Last November, I attended the annual convening of Middle East North African Theatre Makers’ Alliance, hosted by the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich. Just outside of Detroit, Dearborn is home to the largest Arab American population in the U.S. One offering among the excellent lineup of activities in the convening was the opportunity to attend a rehearsal of Noura by and featuring Heather Raffo at Detroit Public Theatre. I had seen previous productions of Noura, but seeing Raffo perform the title role was quite a treat. It led me to return to Detroit in December to see the full production, which closed Dec. 18.
I was prepared for a moving experience, but I was not prepared for the myriad discoveries I made about the need and opportunities for regional theatre. It will take a moment for me to explain.
At its core, Noura is the story of an immigrant woman, a wife and a mother who has been harboring a secret for the past 26 years and must struggle with the conflicting need to both hold on and let go. Noura is a Christian Iraqi, a Chaldean from Mosul, married to her sweetheart, also a Christian Iraqi from Baghdad; their only friend appears to be Noura’s childhood friend, a Muslim man from Mosul. Raffo sets the play during a Christmas celebration as it is honored by ancient Chaldean tradition: with a fast on Christmas Eve, followed by an elaborate feast of Muslawi food and bread on Christmas Day. Identities and traditions are very specific in this play. While for some producers this might augur a limited audience, Detroit Public Theatre’s production proved the opposite.
Raffo, who is Chaldean herself, was born and raised in Michigan. The Chaldeans are an ancient Christian community originally from Mesopotamia, an area spread roughly among today’s Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The contemporary Chaldean community in Mosul was all but annihilated by ISIS in 2016, and today more Chaldeans live in the Detroit area than anywhere else in the world. So, while the events of Noura are set in New York, the story resonates deeply in Michigan, where the first Iraqi church in the U.S. was founded.
Watching Raffo’s breathtaking performance—her first in Michigan since her college years at Ann Arbor—was one element that made this production special. Several other remarkable things about it are also worth sitting with. The entire company consisted of Arab or Middle Eastern American artists; the director was Dearborn native Mike Mosallam, and the production featured Kal Naga, Egypt’s latter-day Omar Sharif, and Mattico David, also born and raised in Michigan, who has been with the show since its premiere at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2018. One actor, Amanda Najor, and stage manager Doran Konja are Chaldeans born and raised in Michigan who know each other from high school. The company thus brought a palpable sense of lived experience to the performance that both drew the audience in and put us at ease.
Mosallam’s alley staging, with the audience arranged on opposite sides looking across a central performance space, also contributed to the sense that we were a part of the action, as if we had been invited to a friend’s home. A large, elaborately decorated Christmas tree with boxes of gifts stacked underneath anchored one side of the stage. The other side housed the tea station, which also served as a refuge for the characters when they sought comfort or needed to step away from a heated discussion. Noura’s large dining table centerstage was the gathering place within her unfurnished house, a fort where the inside and outside spaces were distinctly yet invisibly marked. The environment of the play reflected the state of displacement, the in-between-ness, of the immigrant experience, of never fully settling down or belonging.
Noura is a complicated woman, and Noura is a complicated play. It is a love story and a cultural celebration, but it also reveals unspoken truths, hypocrisy, and shame, both on a personal and a national level. When Noura asks, “If we were not silent, my God, what might we be?,” Noura implicates every Iraqi, including herself, in Iraq’s civic destruction.
For this reason and many others, director Mike Mosallam told me, “It was not a given that the community would show up for this play. But the brilliant thing was that they did show up, fully.” To what does he attribute this success? I wondered. He began by crediting the producers, who trusted the artists to tell their own stories and were very committed to reaching out to the community. And he praised the cast for bravely and whole-heartedly embracing all the layers and nuances of the story, including the shame, the secrets, and the fears. By truthfully telling a nuanced and complicated story, the artistic team showed up for the community. And the community in turn showed up for them.
During the two post-play conversations that I attended, Chaldean audience members commented repeatedly on feeling seen for the first time. Far from chastising the playwright for offering a compromising depiction of Iraqis, audience members applauded Raffo for creating complex characters; for addressing the burden of silence that so many immigrants carry, and for homing in on a kind of generational hypocrisy in which older immigrants hold younger ones responsible for failing to preserve values and practices they themselves did not maintain in the home country. One Chaldean woman thanked Raffo and commented, “The only way our stories are going to be successful is if they’re honest.”
Something magical was happening at Detroit Public Theatre. It was about more than shining a light on an invisible community. More than telling untold stories, it felt like an act of homeland-making. Through their generosity and commitment to truthful storytelling, the artists and production team had created an alternative homeland where the audience could feel seen and held. They may have left the 3,000-year-old land of their ancestors, but they had found each other here. The creative team had been empowered by the producers to bring their full selves to the story, which in turn inspired audiences to share their personal truths without hesitation.
Better still, it was not only Chaldeans or Arab Americans who showed up for this production. During the three performances that I attended, I observed an intergenerational mix of African Americans, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, and Americans of Western European background in the audience. Courtney Burkett and Sarah Winkler, two of the four co-artistic directors of Detroit Public Theatre, confirmed that over its eight seasons, the company has consistently drawn a racially diverse audience representing a wide political spectrum, including many deeply conservative people. The racial diversity is partly a reflection of Detroit’s 80 percent African American population. But the fact that they are showing up at the theatre is mainly thanks to Detroit Public’s mission of telling stories from and about the city’s communities, and their commitment to engaging those communities in their productions.
A long-time resident commented that despite having lived in Detroit all her life, she did not know about the Chaldean community and what they had endured. How moving that a theatre company could successfully gather and connect multitudes of its local communities, and in effect introduce them to each other!
The specificity of the production, amplified by the lived experience of its cast, meant that Noura invited audiences of all background to find their own entry point into the play. One African American woman shared that the play made her think about the intergenerational difference in attitudes toward whiteness within her own family: Her daughter, she said, sees herself first and foremost as an American, and is equally comfortable among Blacks and whites, while she sees herself as Black, and still feels uncomfortable or “less than” when speaking with a white person. A Japanese American woman shared that the play made her think about her relationship to her parents, who live in Japan—a far enough distance, she said, that it allows them to have an amicable relationship. If they lived nearby, she said, she was certain their relationship would be more strained. And a young white man shared that he was inspired by the portrayal of a loving father in the play. In the U.S., he said, fathers are expected to be “a side show,” but the play encouraged him to be more hands-on and to express his love more openly.
One woman went even farther: She said she has now “inherited” this story, and will carry it with her for life.
Sitting at those post-play conversations with the audience, I was reminded that the feeling of otherness, exclusion, or rejection is not unique to immigrants. The folks who offered personal stories reflected a wide range of citizenry. What was it about this performance that elicited such openness from the audience? It felt even more remarkable given the current environment of national division, and the much-lamented breakdown of public discourse. These post-play conversations were not performative or perfunctory. Real people responded truthfully to a story they witnessed together. If we are able to have such frank and open conversations in a theatre in Michigan, a swing state, what more might we be capable of? I am reminded of Noura’s question, “If we were not silent, my God, what might we be?” Let us not be culpable in our own civic destruction.
Theatre as an act of homeland-making, using cultural specificity to invite universal connections, might serve as a model for regional storytelling. What is the formula for success? Local stories told by local artists for local communities. This is not rocket science; it is what regional theatre was actually meant to be. Regional theatres have a unique opportunity to nurture local artists and facilitate the creation and dissemination of local stories and perspectives. They can fill the gap in our national discourse. They can help us understand rather than fear one another.
Regional theatres should stop playing second fiddle to New York by producing mainly plays that have already received the stamp of approval from New York audiences and critics. It is worth noting that while Noura played Off-Broadway before this Detroit production, it was developed at the Arab American National Museum, where Detroit Public’s co-artistic director first attended a reading. Without the Museum’s development support and Detroit Public’s invitation, Raffo would not have been able to bring this play “home” to her cultural community.
To honor and support the sharing of regional narratives, regional theatres must cultivate a local theatre community that can reflect the unique experiences and perspectives of the region, and facilitate conversations centering their local communities in all their complexity: their fears, secrets, traditions, and celebrations. Only then can we truly understand these United States in their full diversity and plurality of culture and perspective.
Torange Yeghiazarian (she/her) is a playwright and director who served as the founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions, the first American theatre company focused on the Middle East.
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