Why New Yorkers Are Turning Their Homes Into Stages for a Play About Syrian Refugees

Interview   Why New Yorkers Are Turning Their Homes Into Stages for a Play About Syrian Refugees The U.S. premiere of Oh My Sweet Land will bring real stories of the Syrian War to kitchens throughout all five boroughs starting September 8.
Nadine Malouf in <i>Oh My Sweet Land</i>
Nadine Malouf in Oh My Sweet Land Pavel Antonov

For years, stories of the Syrian Civil War have trickled into American homes via news blasts and guerilla-style reportages. This fall, Off-Broadway theatre company PlayCo lifts what’s happening in Syria out of the news cycle, and turns it into an intimate human interaction.

A kitchen. A woman cooks. An audience watches. This is the premise of Amir Nizar Zuabi and Corinne Jaber’s play Oh My Sweet Land, based on numerous interviews with Syrian refugees. The monologue play, which had its world premiere at The Young Vic in London, will debut Off-Broadway in a less conventional fashion: in the private homes of New York City’s residents.

Amir Nizar Zuabi
Amir Nizar Zuabi

In Oh My Sweet Land, a woman of mixed Syrian-German heritage is cooking kibbeh, a traditional Syrian dish. While she prepares the food, she recounts a story of love, hope, exile, and war. She takes us on her journey through Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, back to her roots and on a quest to find the man she loves, detailing the sights and people she meets along the way.

Beginning in September, Oh My Sweet Land will play in the homes of volunteers throughout all five boroughs before audiences of approximately ten guests per night. The play, performed by Nadine Malouf with direction by Zuabi, will also be staged for larger audiences at community spaces around the city. “The Play Company decided to produce Oh My Sweet Land in non-traditional venues in an effort to literally bring these stories ‘home’ to audiences,” explains PlayCo’s Founding Producer Kate Loewald. “It will be a very intimate experience that we hope will provide access to the work on a direct human level.”

The other objective, explains Loewald, is that the compact nature of the performance space will encourage the right kinds of conversations after each show. “We are anticipating that each evening will present new opportunities for engagement, and several performances will make space for informal conversations after the show, sometimes with a special guest,” she says. At each performance, PlayCo will provide audience members with information about organizations working on refugee issues and resettlement in New York City.

Loewald says she wasn’t sure what to expect when PlayCo asked New York City locals to open up their homes to strangers, but couldn’t have been more encouraged by the response. Volunteers inundated the company with offers to host the play. “[It’s] been very heartening, to find that people are engaged with what is happening to the Syrian people, and hungry to know more,” she says. “Homeowners throughout the five boroughs have been eager to support and attend this kind of alternative theatre experience.”

Nadine Malouf
Nadine Malouf Pavel Antonov

After Oh My Sweet Land debuted in London in 2014, writer and director Zuabi says he “kept feeling like it could be even more intimate.” When PlayCo suggested the show be staged in people’s kitchens, he embraced it wholeheartedly, hopeful that it could further break down barriers between the audience and the performer.

Zuabi lives in Palestine, less than 20 miles away from the conflict in Syria, and yet, like much of the world, the war is so unfathomable that for a long time, all he could do was block it out. “The amount of violence, and the stories coming out were unbelievable and yet, in a way, the only way we could process it was to ignore it,” he explains. Until he felt compelled to do something.

The artistic director of The Young Vic, David Lan, introduced Zuabi to Jaber, and the two of them journeyed to Jordan to interview Syrian refugees. Zuabi deliberately wrote the play with a Westerner at its center—“using this idea of someone traveling back to their roots as a mediator for a Western audience.” Like the character at the heart of Oh My Sweet Land, Jaber is also of mixed German-Syrian heritage.

Zuabi travels to New York to direct Oh My Sweet Land in its new incarnation—his U.S. debut—where he hopes theatregoers will be moved by the experience. Or better yet, spurred to take action. Still, he’s realistic about his expectations.

“Of course I know my show won’t change anything. It’s like spitting in the rain,” he says. “But even that is sometimes important.”

Oh My Sweet Land will begin performances September 8, with tickets available through October 15. For more information and to purchase tickets visit Playco.org.

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