Few successful plays and television series have had a real focus on food. The best of them are usually competitions like Top Chef, while some others have engaged the audience with a razor-sharp look at what brings communities together politically, personally and culinarily like Padma Lakshmi’s new Taste the Nation series.
I would be hard pressed to remember anything on the stage that really focused on food. Yes, there have been plays set in restaurants, but they weren’t really about food. So, I was curious about Woolly Mammoth’s new production of This is Who I Am. The performance—broadcast live from two locations in the U.S. that are supposed to be the West Bank and Brooklyn—involves a father and son cooking, mourning the loss of their matriarch and intellectually sparring with each other. It is presented by PlayCo and Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, in association with American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, the Guthrie Theater and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Almost all of these theater companies have been shuttered during the pandemic, so moving to live, virtual theater makes sense. However, there has been precious little of it around these days: surprisingly. The show runs through January 3rd and tickets are a relatively affordable $15 to $30.
What is on the Table
I was greatly moved by most of the production but wanted a deeper dive into their lives. I would have like to have known what the mother died of—cancer is inferred—how many years ago it happened and where in Brooklyn that the son fled. I lost my own father just a few months ago and for me to in engage in communal grief with those on the stage I feel that I need to know more about those who are suffering.
This has been a year of immense pain and loss for all of us. So, I was surprised that the pandemic was not mentioned. It might well have been intentional to take our minds off this oppressive disease and focused on one family’s come-to-Jesus cooking sessions. However, for me knowing less about them left me wanting more.
The father and son prepare a vegetable-stuffed triangular dough pocket—called Fteer—that was the first dish made by the mother for her husband to be. The sons ask why his mother didn’t make something more complicated for the first time: perhaps something with meat. The father responds that this dish truly encompassed who she was: hence the name “This is Who I am,” is linked to this dish as she said she was a pocket of surprises.
The show runs from sentimental to tense, terse and angry. It is a story of a father and son making peace with each other after a painful period of loss and grief. It is a story of a son who was beaten up in Palestine in more ways than one—physically and spiritually—who fled to Brooklyn only coming back occasionally when his mother was dying. It expresses the pain of a father who feels he has lost his son to a “cold country halfway around the world.”
It is equal parts emotional and culinary sparring mixed with remembrances of the mother and a fresh take on what is means to live in Brooklyn and the West Bank today. It includes the happy, and culinarily important, memory that sumac—the essential dark brown Middle Eastern spice—can be easily found in both places.
It runs a short hour and change but gives us much to think about as we stay at home and ponder loss—and the value of family—during the pandemic.
Thoughts from the Director
This was clearly a labor of love for the director, Evren Odcikin, the associate artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). The theaters in Ashland, Oregon that host OSF have been shuttered this year because of the pandemic. Some of his answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
“The play itself has a lot of personal resonance for me having lost my mother in Turkey after a long and difficult illness. Building this piece at this time when so many of us are facing such devastation has been a much-needed healing process for me,” says Odcikin.
He went on to note that the width and breath of casting a show has been much broader during the pandemic than ever before. “Yousof Sultani [the son] and I worked together last year building a play in Philadelphia, so I was already a fan. This is my first time working with Ramsey Faragallah [the father], but I’ve long known his work in New York City through his collaborations with some of my favorite writers. What’s interesting is that Ramsey and Yousof have never met in real life, so it was certainly a unique process to build a sense of familial bond between them.”
He explained how integrating food, family and mourning was a challenge. Amir Nizar Zuabi, the playwright, “built the emotional arc of the play with the cooking in mind. It all goes hand-in-hand. It is easier for the actors to hit their various emotional peaks and valleys if they follow the physical sensation of the cooking alongside the story. So, they needed to know the recipe by feel and smell, so that as they are acting, they can problem-solve if something is not going the way it’s supposed to.”
The play, according Odcikin, unites the actors through food. During it the son says ‘It’s nice that we can smell the same thing. So “although the two characters—and the two actors—are worlds apart, by watching them touch the same dough, chop the same onion, smell the same food baking, we cannot share in that aspect of the show as an audience, their overlapping physical experience helps us feel like we’re in their home with them.”
While he admits being “a theater animal through and through,” he said yes to this production because “its bones and soul sing in this specific digital format. I think as we continue to explore theater in this new reality, we’re bound to create new forms that are neither theater, nor TV, nor film. I’m most curious about where the artists lead us in this moment.”
He adds that the Zoom format forced him to focus “a different kind of attention to the details of what appears within the frame. The Zoom format is a visual medium, and the smallest things can have a big impact visually. There were many differences in process that I had to work through for myself.”
Published at Mon, 28 Dec 2020 21:33:08 +0000