In all the remembrances of the September 11th attacks, there’s a huge hole: how Muslim, Arab, and South Asian people are now demonized and the increasing for peril civil liberties in the post-9/11 United States. Pangea World Theater’s production of playwright/poet Kathryn Haddad’s “Zafira, The Olive Oil Warrior” unflinchingly looks at the everyday ignorance and unexamined bigotry that could too easily result in all these groups of people being officially declared “enemies of the state”.
Taous Claire Khazem plays Vickie Khoury, a Lebanese-American high school English teacher, who comes under sharp scrutiny , where simply teaching world literature rather than American writers or not attending her school’s patriotic pep rallies, make her increasingly suspect. Ultimately, she is put in a Minnesota internment camp and even after she is eventually released, her previous life is in ruins.
Haddad’s premise is completely believable. Historical reality of over 150,000 Japanese-Americans —many of them native-born, U.S. citizens— put in internment camps during World War II informs the play.
Round-ups cast a broad net that sweep up Vickie’s fellow prisoners: a 62 year-old woman who’s “crime” appears to be that she speaks little English; a pregnant woman who’s husband was ‘disappeared” (through rendition to a CIA ‘black site”?); a 17-year-old Egyptian-American girl, who seems like any other teenager. Their soldier-guards are coldly harsh, one is occasionally kind but, no one questions their assignment.
The play is framed by Vickie being cast into homelessness, living under the rebuilt 35W bridge, with Marge. The only truly caring, white American in the play Sarah Broude’s mother-figure, who recognizes Vickie’s trauma, comforts and nurtures her in their mutual struggle of survival.
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This is a true ensemble of actors.
Dan Rein, most known for promoting Middle Eastern music hosting KFAI Radio’s “Century Song” and as a musician, brilliantly created the set that includes Vickie and Marge’s jumbled home under the bridge and a cell in the internment camp. Owen Henry’s sound design is subtle.
But, it is Pangea director Dipankur Mukherjee’s bold hand and former executive director of Mizna, Kathryn Haddad’s script that this theatrical experience rest on. Unlike most American theater companies , Pangea embraces a convergence of politics with art. Over the last 15 years of productions I’ve seen, the results are almost always incredibly powerful, making one think, “So, this is what theater can do!” , For example Pangea’s workshop performance in July of Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader’s “Food and Fadwa” (about life in the Occupied Territories of Palestine) was a perfect balance of three-dimensional characters in a dramatic narrative with a deftly interwoven political sensibility.
“Zafira” is a bit more uneven.. At times, the white characters feel like one-dimensional bullet-points: paranoid fellow school employees, jingoistic Super-Patriots, 21st century versions of the old Southern-style racists. On the other hand, if you’ve followed the opposition to building an Islamic version of the YMCA in New York City, listened to national security pundits or read online comment sections, these characters represent uncomfortable truths that too-rarely get challenged, even ten years after the attacks.
Introducing Vickie‘s alter-ego, Zafira makes for a bit of a bit of a rocky start to the play and I think it would have been more effective to see Zafira a little later in the play. The way Khazem plays her sometimes garbles lines and it isn’t until part-way through the play, she hit a stride with this Wonder Woman-like character. However, many of Zafira’s words are stirring and her magical powers include the ability to inject empathy into others. Many Americans—who still refuse any reflection when it comes to September 11th and its aftermath— are in sore need of the capacity to stand in “the Other’s” shoes, to acknowledge our common humanity and to imagine alternative responses to September 11th.
Ultimately, “Zafira, The Olive Oil Warrior” is an urgent counter-weight to how September 11th continues to be used to justify anything: an expanding hit list of countries targeted for war, racial/religious profiling, shredding civil liberties, torture and assassinations. This play brings that all very close to home.
Hear a two-part interview with Pangea World Theater’s director Dipankur Mukherjee, playwright Kathryn Haddad and actor Touse Claire Khazem on the September 8 and 13 editions of CATALYST:politics and culture, hosted by Lydia Howell, archived at www.kfai.org
“Zafira, The Olive Oil Warrior” runs thru Oct. 2, Thurs.-Sat. 7:30pm;Sun.4pm. Avalon Theater, 1500 East Lake St., south Minneapolis. Tickets $18 adult/$15 student-senior. More information: Call 1-800-838-3006 or “www.pangeaworldtheater.org