Precious Stones Crosses Boundaries of Sex, Class and Mideast Conflict / by R. Sheth

March 1, 2005
By Erin Cohen

"Whatever happened to the nice Jewish girl you were going to marry?" Rachel asked Andrea, her roommate.

"She turned into a Palestinian Muslim," Andrea replied.

Issues of sexuality, class, and the Israel/Palestine conflict were all brought center stage with the performance of "Precious Stones," a play written by Jamil Khoury, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Union last Saturday.

Precious Stones is about Andrea, a working class Jewish woman, and Leila, an upper class Palestinian woman, who come together to form a dialogue group to talk about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They end up being the only members, and become passionate about more than just politics. Despite their differences in opinion, they fall in love.

As their love grows, however, so does their optimism about a possible resolution. The pair fantasizes about the changes they envision taking place "by the year 2000," as Andrea says in one scene. "Peace is within our reach."

But like any love story, there are hurdles that keep the couple from truly being together. In "Precious Stones," not only do Andrea and Leila deal with their ancestors and past, but also with the fact that Leila is married — to a gay man, whom she married to keep secret their sexual orientations.

As a result, Andrea feels she can't tell anyone about her feelings for Leila. "You're afraid of being a lesbian," Andrea tells her, during the final, climactic scene where the couple is arguing. "You hide behind your culture."

To add the to the complexity, each actress portrays two additional characters — Leila plays Esther Cohen, Andrea's aunt and boss at the Jewish Council, and Rachel Lowenthal, Andrea's roommate and ex-lover; and Andrea plays both Samir Barakat, Leila's gay husband, and Bassima, Leila's cousin.

At a short discussion held after the play, Khoury said that when he first wrote "Precious Stones," he intended it for six actors, but realized it wasn't necessary.

Using only two actors "allowed for each actor to embody varied and often-contradictory perspectives and experiences, and was an artistic nod to the theoretical premise that empathy with one's ‘other' is essential to creating meaningful dialogue," according to the Web site for the Silk Road Theatre Project, Khoury's creation with co-founder and life partner Malik Gillani.

Apart from two chairs, the only prop in Precious Stones is a 12-foot by 8-foot, combined Palestinian and Israeli flag. "They sort of bleed into each other," Khoury said during a previous interview in Chicago's Queer Life News.

According to that interview, Khoury chose the play's title because of the varied role that stones play in Palestinian, Jewish and gay life: Stones thrown during the intifada; stones placed on Jewish graves; stones for building; and stones thrown during the 1969 Stonewall uprising.

Khoury, who was born to a Syrian father and American mother, told the Milwaukee audience that he was inspired to write the play, which is set in Chicago in 1989, during the first intifada, after his work for a U.N. agency at a West Bank refugee camp.

The play, which premiered in Chicago in January 2003, won Gay Chicago Magazine's 2003 John W. Schmid After Dark Award for Outstanding New Work. It is currently on a college tour, with stops at universities in California, Illinois, Minnesota and Colorado.

The Milwaukee stop was co-sponsored by many UWM and community organizations, including the UWM Center for Jewish Studies and the American Jewish Committee.