Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
June 14, 2012 by Sophie Danis Oberfield
“Food and Fadwa,” Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kander’s play, directed by Shana Gold and co-presented by New York Theatre Workshop and Noor Theatre, is wonderful, entertaining, funny, moving, and thought-provoking. It’s a well-made family comedy/drama, with familiar archetypes—young lovers, a disapproving father, an unworthy woman coming between the heroine and her man—rendered fresh and nuanced here.
Less centrally, but equally importantly, it’s also a play about Palestinian life in the West Bank under Israeli occupation, demonstrating its challenges and difficulties in theatrical moments that are, in turn, quiet and shocking, hilarious and bitter, and moving. Another way of putting this is that the young lovers face obstacles both from classical comedy (a disapproving father, a rival) and current international-political reality (the groom’s disappearance the day before the wedding, a curfew trapping the family in their home). Their lives are out of their control in more than one way. The play focuses on a family while also dealing with political realities, touching on larger political issues, coexistence, from an authentic-feeling place rooted in traditionally female spaces (home, kitchen) and activities (cooking, caring for family, preparing for a wedding).
Fadwa Faranesh (Issaq, in a warm and deeply felt performance) is our heroine, unmarried at 35 and caring for her widowed father, who’s slipping into dementia. She punctuates her humdrum life with imaginary episodes of a cable cooking show (also called “Food and Fadwa”). During these episodes, she comments on the action, fills in background information, demonstrates her cooking technique and tells us about the history and stories of the food she makes. As the play begins, Fadwa is preparing for her younger sister’s wedding, and looking forward to the arrival of an old flame, who happens to be the brother of the groom. The twists and development of the family’s drama lull the audience into being as absorbed as the characters are in their own lives, and the emotional stakes of their subplots and conflicts. I forgot, over and over, that I was watching a family in a war zone, and like the characters onstage, was shocked when the lights went out, or tanks arrived and gunfire could be heard.
The Israeli occupation is never the topic of conversation—it’s a difficult fact of life that the characters refer to with anger and disgust, but don’t openly discuss or spend time on. Hayat (Heather Raffo), a visiting Arab-American cousin, stands as an audience surrogate, an outsider who angrily notes the living conditions that the occupation imposes on this family and their neighbors. She voices the outrage that the audience may be feeling about the restrictions. Brothers Emir (Arian Moayed) and Youssif (Haaz Sleiman) humorously and sharply explain the various regions and travel restrictions active in the West Bank and Jerusalem by creating a map made of Fadwa’s carefully prepared food on the dining room table. The characters are Palestinian Christian, not Muslim. They do speak Arabic, and much of it is translated. We don’t see them doing anything to possibly deserve the harsh and suspicious treatment they all speak of from the Israeli authorities. They are angry and bitter, but they are not terrorists. The characters are believable and played with gusto.
The food interludes are so much fun. I like to cook, eat and read about all kinds of food. Fadwa taught me some things I did not know (the origin story of baba ghanoush, some tabbouli tips) and reminded me how often food I think of as Israeli is Middle Eastern/Arab in origin. Issaq and Kander complicate the notion that food is less politically hot than land. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Park Slope Food Coop, and I did not think the boycott of Israeli products was a useful idea). Beyond the political element, the play gently tweaks twenty-first century foodie culture. The same world that provides Fadwa with her imaginary emotional outlet fulfillment fantasy also enables Hayat to become an award-winning chef by doing fusions with Fadwa’s mother’s recipes, and gives Youssif career and financial opportunities he wouldn’t get in the West Bank.
The characters differentiate between types of Israeli institutions and oppressions. Border guards may be nice, or they may take your jewelry. The way that Israelis detain and check Arabs and American passport holders on their way in is comically expressed in the difference between Hayyat’s 15-30 minute “ordeal” and Youssif’s “just five hours” experience. Several characters note that the settlers are the most aggressive and least predictable.
I highly recommend this play! “Food and Fadwa” is entertaining, well-crafted and well-acted. The production (sets, costumes, lighting, music) is thoughtful and detailed. Beyond its significant artistic merits, you should also see this play because it’s the first production by Noor Theatre, a company “dedicated to supporting, developing and presenting the work of theatre artists of Middle Eastern descent” founded by three female theater artists of that background. Noor Theatre aims to “illuminate diverse perspectives to foster greater understanding and diversify America’s rich theatrical tapestry” and “create exceptional work that transcends cultural boundaries and speaks to all people” I believe that coexistence and peace require people to see each other as individuals and humans, and art facilitates that, and particularly this type of art. Seeing this play and supporting this project is not just artistic or political the way art can be, but important for coalition building, and to help people on opposing sides to see each other as people, with faces and names and families and feelings, and very good-looking food.