Theater Review: “This Is Who I Am” — Virtual Intimacy

By David Greenham

Amir Nizar Zuabi’s engaging drama is a hopeful testament to communication and forgiveness.

This Is Who I Am by Amir Nizar Zuabi. Directed by Evren Odcikin. Costumes designed by Dina El-Aziz. Sound designed by James Ard. Scenic design by Mariana Sanchez. Lighting designed by Reza Bejat. Video and streaming systems designed by Ido Levran. Dramaturgy by Joseph Haj. Stage managed by Rachael Danielle Albert. Presented by PlayCo and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, in association with American Repertory Theater, Guthrie Theater, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Presented live online through January 3.

Ramsey Faragallah (left) and Yousof Sultani (right) in This Is Who I Am. Photo: PlayCo/Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company.

For their final project this semester, my theater history students had to come up with plans for post-Covid live performance. Ideas ranged from the reasonable — a social-distanced performance in a field, mounting productions in drive-in movie theaters with enhanced sound — to the outlandish, a Romeo and Juliet performed on skis and snowboards at the bottom of a ski hill (audience members would be outside warmed by bonfires). But no one dreamed that virtual theater could be as intimate and immediate as live theater — and that a story featuring characters seemingly 5,600 miles apart could be affectingly personal.

Thanks to the penetrating imagination of playwright and director Amir Nizar Zuabi, the challenges posed to conventional theater by the Covid pandemic becomes an opportunity for an unusual livestreamed experience, a drama that both acknowledges our isolation and celebrates how it can be used to draw out our humanity in a way that is both safely distanced and urgently intimate.

The setup of This Is Who I Am: the Son (Yousof Sultani), an art curator, is in his kitchen in New York City. His Dad (Ramsey Faragallah) sits in the kitchen of their home in Ramallah, the embattled Palestinian city on the West Bank, a few miles north of Jerusalem. They have planned a video conference call to prepare spinach fteer, a delicious-sounding Palestinian hand pie.

Dad shares the story that the fteer is the first dish his late wife made for them. “This is what I am,” she said, “I am a pocket full of surprises.” Like the layers of a pastry, the story unfolds as father and son each prepare the dish in their kitchens halfway across the globe.

There are two characters in Zuabi’s smooth and engaging 70-minute play, but a third hovers over the conversation: the wife/mother who passed away following a long and painful struggle with cancer. The Proustian resonances of their favorite dish tug at the sensory memories of both men; slowly the layers of hurt beneath their relationship surface. Still, even in death, the late wife/mother is a powerful and inspirational force for unconditional love.

Zuabi’s characters also give us a glimpse into the everyday life for Palestinians. It is a “land that is fermenting in fear and violence,” observes the son as he describes an incident in which, when he was young, he was beat up by some other boys. The father recalls a moment in which he punched an Israeli policeman. He spent a year and a half in jail. The son finally shares his reason for leaving home. “I couldn’t find my place in this stew” he says, adding “Here, I can do what I love without ridicule.” Despite the challenges of their shared history of a place “where every day is a fight for survival,” Zuabi’s drama is a hopeful testament to communication and forgiveness.

Playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi in 2012.

As father and son, Faragallah and Sultani deliver beautifully tender and emotional performances in a way that comes off as theatrical — a departure from the cinematic path that many virtual performances seem to be taking. Ido Levran’s pair of single-focus stationary cameras allow us to get our bearings quickly. We forget the cameras in order to appreciate the actors’ nuanced performances.

Dina El-Aziz’s costumes, James Ard’s informative yet unobtrusive sound, and Mariana Sanchez’s detailed additions to what are obviously real kitchens are all excellent. Further, Reza Bejat has designed lights in such a way that we have “deep focus” — we see everything, but feel as if we are sitting at the other side of the counter, sneaking a listen to a private conversation. None of the tech calls attention to itself — the emphasis is on the rewards of the domestic.

This moving and thoughtful production also may signal another exciting development because it is a partnership of New York’s PlayCo and Washington, DC’s, Woolly Mammoth theater companies, in association with three heavy hitters: our own American Repertory Theater, the venerable Guthrie Theater, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (In my view, the latter is one of our country’s finest regional theater companies.) It was nice, also, to receive a warm welcome from the artistic directors of all five companies at the beginning of the show.

Here, at the beginning of what must be a better year than the one we’ve just survived, this production is a promising sign. Might cooperation, teamwork, and partnership become the norm? We can dream, can’t we? Or as the Dad says to the Son early in This Is Who I Am, “I’ll take what you give.”

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Associate Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He is the current chair of the Maine Arts Commission, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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