Rania is a teenager kicked out of the Middle East, forced to live with her relatives in Brooklyn, for reasons that nobody will tell her cousin Tariq – so he hacks into her computer to find out.
Hacking, excessive stop-and-frisk by the police, and coming out are among the current issues explored in “After,” a drama about an Arab-American family by Mona Mansour and Tala Manassah that is receiving its world premiere tonight through March 21st at the York College Performing Arts Center.
How does an award-winning playwright like Mansour, whose previous work has been produced at such venues as the Public Theater and the Humana Festival, wind up creating a play specifically for an undergraduate theater department in Queens?
The answer begins with Tom Marion, a professor who coordinates theater arts at the college: “I noticed we have more and more Muslim students here at York.” Yet when he opened up Pandora’s Box – that’s the name of the York student newspaper – the only stories he could find about them was how law enforcement was infiltrating Muslim student groups.
He contacted Hadi Tabbal, an actor and director who grew up in Lebanon and had written Marion earlier in hopes of teaching at York. Marion hired Tabbal to direct a play that would involve this growing population. Tabbal is not in fact Muslim. “It’s always hazy what people mean by Middle Eastern/Arab/Muslim,” says Tabbal.
Instead of selecting an old play, Tabbal commissioned a new one from Mansour and Manassah, American-born daughters of immigrants from the Middle East who had collaborated on a couple of short plays. Tabbal had starred in Mansour’s play “The Hour of Feeling,” portraying a young Arab scholar who takes a trip to England just at the outset of the Six Day War — a kind of prequel to Mansour’s well-received play at the Public, “Urge for Going,” about a family living in a Palestinian refugee camp.
“We came to be very close,” Mansour says of Tabbal. “It’s hard to say no to him!”
Tabbal’s charge to them – write a play that would pull in the Middle Eastern community near the college, and also, as Mansour recalls, “that pulled at a deeper mission….to create theater for theater-lovers as well as people who’ve never seen a play in their life.”
“In ‘After,’ at the core, you have a relationship between a grandfather and his grandson that is really deep,” says Manassah. “That’s juxtaposed against the bi-cultural existence of this family, and against the discussion around technology and what it is doing in our lives…I’m interested in the spaces where ‘old world’ values that are worth preserving meet new ones in a way that could bring about good things.” Manassah says the play also deals with the need America seems to have for a “bad guy… Being Arab — or Muslim or Muslim-looking — in America at this time is to live that experience.”
Auditions did not draw in the Middle Eastern/Arab/Muslim community at the school, for whatever reason. The only full Middle Easterner in the cast of six is not a student at all, but the Jerusalem-born professional actor Yusef Bulos, who plays Tariq and Rania’s grandfather, a Brooklyn bookstore owner and former firebrand who tries to mediate among the generations in his family. Bulos is a Broadway veteran who appeared in the revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” and recently performed in the Roundabout Theater Company’s much-praised production of Stephen Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet.”
“I love working with these students,” Bulos says. “They are unspoiled, engaged and deeply caring. These are not privileged kids. They have jobs and are not aiming for a career in the acting profession. I never feel I have to ‘dumb down’ to act with them.”
Is there any difference?
“The difference is this: when a moment is different from the way it was rehearsed or if they make a mistake they are thrown off and it takes them longer to get back into the story. They simply don’t have the know-how.”
For the student actors, the experience has been eye-opening. “I had no clue about the struggles going on in the play,” says Matthew Echevarria, a junior cast as Tariq, but he says that he identified with the character he is playing — “I was a troublemaker too” – and that his own ethnicity helped him understand the Arab-American family in After. “Being Latino, you learn to adapt.”
Arab Theater in New York
“After” comes fairly close, as it turns out, to being representative of Arab theater in New York.
“There isn’t really an official Arab theater in New York, neither venue nor organization,” says Hadi Tabbal.
“But there is an Arab and Arab-American theater community, most definitely,” says Mona Mansour. “A whole crop of really talented writers and actors, for sure.”
Both they and Bulos cite Noor Theater (which means “light” in both Arabic and Farsi), which has a theater residency at the New York Theater Workshop and most recently produced “Food and Fadwa” there. Tabbal also mentions the Arab American Comedy Festival. “It’s produced some influential Arab comedians.”
Is there anything that distinguishes the work of the Arab and Arab-American theater community in New York. Subject matter? Sensibility? Reception?
“Whether people were raised here or elsewhere, I think we have a certain understanding of events in the Middle East that others might not have,” Mansour answers. “Speaking for myself, I view more cynically than non-Arab-Americans the news coverage of certain events. I think, though, that there’s no way I could say we all have a certain sensibility, or that our work gets received the same way. One thing that bothers me? When you’re casting roles that require Middle Eastern actors, and you Google someone, you often find a treasure trove of YouTube clips of that actor playing terrorists, cab drivers, and good or “shady” imams. It’s changing, slowly–and there are some big-timey actors making a lot of headway–but that’s a real reality check for me. The work isn’t there yet, the roles aren’t there yet.“
For all the talk of Arab theater, “After” seems a very American play. How would it would be received in the Arab world?
“I’ve often wondered how my Middle Eastern plays would play in the Middle East,” Mansour replies. “I think it would vary, of course, from country to country and city to city, but I know I am most assuredly an American writer, albeit an Arab-American one.”
“In the US, pundits talk about the ‘Arab world’ as though it is possible to make firm determinations about the hopes, views, and aspirations of 400 million people in uniform and sweeping terms,” Manassah adds. “In a region where half of the population is under the age of 25, this seems even more absurd to me. My hope is that, if only in a very small way, this play makes those labels a little messier for the audience.”