Whenever I enjoy a politically themed movie or play, I wonder if solidarity with the viewpoint isn’t clouding my judgment of the aesthetics. Is the artist speaking my heart, or is my heart speaking for the artist? Often it is a mix of both, to be honest. But one of the works I watched last Saturday at Golden Thread’s Festival of short Middle East plays shattered the silly question at the outset. Naomi Wallace’s No Such Cold Thing is a spellbinding play that powers its way beyond “friends don’t let friends invade Afghanistan.”
The cast of characters is made up of two young Afghan sisters, an American soldier and three big gunnysacks. They are gathered in a desert near Kabul shortly after the US invasion. We understand why the younger sister wears a burqa, but have no idea why she is also wearing the American soldier’s boots. From this setup and bits of what the characters say to each other, Wallace quickly establishes an eerie sense of “what’s wrong with this picture?” The playwright--who is a winner of the Mac Arthur Genius Award-- challenges us with seemingly unsolvable riddles, then devastates us emotionally with her imaginative solutions. The chilling outlook of this work persists like theme music across the set of one-act plays that follow.
Betty Shamieh’s Tamam (enough ) shifts the war drama from Afghanistan to Palestine. . The play’s cast is a chorus of two actors relating the ordeal of a Palestinian woman who goes to visit her brother in an Israeli prison. There, she is detained and used in a psychology experiment to see how the rape of a sister affects the male Arab mind.
Shamieh’s accusation is so bitter and angry that it makes you wonder if the art of drama is large enough to contain the Palestinian rage. One feels guilty even trying to critique such a raw scream of anguish. This calls for a comparison with another play in this night of one-act plays, Coming Home, by Israeli anti-war playwright Motti Lerner. The two plays are tightly related in theme--they could even be two acts in the same play--yet they emote in radically different universes.
Coming Home aptly brings the American audience home from the bombed and bulldozed living environment of the Palestinians. The setting is a family residence in Israel with familiar characters occupying it. Father likes tennis, and his doctor wife prescribes herself tranquilizers. The son plays guitar and likes to take his girlfriend to the beach. He eats steaks with fries and ketchup. Everything would be the American norm if it weren’t for the Uzi in the dining room and the son stripping himself naked in front of his parents, squirting ketchup all over himself.
The young soldier has had an encounter with and Arab child who was running towards a checkpoint with a suspicious looking school bag over the shoulder. A few seconds wasn’t time enough to ask the question, it was just time enough to pull the trigger. In this play, Lerner brings to light the hidden cost of war to Israeli society. To give a clue as to the magnitude of this cost I will paraphrase Chekhov’s famous insight, “If there’s a gun on the stage, someone better use it.”
Lerner’s Israel and Shamieh’s Palestine exist on the same patch of land, but while the Israeli artist warns his people, the Palestinian artist mourns hers. There are no tennis games, guitars, beaches, and girlfriends on Shamieh’s palette. She has only humiliation, prison, and suicide missions to work with. There are plays that attempt to weave the East and West views of the Middle East conflict into the same story. It doesn’t work! Artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian has been wise to paragraph each part of this single tragedy as separate plays. Otherwise the balancing act would have pulled towards an intellectual debate--as it usually does--instead of tugging at our hearts first one way then the other, the right way to tear something apart.
As a kind gesture to her audience Yeghiazarian has inserted a light-hearted comic relief in between the blood, sweat and tears plays. In the bedroom skit, Call me Mehdi--which Yeghiazarian wrote herself--an Iranian wife sets her American husband straight regarding Rashtis and Ghazvinis. Then Yeghiazarian marches us back to Israelis and Palestinians for more bruising, eye-opening, and well-acted theater.
Note: This review just covers series 1 of the festival plays. Series 2 has a different set of plays, including a work starring Iranian film actress Vida Ghahremani.
Here’s where and when to see the festival of plays.
November 19 - December 13
at Thick House (1695 18th Street, San Francisco, CA)
Series 1 – Thursdays & Saturdays at 8:00 PM
Series 2 – Fridays at 8:00 PM & Sundays at 5:00 PM
There is also a related forum with conferences, discussions, dances and music performances. Here’s the information link.
PHOTO: Nora el Samahy and Basel Al-Naffouri (and Sara Razavi) in Naomi Wallace's "No Such Cold Thing" directed by Bella Warda. Photo by Nazy Kaviani.
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