Award-winning playwright Heather Raffo was at a family wedding in Damascus in 2006 when she decided to go for a walk by herself. “Fifteen people in my family stood up to come with me,” Raffo recalled. “Damascus was perfectly safe. But what’s considered normal in America — that I would have some alone time — is not seen the same way [in the Mideast]. The community attachment is huge.”
Raffo, a Michigan native whose father emigrated from Iraq and married her American mother, explores the tension between two mythos she carries in her veins. The idea from her American side is rugged individualism, that you can do anything you want to actualize your goals. But you can’t abandon family or group in the process. That part comes from her Mideast heritage. Both deeply held notions are in conflict in “Noura,” which previews Saturday at the Guthrie Theater.
Raffo’s play, which explores motherhood, marriage and identity, is partly inspired by the lead character in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” who leaves her 19th-century family for a life of her own.
“The bridge between community and individualism is something I carry daily, and that’s something the world is confronting more and more,” Raffo said.
“Noura” kicks the Guthrie’s first celebration of Arab and Arab-American artistry into high year. Last fall the theater hosted Kathryn Haddad’s “Zafira and the Resistance,” about an Arab-American teacher falsely accused of proselytizing for Islam.
In addition to “Noura,” the celebration this month includes tour productions of Hanane Hajj Ali’s “Jogging,” a dreamy work about Medea, exercise and artistic freedom in Beirut (Jan. 29-Feb. 2), and Amir Nizar Zuabi’s “Grey Rock,” about a Palestinian TV repairman who is building a rocket to the moon in his shed (Jan. 23-26).
Together, the Guthrie shows offer expansive views of Arab and Arab-American life and culture beyond such signifiers as turbans, fairy-tale genies and talk of terrorists in the news.
“When we conceived the series, the idea was to shine a light on Arab and Arab-American artistry and to look at it through multiple lenses, not expressly political,” said Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj. “When the U.S. finds itself in challenging moments in the Middle East, what happens to so many Arab-Americans is the propaganda machine gets going, and it becomes so large, entire populations are demonized.”
Haj, who is of Palestinian heritage, added: “I’m still part of every random airport security check by virtue of my last name.”
Born in Beirut
The idea for the celebration was born in Beirut, where Haj conducted workshops in November 2018 as part of a group of theater artists sponsored by the Sundance Institute. There, he met Ali, of “Jogging” fame, and was taken with her theatrical brilliance.
Ali, paradoxically, credits the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, with helping her to discover theater. As a teenage student, she was gifted in science, and was studying to become a geneticist before war changed her trajectory.
“We were often confined in bomb shelters for many days, and driven by an instinct to survive, we used to do improvisational forms for art,” Ali said by phone from Beirut. “Nobody in my community had the career of actress, and, to tell you the truth, being an actress was considered like being a whore. But [at 18] I applied secretly to school and studied it for two years.”
When her father found out that she was taking up theater, he beat her, Ali said. Still, she persisted. And when he saw her onstage for the first time, “he cried and became my biggest fan.”
Her show, “Jogging,” emerged from her daily exercises. “I wasn’t intending to do a play, but while I’m jogging, I’m confronted by the savage mutation of Beirut. Every morning, I would see how the streets are cut up and the architecture destroyed, all because of speculation and corruption. So, I started taking notes.”
“Jogging,” for which Ali won the Vertebrae Prize for best actor in the 2017 Edinburgh (Scotland) Fringe Festival, is performed in Arabic with translation. The show marries three stories inspired by real events, including a Medea-themed narrative involving a woman and her three sons. The boys die not by the hands of the mother, as in the Greek classic, but instead become martyrs, making mom proud.
Expanding the conversation
Written and directed by Zuabi, “Grey Rock” expands the conversation around Arab-American artistry by expanding dream possibilities. It looks at the moon landing in awe.
“Someone mentioned the moon landing as a moment the world changed, and there’s something quintessentially American about it,” said Zuabi, who lives in Jaffa, Israel. “The moon landing is about bravery and machismo and manhood. It’s about audacity and entitlement. You can dream big and own a planet, which is a severe contrast to where I’m from. We are so burdened by the past and conflicts that we can’t dream.”
Zuabi said that as he researched the play, building a rocket for the moon was not the technological challenge it was 50 years ago. “I saw that a bunch of guys in Denmark built rockets out of their shed,” Zuabi said. “America at its best is about escaping the limits that people place on you. That’s what [main character] Yusuf is trying to do in ‘Grey Rock.’ ”
For her part, “Noura” playwright Raffo was affirmed Sunday when Awkwafina, the lead actor of Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” became the first Asian-American woman to win such an honor. The film deals with similar themes faced especially by immigrant families.
“The burning question in my work is, are we individuals or are we part of community?” Raffo said. “Do we live for each other and for ourselves?”
The Guthrie series opens a portal into cultures that Americans are naturally curious about. It also expands the Guthrie’s reach. On Haj’s watch, the theater has hosted the New Griots Festival of young African-American artists, and “Get Used to It,” a celebration of LGBT artistry.
The Guthrie has had festivals around playwrights Tony Kushner in 2009 and Christopher Hampton in 2012 and has brought in international acts as part of its WorldStage programming.
“From an institutional perspective, we spend a lot of time thinking what we do not see enough of onstage — whose stories,” Haj said. “There’s no way in any given season to do all the things we want to do. But we just sort of choose a group or idea to focus attention on. This is a gift to the theater community, a meaningful contribution.”
The festival also has personal meaning for Haj, who began his theater career as an actor. When he used to audition, his roles were limited. “Terrorists and bad guys,” he said.
Now this celebration is helping to change that.
“This festival is a small gesture to recognize each other as human beings,” Haj said, invoking an old saw. “An enemy is a person whose story you don’t know.”