Staging a mother’s grief

SHARJAH: “Theater asks questions, provokes thought and takes you on an emotional journey, portraying good and bad, joy and sorrow, redemption and salvation,” declares Lina Sahab, deploying a good approximation of a radio announcer’s voice. “I do not endorse a way of life, but describe one, and the audience is left to make its own decisions and judgments.” Reading from a sheet of paper by the light of a lamp, Sahab sits behind a desk, stage left, at the Sharjah Institute of Theatrical Arts. Stage right, a trio of musicians is visible in the gloom, playing jazz-inflected accompaniment while, center stage, the figure of Julia Kassar sits beneath a spotlight amid a mound of colorfully patterned cloth, apparently sewing.

A couple of seconds pass and Sahab informs the audience that her ruminations on theater were made in July 11, 1990, by an American performer named Madonna.

Sharjah Biennial 13, “Tamawuj,” opened Friday with a flurry of exhibition openings and – running in parallel to these, as part of the Sharjah Art Foundation’s yearly March Meetings – the first of a series of panel discussions, talks and lecture performances by an array of international artists, arts writers and laborers.

The opening day’s events closed with the world premiere of “Close to Here,” a theater performance written and directed by Roy Dib – one of 70-odd artists curator Christine Tohme commissioned to create new work in response to the biennial theme, Tamawuj (literally “waves,” “surging,” “undulating”).

Divided into five scenes, the performance centers on the feelings of yearning, grief and anger expressed in the monologue of a mother named Hala (Julia Kassar) who lost her husband Ibrahim in war (one never precisely identified), which her son Yusuf later also joined, and that also claimed the life of her daughter Soha – killed by a sniper.

As the play begins, Kassar’s character addresses her monologue to the absent Yusuf – one whose language lingers in loving sensuality over the act of making Turkish coffee for her son and the pleasure it gave them both. Later the mother addresses her monologue to the anonymous sniper who killed her daughter and persists in terrorizing her now all-but-abandoned street, forcing her to stitch these fabrics together to create colorful blackout curtains to obscure her movement through her house.

This theme of feminine loss and yearning – whether the narrative voice is that of mother, wife, sister or daughter – will be familiar to theater, film and television audiences throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Over the years this subject has premised numerous theatrical, television and film treatments of Lebanon’s various civil conflicts and the several catastrophes endured by Palestinians, to name just two cases. Indeed, for many critics and audiences, the narrative possibilities of such sentiments have been so thoroughly mined that – notwithstanding the persistence of grief and yearning in the human experience – their tropes have acquired the tinny ring of cliché.

Dib’s theatrical language is a good deal more intelligent than past treatments that seek to evoke sentimentality alone. He works, rather, with counterpoint and incongruity.

Though Kassar’s center-stage depiction of the grieving wife and mother abides by classical convention – which includes moving from (at times obscenity-inflected) Lebanese dialect to classical Arabic verse – she isn’t alone on stage.

Seated nearby, Sahab – whose remarks are usually accompanied by the onstage ensemble – voices characters that embody the play’s sense of ironic distance from the play’s perilously sentimental central narrative.

As the voice of Soha, Yusuf’s younger sister, she offers a more nuanced position of her brother’s relationship with her mother. As the voice of a radio broadcaster, she divides her time between relating daily horoscopes to her listeners and recounting absurd news headlines.

“It certainly is true that today is a new day but, it’s also just like any other day,” she intones. “The planets are still motionless. Everyone has been asking me about Jupiter and my mind is on Virgo. Dear Virgo, don’t hide yourself. Today is your day. The planets are circling around you. Green is your color. Don’t be shy.

“The headlines today,” she resumes. “An explosion in Baghdad kills 137 people. An unknown group storms into the Libyan desert and detonates itself, causing an undetermined number of deaths ... A pair of socks belonging to [Gamal] Abdel-Nasser goes on auction and a woman from China gives birth to a three-headed child.

“The weather forecast for the coming days holds plenty of rain and strong winds.”

In a further level of irony, Sahab’s job of context finds her quoting the (some might suggest self-important) remarks of Western performers like Madonna and Angelina Jolie, who have attempted to use their celebrity status to elevate themselves from pop culture whimsy to sage international activism.

Occupying the middle space between Kassar and Sahab’s characters, vocalist Sandy Chaamoun sings several dirges and wedding songs from the Egyptian, Iraqi and Palestinian repertoire.

The performances in “Close to Here” – from the actors, vocalist and musicians (Liliane Chlela, Fouad Afra, Bashar Farran) – are professional and the dramatic language, in which the stage is transformed from unadorned gloom to one hung with colorful fabric, is intelligent. Both effectively reflect what Dib’s notes term a play “trapped in the story of a city captivated by the infinite melancholy of its own people.”

For audiences who are themselves captivated by the theater of mourning and loss, “Close to Here” will likely be seen as an unconditional success. For those who feel that the sentimental tropes of the universal feminine voice trapped in the limitless mourning of a brutal world, Dib’s work will seem all too familiar.

In fact, the work falls somewhere between these two extremes. In Dib’s knowing deployment of comic irony and the absurd as a counterpoint to well-worn narrative conventions of loss and grieving, there resides a possible creative solution to theaters’ exhausted narrative conventions.

If that solution isn’t fully realized here it isn’t because he works with conventional narrative but because he’s yet to find a balance between the two, or the absurdist-tragic synthesis that could emerge from their co-habiting the development of the work. Not yet.

“Tamawuj,” Sharjah Biennial 13, continues at various locations around Sharjah through June 12.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 13, 2017, on page 11.




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