Benjamin Franklin famously quipped that America will have a republic as long as she can keep it.
Well, it’s well-nigh gone in “Zafira and the Resistance,” Kathryn Haddad’s new play that premiered Saturday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. But only some of the people in the futuristic drama recognize that they are not free.
Donald Trump’s name is not mentioned anywhere in “Zafira,” which opened three days after the president held a rally at Target Center. Yet Trump’s aura permeates a two-act work that makes the U.S. look more like North Korea than a free-thinking democracy.
The society presented in the play is ruled by someone simply named Great Leader (Garry Geiken), and he never appears in person, only on video to rally the kids in school, all of whom are issued Mao-evoking red notebooks.
Playwright Haddad’s imagined future is a dystopia dominated by unthinking Islamophobia. And the resistance of the title is more a marketing ploy to co-opt young people’s rebellious spirit than anything else: It’s the name given to the Great Leader’s school-age acolytes, who are chipper versions of Hitler youth.
The action takes place at Eagleton High School in Anytown USA. There, Lebanese-American teacher Zafira Khoury (played by Lina Jamoul) is viewed as a suspicious undercover enemy of the state by her students because she relates literature to contemporary politics, and in her global studies class, she teaches a poem about a foreigner named Nelson Mandela.
Zafira is detained and imprisoned with others of her faith.
An outgrowth of an earlier work from nearly a decade ago at Pangea World Theater, the play, which the playwright reworked this summer, is presented by New Arab American Theater Works, where Haddad serves as executive and artistic director.
“Zafira” clearly springs like an ache from the current political environment. It points up the gap between the lived reality of many Americans and our ideals. But in terms of craft and artistry, this ambitious work is not fully developed. The narrative is a titch plodding and preachy, telling more than it shows. And the acting ensemble is under-rehearsed, with far more enthusiasm than polish.
Even so, co-directors Malek Najjar and Zeina Salame find small moments here and there as they marshal a 14-member cast into an uneven whole. The staging uses both the playing space of the Dowling Studio and the rafters to suggest a world gone Orwell.
If it’s not always successful, we can applaud the effort.
Artists are charged with being prophets, which means that they sometimes will be cursed in their own lands. Haddad has written a play that’s a cry of the heart about the type of nation America may become, cheerfully slipping into tyranny and concentration camps. The delivery may be flawed, but the heartfelt message resounds.