Acting while frying onions might be the biggest challenge for the performer in Amir Nizar Zuabi’s Oh My Sweet Land. At least, that’s what Golden Thread Productions founder/artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian warned Nora el Samahy as they embarked upon rehearsals for the hour-long one-woman play, which runs in the Bay Area October 12-22 (with another round of performances in February and March).
The Golden Thread production follows the U.S. premiere at the Play Company in New York; there it has been directed by the playwright (who conceived it with Parisian-based actress Corinne Jaber) and is performed by Nadine Malouf. It opened last month to a rapturous New York Times review and has been extended to Oct. 22.
It’s not just a matter of whipping up kibbeh—a traditional Syrian dish of little croquettes made from minced lamb and beef, pine nuts, bulgur dough, onions, and spices—from scratch every night; in addition, in New York, the play is performed in small private kitchens with seating for 10 to 30 people. In the Bay Area, it will also be performed in kitchens (Yeghiazarian and Zuabi each arrived at that choice independently), but while some will be in private homes, others will be in much larger, community-center kitchens seating as many as 100. In both the Bay Area and New York productions, each night’s performance is in a different location; in New York, the Play Company team first sees the venue of the night only about 45 minutes pre-show, just enough time for a dry tech.
And then there’s the show’s intense, emotionally fraught content. Oh My Sweet Land is a fictional story derived from conversations with Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan on a trip that Zuabi—a prominent Palestinian theatre artist based in Haifa—took with Jaber, who’s German-Syrian and who originated the role (the two first met through their work with Peter Brook). The narrative is also informed by stories Jaber heard when she continued on to Lebanon (where Zuabi, who holds an Israeli passport, could not go) and by both Jaber’s and Zuabi’s background and memories.
In the play as it was initially performed, a German-Syrian woman living in Paris (based loosely on Jaber) prepares kibbeh as she relates her journey to Jordan, Lebanon, and finally Syria itself in search of her lover, Ashraf. A Syrian who escaped to Paris after he was arrested by the Assad regime, Ashraf has suddenly disappeared. As the unnamed woman tells the stories of some of the refugees she meets on her dangerous quest—at times inhabiting their personas—she is always, in real time, cooking.
The play premiered in Switzerland (it was commissioned by Vidy Lausanne) in 2013 and has since toured, with Jaber in the role, to the Young Vic in London, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and to Amsterdam, Abu Dhabi, Mumbai, and Toronto. Written in English (the preferred playwriting language for Zuabi, who speaks four languages, including his native Arabic and also Hebrew), it was published by Bloomsbury. But the American premiere is the first time it has been staged in actual kitchens. “I had done it already in theatres,” Zuabi explains on the phone before the New York opening. “I didn’t want to do the same thing twice.”
For the New York premiere both Zuabi and Malouf wanted the character to be American, so she became a woman in Brooklyn with a Syrian father. Malouf, whose parents were born in Egypt (her mother is Syrian, of French and Italian descent; her father is Greek and Lebanese), emigrated with her family to this country from Australia when she was 11, and shed speaks with a slight Aussie accent (onstage, she uses an American accent, as she most often does in her acting career).
“I grew up with many different languages and cultures in a Western country,” she noted in a recent interview, “so I related very much to this feeling the character has, and the journey she goes on, similar to my own life—the feeling of belonging in many places and not belonging anywhere. And certainly my relationship with food—food is at the center of everything.”
The centrality of food in Middle Eastern cultures was a common theme in conversations with both actors and with director Yeghiazarian, who has an Armenian Christian father and Iranian Muslim mother and who emigrated here from Iran at age 14. The Bay Area actress, el Samahy, was born in Libya to an Egyptian father and an American mother, was raised in Cairo, and came to the U.S. for college. She said she can identify with her character’s feeling of being an outsider no matter where she goes.
“The deep connection with the food is what ties [the character] in to her lineage, her heritage,” el Samahy observed. “In the Arab world, hospitality and nourishing your children and family and friends are paramount.”
In fact, said Zuabi, one of the first things he knew about the show is that cooking would be involved.
“Where I come from, hospitality, feeding you, is a core value,” he said. “Syrian cuisine is considered the best. For me it was a no-brainer that the play needs to do with food and the sensuality of food, because it’s about a culture that’s under attack—not just about the horrors of Syria, but about celebrating what this culture is.” He chose kibbeh because, among other things, it is simple, but not too simple: “Your hand, your memory, your fingers, all work to make this perfect dish.
“I’ve been cooking since I was young,” he continued. “I know the textures. Kibbeh is a complicated enough dish that you don’t eat it every day, because it takes time, but you don’t need 300 ingredients.” Indeed, he said, he took Jaber to Haifa for two weeks so his aunt could each her how to make it.
But this deceptively simple complication is also “a perfect metaphor,” he said. “It’s a meeting between two tribes, the herders that provide the meat and the farmers who provide the grain. There’s an inherent tension of meat being kind of hidden inside the grain, inside the wheat, that seemed like the right metaphor. And the chopping is very visceral, the mincing—it’s not about throwing things into a pot and waiting for an hour; there’s enough work, and the end result is very gentle and beautiful.”
In the play, the woman, risking her life to seek Ashraf after only a three-month affair, goes first into refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, then ventures into war-torn Syria itself.
“Ashraf represents her connection to Syria,” mused el Samahy. “I feel that way about Egypt. It’s like a part of me. It’s hard to be far away when things are really rough. [This character] wants to pay greater witness. During this period of time, she’s entrenched in a world so far from her daily life it swallows her up. She’s consumed by it, and by him. She needs to come face to face with it, see what she’s capable of. I don’t know what courage I do or don’t have. None of us know.”
Malouf likewise sees the character’s journey as an internal one. “When she learns he’s gone back to Syria,” she said, “it’s a pull in her that she must find him, but ultimately she is searching for herself. My understanding of this woman is it’s no longer really about him; it’s about something far more complex within her that she’s left to grapple with and can’t quite fully come to terms with—which is why she makes this dish over and over. It’s the only thing she can do when she comes back [from her trip] and can’t reconcile what she’s seen and what she knows now.”
All that inner life, and cooking, too. “At the beginning, it was difficult to reconcile the technical aspects of needing to make the dish properly,” Malouf confessed. “I felt my ancestors watching my technique from above.” She learned to make kibbeh for the show from her mother, and estimates she makes about five or six croquettes a night in the show.
“Then,” she continued, “the flood of the emotional life of the show, this struggle, this journey this woman is on—at times in rehearsal I felt I can’t do both, it’s impossible.” Along the way, she cut herself, burned herself, poured oil over flames, set something on fire, and has a couple of scars that she wears as badges of honor. The stove in each kitchen is different, which means the oil heats up at different rates, among other variables.
The intimate atmosphere of the kitchens is a challenge, too. Malouf makes eye contact with each person in the audience every night; that is who she’s talking to, so that what she wants from them and why she’s telling this story can differ from night to night, depending on many variables, making the whole experience “exciting and fulfilling and terrifying.”
Along the way, Zuabi has encouraged her to make the play entirely her own, to make mistakes, to explore, to be messy. Said Malouf, “I kept saying, ‘I’m ruining your show,’ and he said, ‘I want you to rip it apart, see how many different ways we can put it back together,’ which was fresh air to me, and I think to any actor.”
For his part, Zuabi knew even before New York auditions that Malouf, whom he’d first met when she was performing in Utah, was right for the role that Jaber created. Malouf has the right qualities, he says: flexibility, generosity, and warmth, the ability to express the complexity of the character’s emotional courage. The woman, he says, is an honest person trying to tell a very personal story, and there’s a big generosity in sharing this story.
“The strength of the piece,” says Yeghiazarian, “is that it’s personal and intimate but maintains a larger vision and distance.” In the San Francisco production’s home kitchens, el Samahy will cook and perform with the audience of 10 to 20 seated in a semi-circle around her, inhaling the fragrances of cumin, sumac, and marjoram. The show’s sound effects are the actual sounds of sizzling, boiling, simmering, chopping, and mincing, all slightly amplified.
Despite her director’s warnings, el Samahy, who has been preparing for this piece for more than a year and a half, said, “I may be completely delusional, but I’m not nervous about cooking.” She cooks a lot and is familiar with the dish, so she’s not worried about the basics, like chopping onions. “I love having a task as an actor,” she said. “It’s so grounding.” For her part, she had a kibbeh-making tutorial from a Syrian woman, who deftly produced “these perfectly formed little footballs, each one looking like it came out of a mold.” She sees the action of the cooking as a relief for the character at times, pulling her out of the intense storytelling.
What may be a challenge, el Samahy guesses, will be hitting the emotional notes night after night, or nailing the pacing, or finding the clear connections and differentiations among the various characters that the storyteller is recreating. “The piece itself has to be a clear, clean nugget,” she said, but conceded, “The space will affect how things are delivered.”
With the New York opening under her belt, Malouf said, “I feel I’m just starting to appreciate the actions, how they inform the story, and the way the journey informs the food. Now it’s really become a kind of communication, a kind of music and dance almost. Now, as opposed to me trying to accomplish both things, they work together.” But, she confessed, “I’m very happy no one has to eat what I make.”
The audience won’t be served el Samahy’s kibbeh, either, although Yeghiazarian plans to offer catered food to accompany regular post-show discussions. But Zuabi suggested that there’s ultimately a tension between the beauty and the smells and the story, and that at the end of his play about love and yearning for home amid the world’s most horrifying humanitarian crisis, the audience will not be thinking about what to eat.