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|A CurtainUp Review
The answer to both of the above is "No." The explosions in Betty Shamieh's Roar, which is being given its world premiere by the New Group, are the angry words and recriminations within a family of Palestinian immigrants living in Detroit.
Shamieh is an up-and-comer among young playwrights who are putting a personal face on the the Arab-American experience. She was born in this country and is Catholic not Muslim, but describes herself as growing up in "a strong Arab-American household in which Arabic was spoken." Though she lived and went to school in San Francisco, her mother, like Roar's Karema (Sarita Choudhury) and Ahmed (Joseph Kamal) lived in Detroit when she first came to the United States.
Roar, while soaked in the atmosphere of the Detroit Arab community in America, is typical of many immigrant sagas in the struggles and conflicts on which it focuses: the sacrifices and hard work prompted by the lure of American prosperity, the choices made in the interest of social mobility, the buried secrets and dreams that have a way of resurfacing. It's a story that draws us into the lives of Karema and Ahmed who came to America after the first Gulf war and live in an apartment on top of their liquor and snack store with their Americanized teen-aged daughter Irene (Sherri Eldin).
When Karema's younger sister Hala (Annabella Sciorra), a singer whose economic survival has depended mostly on the "kindness" of admiring males, seeks temporary asylum in their home after being forced to leave Kuwait, the already tension-filled household becomes an emotional powder keg. The playwright has declared herself to be a great fan of Tennesse Williams, so if this evokes memories of Streetcar Named Desire, you won't be too far off track.
Hala, like Blanche DuBois, is an unsettling presence. Instead of a baby about to be born, we have young Irene eager to give birth to a career as a blues singer (music is a vital thematic element, with Hala's description of how to sing an Arabic song giving the play it's title: "First you hum, then you sing, then you roar"). Instead of Mitch as someone on whom the visiting sister can pin her hopes for a new life, there's Ahmed's brother Abe (Daniel Oreskes) who, to add to the bubbling tensions, was banished from the family circle by Karema when he denied his Arab identity in the interest of his future with a Jewish owned music company. But the Streetcar comparison shouldn't be taken too far. The differences in the family configuration and the characters obviously lead to very different plot developments, and the author's voice, though sensitive and astute, lacks Williams' poetic lushness and memorable phrasing.
The new play, like the author's widely performed Fringe Festival hit Chocolate in Heat: Growing Up Arab in America, reveals a world that is attractive and warm, but also unpleasantly harsh and rigid. Unlike Chocolate, which relied on the author and one other actor to bring the characters of its five monologues to life, Roar is a more luxurious production with director Marion McClinton eliciting splendid performances from the quintet of actors whose characters, for better or worse, change before the lights dim.
Roar's structure falls within the kitchen sink drama genre. The narrative is straightforward and, during the first act especially, somewhat too slow-moving. The well-detailed set, with its plastic covered couch, Middle Eastern decorative touches, and the bodega sign flashing outside the window, speaks volumes before a word is uttered.
While the arrival of Hala is the dramatic spark that re-ignites memories of suffering and betrayals, its volatility stems from the existing family tensions: The fact that the miserly and bossy Karema has ignored her less Americanized husband's yearning to return to Jordan and his erstwhile career as a musician. . .her unwillingness to improve their living standard by moving into one of the numerous apartments they've managed to buy (but don't acknowledge owning because Karema is sure no one would rent Arab owned properties). . . both parents' frustration with their daughter's poor school record yet eagerness to help her realize her singing dream even though she has more drive than actual talent.
The pleasures of the play and this leisurely paced production come from the nuances the author and the actors bring to the characters. Sarita Choudbury is a believable mix of single-minded determination and rigidity (most evident in her unyielding hostility to her brother-in-law), over-protective mother, and a woman who needs the tenderness a loving husband. Annabella Sciorra clarifies the two aspects of the more free-spirited artistic Hala -- the sexual adventurer on the surface, and the still traumatized victim of violence underneath. Sherri Eldin, the least experienced member of the ensemble, shows great promise as the rebellious Irene who undergoes the most growth and change. As for the two brothers who once tossed a coin to determine which one could woo the sister of his choice, Joseph Kamal's Ahmed is probably the angriest of the five characters; but, even though he speaks of a woman complaining about his performance as a superintendent as "a white bitch," his is not a threatening anger but that of the refugee who finds it difficult to assimilate. Daniel Oreskes, makes a brief appearance late in the play -- but that appearance is very much a case of better late than never.
Though Roar is primarily a family story which happens to be about Palestinian Arabs in America, it is nevertheless a political play. The reason this is so is best summed up by Hala when her niece asks her why she felt it necessary to talk about what happened to her in a Palestinian exile camp in Jordan: ". . . what happened to your mother and her sister affects you in a thousand ways that you yourself will never be able to explain."
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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