by CHRISTINE SARKES
Although this review is published after the brief run of Birds Sing Differently Here at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, it serves as recognition of the important collaboration between the Guthrie and the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project to give voice to the Iraqi-Minnesotan experience. As part of Guthrie’s innovative Level Nine Series, this initiative is “devoted to the creation of a theater that wrestles with urgent questions and inspires dynamic dialogue with its audience, expands the diversity of voices, visions and styles on its stages, and engages community members currently underserved by its work.”
Based on the true lives of 12 Iraqi-Minnesotan refugees and immigrants, the play is an original theater piece which tells their stories of war, love, change and cultural identity. Directed by Taous Claire Khazem with a script compiled and edited by Dylan Fresco, the play was performed in both English and Arabic. Participants in the Iraqi Voices program and Iraqi community members (Nada Alabbasi, Ali Alshammaa, Hannaa Al-Azzawi, Adel Naji, Ahmed Al Shaikhli and Bahaa Al Shaikhli) joined a cast of professional actors (Ashawnti Ford, Dylan Fresco, Aamera Siddiqui and Mohammed Yabdri) to tell the “story of a thousand olive pits and seven thousand praises, tokens of love and a chilling escape from the desert of death.”
The ensemble cast brought the stories to life with interactive Arabic lessons and interpretive movement, photos and songs. As my companion noted, while we can read about how war impacts its victims, hearing them speak their own words in their own language and convey meaning through touch and gestures made the experience even more intimate and powerful. We were moved by the authenticity and courage of the players. The ensemble cast was excellent and Mohammed Yabdri deserves mention for bringing energy and charm to his performance.
As an Arab-American myself, I was relieved to see the qualities I admire most about my culture highlighted in this play: close family ties, meals as an expression of love, material and emotional generosity, a fierce joie de vivre and, above all, a resilience and adaptability in face of adversity. It may be too late to see this production, but I urge you to see at least one Level Nine play during the season to experience homegrown and impactful works by new voices in our community.
Birds Sing Differently Here, directed by Taos Claire Khazem and created by Dylan Fresco. Iraqi Voices program participants: Nada Alabbasi, Sumaya Ameen, Ali Alshammaa, Hannaa Al-Azzawi, Mazin Chilab, Abdullah Flaija, Salwa Mohialdeen, Arwa Naji, Dhifaf Sarhan, Ahmed Al Shaikhli, Bahaa Al Shaikhli and Rawan Al Shaikhli. Andrea Gross (Costume Designer), Mike Wangen (Lighting Designer), Peter Morrow (Sound Designer), Bill Cottman (Projection Designer), Vanessa Healey (Stage Manager) and Cameron Quie (Carpenter). https://www.guthrietheater.org/about-us/Level-9/. All tickets to all Level Nine performances are $9.