At a time when refugees are streaming out of the Middle East and seem to be engendering fear and mistrust rather than compassion, Mosaic Theater Company is presenting a solo show that offers a window into the world of immigrants in distress and specifically to that of Arab Americans.
In Hkeelee (Arabic for “Talk to Me”), writer-performer Leila Buck offers a compelling portrait of one of the influential women in her life—the cosmopolitan matriarch she called Teta. When her grandmother first exhibited signs of dementia, Buck, a Lebanese-American, began to record the older woman’s story so the memories would not be lost. Out of those recordings grew this piece.
Moving between voices, faiths, time and spaces, from Beirut, where Teta grew up, to Washington, which became her new home, Hkeelee explores what it means to be(come) an American and the choices that shape who we are.
For Buck, who started her career as an actor (which she still is) before beginning to write her own works, the piece also considers “what we hold on to and what we let go,” especially during such traumatic events as relocation to a new life in a foreign country.
“Hkeelee grew out of my struggle to hold on to the story of my grandmother, Jeanne Lababidi, and through her, parts of my own,” said Buck.
Recording and writing the piece “helped me channel the slow, painful experience [of dementia] into something creative that would keep Teta and her stories alive,” Buck continued. “It also reflects the contribution I feel my grandparents’ stories can make to the current debate around the role of immigrants—particularly Arab and Muslim ones—in this country.”
Buck’s grandparents lived in Lebanon until 1975, when they were forced to leave because of the war there. Her mother had left in 1968 ,when she married her father, an American diplomat.
Of her grandmother, Buck said: “Teta was an incredible woman, vibrant, charismatic, warm, and loving. She was forced to reinvent herself many times in her life. She believed in letting go and moving on, adapting and adjusting many times based on time, place, circumstances – and people.
“So at its core,” she added, “the exploration of her story in Hkeelee is a living, breathing thing that must be able to be as complex and evolving a journey as hers, and my family’s with her.”
Buck is a writer, actress, storyteller, and teaching artist who has lived, traveled, performed and taught in more than 20 Arab and European countries and in China, Australia, and throughout the United States.
Her solo show ISite, about growing up between the United States and the Arab World, toured several countries for more than ten years and is published in Four Arab American Plays (McFarland Press, 2013).
Her second play, In the Crossing, is an ensemble piece about her experience in Lebanon with her Jewish husband during the Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006. That work was also directed by Shana Gold, and developed at and with the Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, and the Culture Project, among other cultural and educational institutions.
Buck has also performed in a number of works, including Aftermath, by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, based on interviews with Iraqi refugees, off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop and on international tour); Scorched at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia (Barrymore Award), and The Admission, by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, part of the 2014 Voices of a Changing Middle East Festival.
In Hkeelee, Leila uses interactive storytelling to move between her Teta’s voice and her own, inviting audiences to engage the way her grandmother would have — through conversation, music, humor, and food.
As part of her interactive storytelling performance, the playwright will have “pages in hand” to allow for what she calls “structured improvisation.” “Some of the stories I have told many times,” Buck said. “Others are being re-created up to the moment of sharing them. While some of the material is similar each time, the piece changes based on where and when I am performing – and most importantly, on the people with whom I am sharing it.”
Buck hopes audiences will take away “a sense of the resilience, strength, courage, joy, and love” her grandparents embodied and how their stories are both unique and universal.
The solo piece is the final offering in the 2015-2016 Festival, which founding artistic director Ari Roth originated while still heading Theater J at the DCJCC.
Roth had seen an early solo version of In the Crossing at the Public Theater in New York and became invested in its development for many years. He then invited Buck to present a reading of the play as well as a performance of ISite as part of the Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival of 2007.
Hkeelee is directed by Shana Gold. After a series of workshop readings, this marks the first time it is being performed in front of a paid audience.
The two women have been working together for 10 years on a variety of projects, including In the Crossing.
“It has been a rich collaboration, using a storytelling approach,” Gold said. “In In the Crossing and all her work, Leila has so much compassion and affection for the people she is writing about. She has the ability to explore controversial topics, with a lot of messy and passionate feelings, and see the humanity on all sides.”
Moreover, Gold added, “Leila also has a way of entrancing an audience. You can see the deep affection the audience feels for her and she for them.”
Despite the inherent sadness in a piece that addresses such topics as dementia, war, and dislocation, Gold finds “a lot of humor” in Buck’s work. “Even when audiences are moved to tears by the work, they have a feeling of being uplifted as well,” she said.
This edition of the Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival is the “largest, longest, and most-intense in its 16-year run,” said Roth. “One of the features of this line-up has been the fusion of old and new. Artists such as Motti Lerner, Aaron Davidman, and Sinai Peter reflect deeply forged relationships that have been central to me, my identity, and my body of work for the past decade and a half or longer.
“Other relationships have been brand new,” Roth continued, “with content that’s been as revelatory as it’s been previously unexplored.”
Leila Buck’s return to Washington marks another important re-engagement for Roth personally, he noted, as she “shares with our community a deeply personal story of her relationship with the towering women in her Lebanese family.”
Roth called Buck a “crucial addition to our festival, and together with The Promised Land co-author, Shahar Pinkas, a really vital and necessary female voice. We’re very grateful to be nurturing this brand-new work and helping it move from one stage of completion to a more-refined place.”
For her part, Buck wrote that she shares Roth’s vision about the intersection of art and civic engagement and is “proud and honored” to be part of Mosaic’s inaugural season.
The run of Hkeelee will include only three performances at Mosaic: Saturday, April 30, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 1, at 2 and 8 p.m., The theater is at 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call 202-399-7993. For further information click here.