Written on an accelerated schedule (commissioned in June 2020 and ready in August 2020), then cast, rehearsed, and produced by five companies across the United States by December 2020, Sunday night’s opening was a revelation and a reminder.
This is an achingly human show you don’t want to miss.
Amir Nizar Zuabi writes from a deep understanding of grief — all kinds of grief. He knows the ugly, unspoken parts of it, as well as the role it plays in affirming life — the lives and objects that have passed, and the lives and objects still here. And he understands that sometimes grief can be a fragile armor to hold inside the pain until we’re ready to integrate it into a new, softer, stronger thing. Zuabi is a generous enough writer to give us moments to catch our breath and find humor and connection.
It’s a simple story of a father and son who have finally managed to find the time to connect through a Zoom call while trying to recreate a beloved family dish — spinach fatira — from the father’s kitchen in Ramallah, Palestine and the son’s in New York City. They have not seen each other for several years, since the death of the wife/mother from cancer (this isn’t a spoiler — I promise). They are separated by geography, generations, and ways of experiencing the world. It’s a tough chasm to try to bridge.
Ramsey Faragallah plays the father and Yousof Sultani is the son. Even though she’s dead, the mother is just as much a character as the two men. Through their stories of her and experiences of her, she is there. Zuabi uses the recreation of her recipe to conjure her and I felt bereft at never getting a chance to meet her.
Fargallah imbues his role as the father with the grit of a man born and raised in a land that is at war and harsh and steeped in traditions big and small. He is confused by his son’s choices and yet is reaching out and trying to understand this man he raised who is so separate. As the son, Sultani captures how adult children fall into old patterns with their parents even as he needs his father’s love and acknowledgment of him as an adult. These are nuanced, intuitive performances and so raw at times that the moments of humor and petty bickering offer that chance to step back and regroup. These two actors have a remarkable chemistry.
A lot happens in the 70 minutes of this play, emotionally and cooking-wise. They actually make the dish and start eating it in their respective kitchens. That wonderful, symbolic moment when they eat together. Separated by however many thousands of miles, it is one of the most hopeful moments I’ve ever witnessed on stage.
Director Evren Odcikin leads a team of designers that had to work remotely, including delivering kits containing set pieces, props and tech equipment to the actors’ residences (they are in their actual kitchens as their homes). The team includes Mariana Sanchez as the scenic designer, Dina El-Aziz as the costume designer, Reza Behjat as the lighting designer, James Ard as the sound designer, Ido Levran as the video and streaming systems designer, and Rachael Danielle Albert as the livestream manager. The coordination must have been exhausting but the efforts paid off in the streaming environment.
This show is live through streaming each time and brings a feel of the vagaries of live theater back to us. There was a slight technical glitch a few minutes into it, but it was rectified and the show started again. It was reminiscent of other moments we’ve all experienced in the theatre when some element that worked perfectly in the dress rehearsal just refused to cooperate. It’s a part of the joy of live theatre.
This is an achingly human show you don’t want to miss. It speaks to the indomitable need for connection, for grieving, for healing, for second chances. It makes our world a little more manageable.
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes straight through.
Show advisory: You might be hungry at the end.
“This Is Who I Am” runs through January 10, 2021, in a virtual environment, by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in partnership with Playco, American Repertory Theater, Guthrie Theater and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. For more information, please click here.