Review By Lisa Lanzi
I have found that this production has stayed at the front of my mind continuously since seeing it. It isn’t all that often that a work of theatre has such impact, even if superficial enjoyment was a feature. The impact stems from the depth of emotion that Grey Rock elicits as well as the fine performances, direction, and writing.
Relationships are a feature in this work whether familial and tender, or convenient and leaning toward the toxic, and everything in between. Lila (beautifully delivered by Fidaa Zaidan) dearly loves Yousef, her grieving father, and wants to keep him safe no matter the consequences for herself. Lila is also engaged to a controlling bully, Jawad (Alaa Shehada), who cares more for his own business interests, status, and safety. Luca Kamleh Chapman portrays a sweet, idealistic Fadel who is highly intelligent but secretly longs for Lila’s affection. This unrequited love causes him to stubbornly decline a US university scholarship to stay in his hometown of Abu Qashsh. The local Imam is Sheik (Motaz Malhees), a devout man dedicated to the scriptures and fond of his father’s best friend Yousef. This attachment leads him to support Yousef unconditionally after the latter quotes from the Qur'an therefore convincing Sheik of the worthiness of Yousef’s endeavour. Yousef has, at first glance an obsessive, possibly deluded desire to construct and launch a rocket to the moon from the West Bank; this view is greatly altered during the course of the play as we discern that grief and deep love, and joining his wife, was the motivation. All the characters have various opinions about Yousef’s secretive project: his daughter thinks he has finally ‘moved on’ from the grief of his wife’s death, Jawad believes Yousef to be a possible Israeli collaborator, Fadel is inspired and helpful, and Sheik is appalled then confidently supportive.
Khalifa Natour renders a remarkable and touching performance as Yousef, the focal role in Grey Rock. His acting prowess provides a perfect depiction of a man subsumed by political turmoil, love for his land and compatriots, but also profound grief and existential weariness. The trajectory this character takes and the story surrounding him forms a modern parable abounding in metaphor. The phenomenon of gravity is discussed scientifically and romantically with regard to attachment and how it affects people, and tides. Yousef and Fadel mention the influence of the Moon’s gravitational force on bodies of water and ponder that it might well effect our body, blood, and urges, given how much water there exists in a human. Other concepts consider the notion of safety versus the possibilities inherent in daring, falling in love, embracing uncertainty, and adventuring. Still more thematic references look at ageing, acceptance, unconditional love, grief, and stasis/inertia/stability in opposition to rebellion.
Amongst all the complexity and layers in Grey Rock, there are softly rendered political overtones, possibly a necessity to enable the performance of the play in its subjective geographical area. The pain of love or loneliness resides alongside the trauma of Palestinian psychic and political history. The weighted influence of gravity (as well as relating to pain and love) references Palestine as a place not considered on the same level as America and most of the first world; at one point Yousef passionately proclaims that indeed, why should America own the historic precedent of leaving Earth and aiming for the heavens. Director and playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi writes in Yousef’s voice: “our land is so burdened with the past and with conflict, so layered with prophets and stories. It is so heavy. It is hard for us to break free. We cannot even leave it in our imagination”.
Another poignant element is the impressionistic simplicity of the design and staging. One reason I love theatre is the possibility of saying so much with so little. A long, obtuse diagonal crosses the stage with translucent strips forming a curtained partition. In front of this line is an empty, transient space, behind it is Yousef’s more fully realised but still artfully simple workshop. Contrasting such uncomplicated, elegant design the script is layered with literary strength and poetic vision where characters react and speak differently based on their attitude to the suffocating status quo. The cast speak English which was a deliberate decision by Zuabi who has commented that “Arabic is so loaded a language, so heavy, that the listener’s attention will be entirely consumed by its content. There would be little room for ironic distance. With English as a second language, it is lighter and less deeply engraved …”.
Grey Rock had its premiere, with mixed reviews, at La MaMa Theater NY, in January 2019 then to the Melbourne International Arts Festival and a return to the US for a 5-week tour in the same year. Zuabi states that “the same optimism that exists in that shed in Abu Qashsh, is found in our rehearsals” and it is an optimistic play, with some deeply affecting moments and beautiful portraits of unconditional love leading to tears for me, and many others in the audience; not least when Yousef hugs his daughter for a final goodbye murmuring over and over: “I love you more than my skin”.
A further allegoric aspect is the rocket itself pointing to the intrinsic power of creativity, original thought, and positivity. In Yousef’s words: “[The] rocket is going to be a middle finger [to the occupation]. You think a kid throwing a stone on a tank, or a kid sending a kite with a burning tail across the border of Gaza changes anything? No. They know it does not. But it reminds the world that Gaza is there. It reminds the world what they want to forget. This is the same. If someone can get a rocket to the moon from Palestine it’s a celebration of our creativity, of our ingenuity. It proves that we can be something…”.
This is a memorable, beautiful, enduring work of theatre. I hope many more across the world might see it, or conversely, that one reason for its existence will cease to be an issue. Idealistic as that might be.