“Sorry it’s so late, it’s the only time I could” the son mumbles to his father, on a call at the top of the play. My heart panged and the guilt bubbled up as I counted the days (weeks?) since I last spoke to my mom in a way that didn’t involve emojis, feeling the tension between my words “I can’t find time” and my fear of their hidden meaning “I can’t find time for you”. In This is Who I Am by Amir Nizar Zuabi, we experience a late night zoom call between an estranged father and son as they struggle to perfect a mother’s recipe from memory. At the same time, they struggle to see and be seen by each other, each hoping for a connection that feels just out of reach.
Smoothly directed by Evren Odcikin and starring Ramsey Faragallah and Yousof Sultani, This is Who I Am seeks to highlight human truths and complications of leaving our first home to make a new one. It asks us to wrestle with what it means to make a better life than the one our parents had, and if the cost of leaving our family behind is worth it. The fact that five major regional theatres chose to center a Palestinian experience of living through illegal Occupation, with a mostly Middle Eastern creative team, when MENA representation is dismally low, is inherently revolutionary. This is doubled by the fact that the script boldly explores the relationship between identity and politics using fully realized characters in all their joy and faults and humanity, a privilege that inherently politicized identities are rarely allowed at this level in the American theatre. Through a father/son narrative we see two separate paths on the same journey and are left weighing what we really choose for ourselves and what is chosen for us.
This hybrid digital theatre piece commissioned specifically for Zoom, tackles many of the challenges that come along with Zoom theatre beautifully. The digital lobby was scored by Arab bops, both classic and contemporary, which set the mood for the intergenerational conversation to come. The digital house manager invited audiences to participate in a short introduction and share their favorite childhood recipe in the chat to recreate the community and connection we’ve been missing. The convention of a two person scene straight through is a smart way to tackle the use of zoom, in a way that both acknowledges our circumstances but aims to center the story and allow the words to carry the narrative.
Playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi invites the audience to experience this call exactly the way the two people participating in it experience it: cold but intimate, close enough to see but far enough to feel the distance between them. The scenic (Mariana Sanchez), costume (Dina El-Aziz) and lighting designs (Reza Behjat) excel at bringing us into two starkly different but intertwined homes that complimented each other as much as they clashed. Under the direction of Evren Odcikin, actors Yousof Sultani and Ramsey Faragallah tackle the heightened text and tense moments of the script astutely. Blocking and non verbal cues help tell us who these men are, the son measures to bake, and the father feels it out intuitively. The son uses the correct tools and the father uses what’s at hand, the father teaches the son how to chop onions and we watch the son learn a new way to do something old. Odcikin uses the task at hand, baking fteer in real time, to amplify the characters’ subtextual relationship with each other and as an obstacle to distance themselves when the discomfort of conversation gets too real.
For all its successes there were a handful of moments that made me question who the play’s intended audience was. Being partially set in Ramallah on the West Bank, with an overarching theme of leaving one’s motherland, I was surprised that there wasn’t a hint of code switching between Arabic and English. Few Arabic words were used by both characters throughout the piece. When given the opportunity to say the name of the country or cities lived in, the English versions were used by both characters without question or acknowledgement.This surprised me as the lack of connection to one’s language, particularly in Arab Immigrant communities, is so frequently scrutinized when it comes to measuring one’s relationship to identity and the motherland itself. It felt like a missed opportunity to not use language to highlight the dichotomy of belonging & identity that the play already speaks to.
Although the technical elements flourished in this medium, they may have unintentionally outshined the performances which affected my ability to hear the full story. The show leaned heavily on traditional theatrical conventions of storytelling (one static shot, straight through two-hander, use of heightened imagery in words instead of employing visuals) and side stepped opportunities to embrace the unique possibilities for intimate connection and storytelling that a camera can provide. The emotionally heightened moments of the show felt like actors executing a predetermined character arc rather than living in the moment. At times I found their reactions didn’t match one another’s behavior like each actor was in their own version of the play. It is a skill to ground Zuabi’s poetic language into naturalistic conversation, which is successful in the monologues and moments of heightened speech, but less so in the casual dialogue that strung these moments together. This made the transitions between heightened language and informal conversation feel disjointed and at times outside the realism that the Zoom call convention called for.
Historically BIPOC artists are expected to play into a narrative that either dramatizes our pain for white consumption or was created to defend ourselves against racist misrepresentations, sometimes both, but rarely are we allowed to have complicated relationships with our identity in a way that doesn’t involve whiteness. This Is Who I Am breaks up the monotony of MENA representation with a nuanced Palestinian story that holds universal resonance, asks big questions, and takes up space on a national level while showcasing a kickass creative team of Middle Eastern talent. As I watched the final moments, it hit me how scarcely I see stories about these stilted conversations with far away family in other countries, compared to how often immigrant families experience the vivid distant intimacy this show embodies. We deserve to see ourselves represented by ourselves in art made for ourselves. The uniqueness of this event is not to be understated and I look forward to more national artistic collaborations, more boundary pushing in creation, and more MENA artists in control of their own narratives.