February 6, 2003
By Larry O. Dean
All's fair in love and war--or is it?
That's a question central to Jamil Khoury's Precious Stones, a world premiere that opened last month at the Studio Theatre. Precious Stones is the inaugural production of the Silk Road Theatre Project, a nonprofit, non-Equity theater troupe based in Chicago and created to showcase playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds.
"Silk Road," of course, refers to ancient trade routes from China to Central and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and into Europe, where tremendous cross-cultural interaction among disparate peoples occurred.
Believing that theatre should entertain as well as educate and promote critical thinking, Silk Road's visionaries are committed to elevating human consciousness, expanding representation, and challenging a few stereotypes. Precious Stones enjoys the enriching artistic collaboration of its Syrian-American playwright; a Lebanese-American director, Michael Najjar; a Jewish-American actor, Nicole Pitman; and a Palestinian-American actor, Roxane Assaf.
Set in Chicago during the summer of 1989, Precious Stones unfolds as the first Palestinian intifada--literally, a "shaking off"--rages in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. That intifada began on December 9, 1987, and officially ended on September 13, 1993, when Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization signed the Declaration of Principles, effectively launching the Oslo Peace Process.
A second intifada, named the Al-Aqsa Intifada in honor of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, began on September 28, 2000. It continues to the present day. Hurled stones, beatings, Molotov cocktails, and gunfire characterized the first intifada; gun battles, tanks, F-16s, and suicide bombers have marked the second.
A recurring motif in Precious Stones is the symbolic meaning of stones to Arabs and Israelis. The main characters, Leila, played by Assaf, and Andrea, played by Pitman, address the audience at crucial moments during the play to describe the religious, historical, and geographical significance of stones. These monologues further Khoury's theme of political and cultural disorder levied by demands of the human heart.
Leila and Andrea meet through mutual efforts to organize an Arab-Jewish dialogue group. Secondary characters, also played by Assaf and Pitman--Esther, Andrea's business associate, and Bassima, Leila's cousin--balk at the idea. Shocked and filled with hate, each offers a compelling argument against Arab and Israeli cooperation. Further complications ensue when Andrea, a proudly avowed lesbian, and Leila, a closeted lesbian hiding behind an arranged marriage, fall in love. Khoury has confidently drafted believable dialogue, and despite moments that feel written rather than real--exchanges given over more to sloganeering and political jargon than the rhythm of true conversation, or true argument—Precious Stones adeptly balances the themes of conflict, sexuality, and class.
But the play takes more time than necessary to explore all its avenues, which makes it feel intellectually as well as emotionally drawn out. By the end of the show, I was less drained by the fever pitch of its interrelations than by its lengthy running time. And the finale, after all that prelude, seems abrupt and unsatisfying. You could argue that the no-win situation presented onstage justifies an ambiguous conclusion, but with so much to ponder before it, the play's denouement is a disappointment.
Assaf and Pitman both excel in multiple roles. Aside from the characters already mentioned, Assaf portrays Esther, Andrea's former lover, and Pitman plays Leila's gay husband, Samir. A virtuosic and frequently hilarious sequence involving all six characters opens the second act. Still, I found myself wondering why Precious Stones had been designed as a play for two actors. The bravura in question, as well as other scenes, would benefit from additional performers in supporting roles, and I think a bigger cast would compensate for the play's slow pacing exacerbated by a extensive running time.
As a director, Najjar does a credible job keeping the action fluid on a simple set divided between Andrea and Leila's abodes. Two sofas, a few tables, and a chair suffice to suggest Andrea's working-class apartment as well as Leila's more spacious, art-filled condominium. Lighting and sound design are also minimally utilized, furthering the action instead of taking the place of it. A photo montage projected near the conclusion proves an unnecessary device, visually explicating what dialogue has already stated more succinctly. Middle Eastern music conveys ethnic Jewish and Arab influences, buttressing monologues by Andrea and Leila and helping in transitions between scenes.
Precious Stones is a noteworthy debut by Silk Road. Khoury has packed his play with so much information, he is in danger of overstating his case, and I would enjoy seeing a refined version of it. But that does not negate its merits. Whether theatergoers are attracted by its political, sexual, or cultural themes--or if they're simply seeking out new works—Precious Stones is worth seeing and supporting.