A father and son prepare fteer (a Palestinian bread) together, apart. Like many of us, they are connecting in a Zoom call across time zones. The unnamed son (Yousof Sultani) is in New York City. Dad (Ramsey Faragallah) is in Ramallah. But their separation is not purely geographic or pandemic-related.
Produced by a consortium of five theaters (Woolly Mammoth, ART, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Guthrie, and Play Co.) Amir Nizar Zuabi wrote this play, This Is Who I Am, for Zoom. He uses the medium as an extension of the distance between father and son.
While the play primarily focuses on his characters’ grief surrounding the not-so-recent loss of the wife and mother in the family, layered into that is a deeper estrangement between father and son that comes both from growing up in Palestine and struggling to understand one another today. Ideas of masculinity, violence, heroism, survival and art dribble out in their conversation between chopping spinach and rolling dough. The ritual of gathering to cook together inevitably conjures tradition, memory and what this food and this recipe, the late wife/mother’s, means to them.
In one of Zuabi’s previous plays (also produced by Play Co.), Oh My Sweet Land, cooking was also central to the storytelling. Although in that site specific play the audience found itself in some New Yorker’s actual apartment and the actor prepared and cooked a meal in front of us. Here, we can only imagine the smells of chopped onions, sumac, and fresh olive oil. Zuabi provides some colorful imagery of life in Palestine beyond these kitchens too (I now would like to hear the sound of olives falling off of trees during the harvest).
I like how Zuabi’s plays often addresses stories, characters, and situations we don’t always see on stage—looking at the political isolation of Palestine, Middle Eastern diaspora, and the pain of exile. His works also often address generational differences rendered through specific cultures. His play Grey Rock combined grief, love, and magical thinking around a Palestinian man intending to build a rocket to the moon and his relationship with his daughter. Oh My Sweet Land linked a Syrian refugee with an American woman who had lost connection with her Syrian roots and her journey to find her lover amidst conflict.
While the Zoom format may be new medium for Zuabi, the narrative of This Is Who I Am is in many ways quite conventional.
Father and son learn cooking tricks from each other. They reminisce about the wife/mother. They remember events of the past happening differently, shedding light on their disparate views of the world. They argue, tease, and make some emotional breakthroughs in a 70-minute show. Baking fteer is cheaper than therapy.
While we are craving human connection now more than ever, I found the sentimentality here got laid on pretty thick. The other Zuabi plays had their sentimental moments but felt more nuanced about delivering it. Zoom has a tendency to flatten and perhaps that was at play here too.
The show is brisk, but I wish a few elements had been fleshed out more. The father’s attitude about hardening his son against the world could have used more context as well as more about the mother’s role in resisting this.
In this production, too many moments came across as recited rather than lived in. Though subtle actions and behaviors helped develop the characters and give their performances specificity. Dad never measures any ingredients. Everything he does is a little improvised. He’s just tossing in sumac willy-nilly as his son carefully measures out teaspoons. Dad squeezes a lemon dry with his hands and his mouth. Son uses his lemon-press.
But Faragallah was more jovial and open than hardened, as the script called for. He did not seem to be the kind of man who would hold back his feelings–there was too much eagerness beckoning in his eyes from the jump. Yet, this served him well when things got more openly emotional later in the play. Sultani makes for a fine, sensitive son, avoiding the hard talk he doesn’t want to have.
Where the play blossomed most was the speaking the truth about the reasons for the son staying away. There’s a whole other play in what comes bubbling up then and the historic, cultural, and character dynamics at play. Suddenly my interest was piqued and my investment deeper, but we were close to the end.