 78 minutes, no intermission.

Photo Credit: Stan Barouh

"Home? (Or a Palestinian Woman's Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness)," presented by Voices Festival Productions, runs through Nov. 13 at The Corner at Whitman-Walker, 1701 14th St NW, Washington D.C. Masks required. Tickets available Click Here.

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