The Art of Countering Despair: Naomi Wallaceby Betty Shamieh
There is something particularly devastating about being invisible. Having no representation of your ethnic group on-stage, I often think, is even harder than only having stereotypical portrayals. Caricatures make you angry and itching to write passionate letters to the producers, the press, anyone who will listen. Or passionate plays. Many of the best dramas were written partly because a playwright was angry; perhaps that anger was directed mainly at one’s mother, but nevertheless it is the particular combination of shock, grief, disbelief, and unwillingness-to-accept-the-unacceptable-as-inevitable that we recognize as simply “anger” which lies at the core of many great works.
Invisibility, on the other hand, invites despair. A stereotype on-stage shouts out, “YOUR PEOPLE ARE NOT FULLY HUMAN!” You know in every fiber of your being that is not true. Never having any representation of your people in mainstream theatre at all whispers, “Whatever you may or may not be, you simply do not matter.” Or, at least, not to the people who have theatres, audience bases, resources, power. And that might well be true. Of all the emotions that a human endures, there is nothing more crippling and difficult to overcome than despair.
It was as an actor that I first encountered Naomi Wallace’s powerful voice. I was looking for an audition monologue and a teacher recommended In the Heart of America. I did not realize that she was recommending it to me because it had an Arab-American female character, because I was so accustomed to feeling that I’d never find characters of my background for me to play unless I wrote them myself.
Nowadays, a playwright’s personal biography is often “marketed” along with her plays, and so it is almost impossible to be an anonymous storyteller whose race is unknown to his or her audience. The fact that Naomi bravely writes from cultural perspectives other than her own has been an inspiration for me. While presenting the work of writers of color should and must be a priority for all theatre institutions that aspire to remain culturally and politically relevant in the twenty-first century, I feel that expecting our writers/artists/thinkers/imaginers to write only characters of their own race is like demanding that they write only characters of their same gender. Naomi’s work encouraged me to create a pioneer program called the “Writing the Other” workshops, in which I used an NEA/TCG grant to develop and lead a series of writing exercises for Arabs and Jews to write monologues from the other’s perspective, an experience that I felt was more transformative than any attempt at formalized dialogue between the two groups that I had ever seen before.
I met Naomi when she selected a short play of mine for the Imagine: Iraq project, an evening of one-acts that she curated in November 2001. She recently began rehearsals for her current production, The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East, which will be produced as part of the inaugural season of the Public LAB program, running at the Public Theater from April 25 through May 11.
Shamieh: The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East is three short works. A number of well-known political playwrights, including Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner and yourself, have begun producing shorter plays. Do you feel this is a trend? Was there something particularly compelling about the one-act form that drew you to it at this time?
Wallace: I wasn’t particularly drawn to the one-act for this trilogy. And yet perhaps there is something about a more condensed form that strikes my match. How to distill something that feels enormous and complicated in my mind (war and resistance) into a very short play. There is also something about the small play and its ability to capture and concentrate the mind when dealing with such shop worn, overwhelming and contentious subjects such as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict or the war against Iraq.
Shamieh: What is the genesis of these three works? Have they been performed before? If so, where?
Wallace: The three ‘visions’ that make up The Fever Chart were all produced separately over a period of five years. State of Innocence for Theatre 7:84 in Scotland, and Between this Breath and You for the Hot Bed Theatre Festival in Cambridge, U.K. The Retreating World was commissioned by the McCarter Theatre. For State of Innocence, I was asked by Theatre 7:84 to write a response to 9/11. So I wrote about the Rafah zoo, in Gaza. The Retreating World came about when the McCarter asked me to write a ghost story. I’d wanted to write a play about the ten year embargo against Iraq. The challenge was how to get this issue on stage without getting caught in and weighed down by the rhetoric. So I decided to write a play about the embargo from the point of view of a pigeon collector. The middle vision, Between This Breath and You, is based on a true story. The title came to me shortly after my father died two years ago. All three plays have been produced in London, and Cairo, Egypt. The Retreating World has also been done across Europe.
Shamieh: As you have been working on these plays in rehearsals, have you found subtle thematic connections between them that you did not notice before?
Wallace: The plays can stand alone, and yet something different happens when they play side by side. If someone has found the more subtle thematic connections (for there are many that are more obvious), that would be my director, Jo Bonney. She’s got a better eye for that than I have. And I’m lucky for that. Underneath the loss, love and humor of the plays, I have begun to see the limits of language in all three pieces—that no one way of seeing or speaking lasts and the characters are continually changing direction or tactics.
Shamieh: You have been producing plays that deal with the Middle East for well over a decade. Do you feel that interest and reception of plays about the Middle East has changed since September 11? If so, how?
Wallace: I think there is a misperception that I write solely about the Middle East. The majority of my work deals with other subjects, from the plague in 1665 England (One Flea Spare) to Communism in 1930s Alabama (Things of Dry Hours). The U.S. is warring and pillaging on various fronts all over the Middle East, and has been for many years. Some of mainstream American theater has caught up with current history—due in large part to the active, vocal and vibrant voices of Arab-American playwrights. But we still need more space for these voices. We need to begin to disrupt and challenge our own ignorance about the world today. I think that the carnage in Afghanistan, Iraq and occupied Palestine have influenced what audiences want to see and think about. The resurgence of imperial capitalism as well as a more naked hostility to Muslims and immigrants, and the way that this history has impacted the U.S. and Britain, have made a lot of people angry with governments who just don’t seem to listen or care. Generally, it seems that people, in and outside of theater, are now more eager to challenge the rhetoric and rationales peddled by the media, think tanks, pundits and politicians.
Shamieh: What has been the most exciting aspect of working on The Fever Chart?
Wallace: The most exciting thing? Well, it’s more of a hard thing. Confronting my own ignorance about the world. Confronting my own assumptions. I’m a citizen of empire. I can reject this empire. I can work against it. And yet I was born and raised in the belly of this beast. How to face the beast, in all its myriad forms? Because somehow the beast still gets inside us. Somehow it takes up residence, leaves its residue, in our most intimate thoughts, our most personal actions. How to write with that? Against that? Sometimes, how to write against our own minds?
The Fever Chart, by Naomi Wallace, directed by Jo Bonney, runs April 25-May 11 at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette, NYC). Tickets: $10. For more tickets and further info: www.publictheater.org or call 212-539-8500.
Naomi Wallace’s work has received the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Kesselring Prize, the Fellowship of Southern Writers Drama Award, and an Obie. She is also a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. Her plays include One Flea Spare, In the Heart of America, Slaughter City, The Inland Sea, The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, Things of Dry Hours and (forthcoming) The Hard Weather Boating Party. Her award-winning film Lawn Dogs is available on DVD. Her new film The War Boys, co-written with Bruce McLeod, will be released next year.
Excerpt from Between This Breath and You (the second play in Naomi Wallace’s The Fever Chart)
The play takes place in a clinic in West Jerusalem. Mourid Kamal is a Palestinian in his forties. Tanya is an Israeli nurse in her early twenties.
TANYA: I’ve been on my feet ten hours. I can give you five minutes, no more. What is the problem?
MOURID There are many problems, Miss Langer.
TANYA: Is it a problem with appetite?
(Mourid shakes his head ‘no’)
How is your sleep?
MOURID My sleep is very well, thank you for asking. I haven’t seen it in years but I hear it’s thriving.
TANYA: Let’s have a look in your eyes.
(Shines a light in them)
How’s your sight?
MOURID Belligerent. I focus on the road, it wanders with the goats.
TANYA: Is your vision clear?
MOURID Yes. May God curse it.
TANYA: Look, do you need a prescription?
MOURID I have never been to New York. I hear the subways are ugly. The parks beautiful. At night, Manhattan glows like a gigantic firefly.
(after a moment)
I see. So this is not actually a medical problem. I could call the police.
TANYA: How did you get in here?
MOURID Where is ‘here’? (beat) This clinic?
TANYA: West Jerusalem.
MOURID I walked.
TANYA: You can’t walk through the Wall.
MOURID There are always cracks.
TANYA: Goodnight. And get out.
MOURID I am truly unwell, Miss Langer. You can help me.
TANYA: This is a private clinic. You’ll have to pay.
MOURID I have no money. Don’t turn me away, please. You are a nurse.
(after a moment) What exactly is the problem?
MOURID I am stuck.
TANYA: Your bowels? How are your bowels? Sit.
MOURID My bowels are pleasant. My bowels are actually very much like the English: punctual, polite, predictable. Abroad they are murderous, especially in slippers.
TANYA: Have you been here before?
TANYA: I recognise your voice.
MOURID We’ve never spoken.
TANYA: If I am to help you, we must be direct.
MOURID Do you think this is the only world? I can hear conversations happening one hundred years ago. The things my son said. The words you will say, after your death.
TANYA: Are you threatening me?
MOURID I want to touch you.
(Tanya takes a measured step back, yet she is confident)
TANYA: Shame on you. Act your age. In my clinic, you’ll have some respect.
MOURID I’m sorry.
TANYA: How old are you?
MOURID I stopped counting.
TANYA: And how is your memory?
TANYA: Do you have gaps? Simple things that fall away? For instance, do you go to the refrigerator for a glass of juice but instead put your car keys in the egg box by accident?
MOURID I don’t have a car.
TANYA: Do you forget to put your socks on before your shoes, that sort of thing?
TANYA: I see.
MOURID But it’s not something I forget. I put my socks on over my shoes because they are happier and can enjoy the view.
TANYA: There could be some dementia here.
MOURID My throat hurts.
TANYA: That’s better. Now open your mouth.
(Tanya looks into his mouth)
Your throat looks fine.
MOURID It’s always dry.
TANYA: That happens when we age.
MOURID I once dreamed water could be the solution. But you’ve closed the tap. Your lawns are so green they are blue. I can hear you splashing in your swimming pools in my sleep.
TANYA: You are suffering from depression. I’ll suggest a prescription to the doctor. Seroxat. Full strength. You’ll have to come back and collect it tomorrow.
(Tanya takes out a small notebook)
How do you spell your name?
MOURID Mourid Kamal. K.A.R.M.I. Will pills clear up my depression?
TANYA: (smiles) Yes. They will.
MOURID Thank you, Tanya.
TANYA: You’re welcome.
MOURID But I want to keep my depression.
TANYA: Depression is a disease, Mr. Kamal.
MOURID No. Depression is a warning.
Betty Shamieh is currently the NEA/TCG playwright-in-residence at Magic Theater, and her recent productions include Chocolate in Heat (The Tank), The Black Eyed (New York Theatre Workshop, Theatre Fournos of Athens), The Machine (Naked Angels), and Roar (The New Group). Her play Territories, which premiered at the Magic, will be produced as part of the inaugural theatrical events of the European Union's Capital of Culture Festival in 2009.