Zafira and the Resistance Sets Out to Open Our Eyes at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio

Filsan Said, Lina Janoul, Rsha Ahmad Sharif, Noor Adwan. Photo by Bruce Silcox.

The New Arab American Theater Works production of Kathryn Haddad’s Zafira and the Resistance is a play all Twin Cities parents should take their daughters and sons to. The drama opened this last weekend in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater. The Dowling Studio is essentially a performance space that seems to function as a bridge between community and art. A space where artists can express their truths and spark communication and connections. I attended the Sunday evening performance with my daughter, a senior in high school. The play was a great conversation stimulator about issue that are happening in the world around us and what they mean and where they can lead. But also about theater itself and the role of the artist in society. That is probably the greatest thing you can take away from this show. Young and old people alike can lack an understanding of what art can do. They may believe it is simply to provide entertainment, to make them laugh or cry or be thrilled, and yes it often does all of those things. But it can also be about ideas, it can be about justice and injustice. It can hold a mirror up to society and show us who we are and who we could become. It can show us the best of ourselves and the worst. It can also show us the “other” the person who is not like us, the person who eats different foods than we do, who speaks a different language, has a different skin tone, or religious belief. While doing this, it can either play on our fears or show us the folly in them. Make no mistake, art can be used to raise us up or drag us down. When used to tear us down, it’s goal is exclusion. When it raises us up, it speaks to inclusion. Perhaps the most important aspect of art is the questions it raises and the discussions it requires. Good art can entertain or be about ideas. Great art usually does both. Great art not only moves us but makes us think as well. Zafira and the Resistance contains the DNA of great art.

The Setting is a school much like the one’s in our city. The city, much like the one we live in. The country is our own. The time, next week, next year or perhaps never. The details do not matter, what does is that it could be anywhere at anytime. It could have been 5 years ago, but it is more likely to be today. Zafira Khoury (Lina Jamoul) is a literature teacher, she brings her lunch to school everyday, she is unmarried and has cats, she is also an Arab American. The story revolves around what happens to Zafira when the country forgets the second word in her and other Arab American’s cultural identity. The play tells it’s story following two separate threads. The first follows Zafira as she experiences the rise of Xenophobia and the loss of her voice and freedoms. It begins with a lunch room discussion between Zafira and two others, their ignorance of the food she has prepared and indifference to her culture are played at first for laughs, but become increasingly more telling. The disinterest in her culture reflects what many see as “American’s” belief that our way is the only way. They are already treating her as the “other” forgetting that she is an American. She went to school here, lives here, works here, votes here. This scene and others like it help the audience, in this case a white middle class male, understand what it is like to be the “other”. The second follows the students at the school where Zafira teaches and their lesson in the dangers of blind obedience. The Great Leader (Garry Geiken) of our country is recruiting school children to join his club where they will have an important role to play in keeping America safe. As the story progresses so do the stakes and the costs. If I told you were it ended I would rob the story of some of it’s power which comes in the logical way in which we go from grounded to that could never happen. But of course it could as we are reminded in the final scene before intermission. Listen to the words spoken, they are adapted from actual quotes from our past in America.

The staging is simple, desks, chairs and cots make up the majority of the stage settings, projection is used for messages from the Great Leader. It is simple, but all that is needed to tell the story. Action is staged primarily on the main floor but use is made of an upper level in a few scenes. When this play is inevitably staged in a larger theater with actual sets I could see the use of a two story set. The majority of the first act taking place on the upper story while half of the action of the second act taking place on the lower story. All of the actors are good, several of them are very new, they all show promise. There are definitely moments when the script could have been better supported by a more seasoned cast. There are scenes where there are four characters sharing a room, those never quite build the intimacy and relationships they should. But there are also moments where the cast could have been supported by a tighter script. The character of Karmel, who prefers to be called Kelsey, played by Noor Adwan in her professional stage debut, has a scene at the end where she has to be convinced of something, the reluctance and eventual change of heart seem unsupported and need to be reworked. There are aspect that are a little too on the nose, and yet, that is also part of what makes it work. This is a difficult balance to strike and for the most part Zafira and the Resistance gets it right.

But those are quibbles as the sets and the acting or not the star of this show, that is Kathryn Haddad. She has found a structure which can support the weight of some very heavy ideas. The duel threads give the audience multiple avenues in which to find their in. We have an adult character in real world situations that we can identify with and learn through. There are young characters that younger audience members can identify with initially, and hopefully gain some understanding of how we can be gradually led astray if we get carried along with the crowd. Zafira and the Resistance is a play about the dangers inherent in a world led by hate and fear and it has found the right way in which to tell it. It is not a perfect piece, but it could be. I would not be surprised in 5 years to see Zafira and the Resistance playing on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie. It may seem small now and in terms of production it is, but the ideas are large and it will open up wide avenues for discussion among attendees. I cannot recommend this enough.

Zafira and the Resistance runs through October 27th, tickets can be purchased through The Guthrie Theater