BEIRUT: Hanane Hajj Ali is a 50-something actor who jogs daily. She does so to ward off stress and osteoporosis, and to encourage the body’s secretion of adrenalin, for focus, and dopamine, for calm.
As happens during physical exercise, her mind wanders through her longings, the great acting roles to which she’s aspired, her hopes and failures, and to her endorphin-enhanced perception of the world.
“I feel ecstatic to hear the sound of doves and the few birds on the tree ... and I remember the Quranic verse, ‘the birds with wings spread, Each of them has known his means of prayer and exalting Him ...’”
The character’s rapture is cut short when a pigeon dropping thuds into her eye. “Is it right,” she asks her audience, “for a pigeon to be exulting God while doing his business?”
This amusingly erratic career from ecstasy to banality reflects the crests-and-troughs structure of “Jogging,” the one-woman play actor-playwright Hanane Hajj Ali created with Eric Deniaud and Abdullah al-Kafri.
The work premiered in early October during Satellite Beirut 2016, IETM’s international performing arts conference. The play finished a brief run at Jisr al-Wati’s Station Sunday evening, leaving many in its capacity audience happily moved. Hajj Ali classifies her work as “theater in progress” – as though she were workshopping a first draft to see how many people will stay to the end. If that’s her intent, she’s guilty of lowballing her audience.
The work’s touchstone is one of theater’s great female roles, Medea – granddaughter and high priestess of the sun god; lover, wife and indispensable aid of Jason (of Argonauts fame) in stealing the Golden Fleece.
Revisited in multiple contradictory tales from Greek mythology and recast in numerous media – from Hesiod’s poetry to the most-dire TV miniseries – Medea is usually recalled as a powerful woman who avenges her husband’s infidelity by killing their two children.
After a comic pantomime of the Medea myth, Hajj Ali confesses that she finds Medea’s character at once compelling and repellent. Ironically, it was while Hajj Ali watched cancer devouring her own son that Medea came to possess her.
Hajj Ali & Co. deploy the routine of middle-aged jogging as a framing narrative for the heroic-tragic flight of Medea herself, invoking historical-theatrical representations of women – in Lebanon and abroad, in literature and recent memory – to reflect upon the feminine condition.
Playing a handful of characters off one another in counterpoint, the piece lurches knowingly from sacred to profane and – more importantly – from the sublime to the banal and the mortal imponderables that wander between them.
Aside from herself and Medea, the actor embodies “Yvonne,” a woman from Mount Lebanon who used a fruit salad laced with rat poison to end the comfortable lives she and her three kids had shared. She did so with a camera trained on them, leaving the tape for her absent husband. Yvonne’s recorded explanation of her act has vanished, so “Jogging” fills the vacuum with the suicide note novelist Virginia Woolf left for her husband Leonard.
Hajj Ali finally occupies “Zahra.” She and her husband Mohammad, a secular militant, fought the 1982 Israeli invasion. Like him, she became increasingly devout with age, adopting the hijab and niqab, only to be abandoned in pious terms.
Being theater, how these stories are told is as important as the narratives themselves. “Jogging” is a physically busy work, calling upon the actor to add and remove layers of clothing, burst into song, make and destroy paper dolls, misinform and feed the audience.
The audience files into Station to find Hajj Ali warming up in preparation for a run. As she stretches, she says a series of Arabic words that begin with “kh” and include “r.” They include “khara” (shit), which nicely anticipates her collision with the pigeon turd.
Hajj Ali the actor wears hijab, which is a useful tool in manipulating audience expectations.
First it provides a foil for the earthy humor her character shares about her life with her fictive husband – a brilliant director who converted from Maronite Christianity to Sunni Islam – as well as a certain politician who intrudes hilariously into the rampant sexuality of the character’s nocturnal dream life.
Moving between characters, Hajj Ali must apply makeup. At one point her hijab is removed to reveal shoulder-length hair, which is later swept away to show another hijab beneath.
Willing audience members are also press-ganged into reading notes one character or another has left. This audience participation is best realized soon after recounting Yvonne’s story, which seems to end with her burning three paper dolls she’s just made.
Sighing as if she’d forgot a line, Hajj Ali produces a fruit salad – not unlike the one Yvonne laced with poison. As she ponders the possibility of knowing what might have compelled Yvonne to kill her kids and herself, she dishes up three bowls of the stuff, adds whipped cream and asks who’d like some.
While most of the audience combusts at the comedy of the gesture, three do accept the fruit salad and dig in. “Uh oh,” she mutters, pulling a small bottle of clear liquid out of a pocket. “Forgot the most important part. Who wants some?”
“Jogging” will be restaged at Station on Nov. 11, 9 p.m., as part of the Focus Liban program of the Zoukak Sidewalks Festival.