It’s almost a reflex, these days, to say “the personal is political; the political is personal”–but Will You Come With Me?, by the Turkish playwright Ebru Nihan Celkan, brings home what that feels like when it’s not a slogan but the air you breathe. Umut (Layla Khoshnoudi), a thirty-something queer Turkish woman living on the frontlines of protest in Istanbul, wakes up every morning terrified, counting the minutes to see if security forces are going to come crashing through her door. She can’t remember the last time she slept without the lights on. She runs through the names of her friends who have been taken into custody, and what time their alerts were sent. She knows it will be her turn soon, if not today.
But they always come around 6:15, so by 6:30, she can mark a win: today, it’s Umut: One, World: Nil. But Umut, unlike some of her friends (several of them are vital presences, though unseen, in the play), has an exit strategy: her partner, Janina (Maribel Martinez), lives in Berlin, and wants Umut to move in with her. Berlin, where a queer couple can hold hands in the street. Berlin, where they can sleep through the night. Berlin, where Umut will be parted from her homeland, her cause, and her family.
Celkan’s script (translated by Kate Ferguson) focuses in tightly on the two women, whose relationship takes place mostly long-distance; she’s interested less in the details of the Turkish political situation than its creeping, oppressive nature and the way it punishes resistance. Director Keenan Tyler Oliphant and projection designers Stefania Bulbarella and Dee Lamar Mills bring to life the technology that both bonds Umut and Jamila and makes it harder for them to truly express the complexity of their emotions. For much of the play, Umut and Janina are separated, leaving missed voicemail messages and sending awkward videos and trying to overcome the silence and distance between them by sheer force of will.
In the play’s present moment–July 1, 2018–Janina is on her way to Istanbul to bring Umut back to Berlin to live, while Umut grapples with her inability to leave Istanbul. She hasn’t packed a thing, despite her promises to Janina; despite the litany of her reasons to go: They’ve paved over the park where she and Janina first fell in love at a protest, and turned it into a shopping mall. She’s in constant danger from both her political activism and her sexuality. Janina doesn’t live there. And yet…her activism brings meaning; her friends bring joy; her life is here. There’s a tenderness and yearning between Martinez and Khoshnoudi when they talk about each other, and when we see the day they met, but when they’re finally together in the present, they seem to talk past each other. Umut can’t find words to explain what she’s feeling, and she’s not sure if love is enough.
Afsoon Pajoufar’s set lightly evokes the park that’s the key site for both Umut’s political action and her romance, but we feel the rest of the world impinge via videos and datelines, messages and newsfeeds, images from memory and from now, and, perhaps most effectively, Umut’s unsaid thoughts, the ambivalence she can’t express either to her activist colleagues or Janina. The projection screens, hung at angles overhead, recall the park trees whose destruction Umut laments in one of her messages to Janina, and also the always-watchful eyes of the security forces.
I found the time sequence sometimes challenging to follow; datelines do appear onscreen but since there’s not a great deal of in-narrative action, and the context is a perpetual, grinding political struggle, it’s not always easy to find clues as to which scene precedes which or what else is going on around the person speaking. But the braiding of past and present works remarkably effectively at the end–scenes in the present and the past taking place in the same location, one with Janina and Umut having just found each other and the other with them unable to connect. “Will you come with me?” becomes the question neither Umut, nor the play, can answer.