by Christine Sarkes
Zafira and the Resistance at the Guthrie Theater is a production of the New Arab American Theater Works and part of Artistic Director Joseph Haj’s vision to present groundbreaking theater that inspires dialogue and expands the diversity of community voices on Guthrie stages. This season’s focus brings an eclectic mix of local, national and international presentations that explore Arab artistry — Zafira and the Resistance is the first in a series that ends with a first-ever Spotlight Cabaret.
Playwright Kathryn Haddad is the Executive/Artistic Director of the New Arab American Theater Works and the play reflects her experiences and distinguished career as a teacher, writer and Arab American community organizer. Although originally written in an earlier version during the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, this play could not arrive at a more opportune time. Its themes reflect the fear and anguish of immigrant communities as they listen to autocratic leaders, including the president of the United States mere days earlier in Minneapolis, discuss Muslim bans and spread ugly, xenophobic hatred. It also reflects Haddad’s experiences as a public school educator and her hope that young people will save us from our worst selves. As an Arab-American theatergoer, I found joy in seeing so many community faces among the troupe of mostly first-time actors and in the celebration of the best, in my humble opinion, of Arab culture — the generosity of spirit, the passion, the humor, the fierce love and pride in friends, family, heritage and, last but not least, the FOOD. I loved the use of olive oil as a metaphor for the life-sustaining nature of hope, empathy and feminine power.
The premise of this dystopian play is that the nation has come under the spell of a despotic leader and rising anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment. It mixes genres and settings with elements of dystopian young adult school drama, political satire and prison life. Arab American school teacher Zafira Khoury (Lina Jamoul) and her community get swept into the chaos. The local high school becomes a center for the government’s new agenda of resistance and mass incarcerations. The “Resistance” is actually double-speak for adherents to the party line who “resist” the influx of newcomers.
The acting was impressive, especially for so many debut actors in broadly drawn roles. Standouts include Jamoul in the title role of Zafira Khoury, Stephanie Ruas (Elisa Martin), Filsan Said (Leylo Khalif), Noor Adwan (Karmel Khaled) and Rasha Ahmad Sharif (Samira Kheir). Mireille AlAhmar (Joyce Hanson) and Erika Kuhn (Deb Johnson) were amusingly annoying as caricatures of passive-aggressive “Minnesota Nice” teachers/resistance leaders, with their flat a’s and parochial mentality. The high school actors gave energetic and professional performances. The set design is simple, but with a breathtaking floor mural painted by local artist Hend Al-Mansour.
Zafira and the Resistance, a Guthrie Theater presentation of a New Arab American Theater Works production. Written by Kathryn Haddad, directed by Malek Najjar and Zeina Salame. Ensemble: Hala Adwan, Noor Adwan, Mireille Tenachian Al Ahmar, Heidi Berg, Garry Geiken, Eva Gemlo, Joey Haddad, Lina Jamoul, Erika Kuhn, Clay Man Soo Sletta, William Maus, Stephanie Ruas, Filsan Said, Rasha Ahmed Sharif. Ali Elabaddy (Sound), Hend al Mansour and William Nour (Set Design and Construction), Laurie Clements (Costumes), Jordan Lee Thompson (Videographer), Mike Wangen (Lighting), Erika Sasseville (Stage Manager/Props Designer), Nouf Saleh (Assistant Stage Manager and Mollie Lacy (Publicity). Performances through October 27, 2019, at Level Nine, Dowling Studio. 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612.377.2224 / 1.877.44.STAGE. Tickets range from $9 to $32. Seating is general admission. Post-play discussions follow performances.