Noor Theatre is hungry for Arab drama
New theater companies come. They go. They open a play that brings some attention. Or not. More often not.
What definitely is not supposed to happen is going on right now with the Noor Theatre, which unveils its first production Thursday -- a big-time world premiere by an untested playwright and with the conspicuous backing of one of the city's most respected Off-Broadway operations, the New York Theater Workshop.
The interest is significant. Noor, which means "light" in both Arabic and Farsi, is the city's first high-profile venture dedicated to work about the Middle East and about Middle Eastern-Americans. "Food and Fadwa" is the first co-production between Noor and NYTW, the East Village creative cauldron where "Rent" was born and where "Once" and "Peter and the Starcatcher" ran before earning a combined 20 Tony nominations on Broadway this season.
More than a year ago, James Nicola, the workshop's artistic director, invited Noor to be its latest company-in-residence, a status that includes mentoring at least as much as opportunity and space.
"It has been a wild, wild ride," Lameece Isaaq told me in a phone interview last week. Isaaq, a co-founder, artistic director and Palestinian-American co-author of the play in which she also stars, explained, "Even though we've been working on this for 10 years, it suddenly feels like it's happening really fast. It's daunting . . . and fantastic."
Not so long ago, Isaaq was an actress sleeping on a friend's futon in Astoria. As she remembers, "I was aimless, watching all the food networks and thinking maybe I could be the next food network star." She put together a pitch with filmmaker friend Jacob Kader. They got rejected but improvised it into a playlet for the Arab-American Comedy Festival -- a popular annual gathering for talent and for what she calls "goofy sketches and stand-up. A ton of my friends all met there."
After many workshops and readings of other plays, the first result is "Food and Fadwa," a serious comedy about Fadwa, an unmarried Palestinian woman who copes with her tumultuous family -- and daily life under occupation in Bethlehem on the West Bank -- through cooking. Nicola and associate director Linda Chapman, who had earlier backed a short-lived Arab-American collective called Nibras, decided, as he told me last week, "to be a little cradle for this." He especially likes the idea that, instead of an Arab-American company, the objective broadened to include the entire Middle East -- "as broadly defined as possible."
New York has seen more theater about the Middle East since 9/11 than in all the previous centuries combined. But most has been scattered and marginalized. The one Broadway play that dared to get near the subjects, Rajiv Joseph's haunting and deliriously original "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" was a heartbreaking box-office flop last season, even with Robin Williams as the tiger.
I talked to Isaaq in the fall to get a theater artist's view on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. "So much changed so profoundly," she said then about the attack. "The camera turned to anything to do with the Middle East, and we felt the lens tighten. . . . We felt the need to express our points of view in more nuanced ways. With all the hectic, insane, troubling events, she says, "we" (she and colleagues Nancy Vitale and Maha Chehlaoui) wanted to humanize "in a way that helps people feel connected while exploring the darkness. We're not all good, we're not all bad, we're humans. It's all about perspective."
Asked whether any subject would be off-limits, including stories from an Israeli perspective, "Nothing is off-limits," she insisted. "Our mission is to support and illuminate other voices. It all depends on how it's done. Is it nuanced? Does it open our minds? Can we relate to it in ways that are not polemical. I'm not crazy about extremes on any stage."
And what Middle-Eastern artists need are opportunities -- real ones. Arian Moayed, the wonderful actor who got a Tony nomination for "Bengal Tiger" and is still hurting from its failure to find an audience, has been cast as the fiance of Fadwa's sister. Asked if the interest in the Middle East means more opportunities, he told me: "Yes and no. There is more work on TV and movies, but I wouldn't necessarily say these are opportunities. For Middle-Eastern men, there is work if you want to play a terrorist or a victim of terrorism. I don't even know anyone who knows anyone who is a terrorist or a victim of terrorism."
He is grateful that "Bengal Tiger" gave him the freedom to turn down those roles, but doesn't blame colleagues who need to "take a role as a bad guy who blows up things. I haven't found much in film and television I find appropriate for me. Without Rajiv [Joseph] and Lameece and other beautiful writers," he said, adding praise for Nicola and for Oskar Eustis at the Public Theater, "it would be harder to keep saying no."
Moayed, born in Iran and raised in a suburb of Chicago, says, "It's hard. I feel that the stories need to be told. We are doing the best we can to tell the stories. But will there be a demand for them? Will people come? Will they enjoy them? Will they think they are too political? Those things are out of our hands."
I asked Nicola about the dangers of ghettoized theater. Shouldn't we be beyond the need to categorize stories by ethnicity or gender? "It would be great if it were unnecessary, if we had a truly open and equal society," he answered. "I'm proud that American theater has so relentlessly pursued more and more inclusion.
"But in this particular community," he said with edgy sadness, "we have work to do as a society."
Nobody knows what happens to Noor after "Food and Fadwa," though Nicola, ever the mentor, insisted the company raise its own money -- $80,000 -- as part of the deal. "Bring money to the table!" Isaaq remembers with a laugh. "I couldn't even bring money to myself!" In fact, most of it has been raised. Now Noor has to prove it can raise the roof.