January 28, 2003
By Hedy Weiss
Just when you thought that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could not get any thornier or more complicated and intractable, Chicago-based writer Jamil Khoury arrives with his new play, Precious Stones. This work, the initial effort by the Silk Road Theatre Project, injects one additional element into the mix--lesbianism.
In many ways, the added ingredient has the effect of turning what is an endlessly depressing situation into one bordering on the absurd, even if you want to consider the sexual element as a playful metaphor for the ways in which a difficult relationship can or cannot be mediated. Yet in some ways, it is not quite as wacky as it first sounds, providing an offbeat framework within which some of the cultural attitudes that both separate and link Jews and Arabs can be aired. (And the cultural definitely outstrips the political in this case.)
In Khoury's two-character play, the conflict in the Middle East is played out within the safe confines of two Chicago apartments, rather than on the stony ground of the troubled region itself.
Andrea (Nicole Pitman) is a pretty, vocal, "out and proud" lesbian with strongly leftist peacenik views when it comes to Israel and most other subjects. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she earns a meager salary at her job with the Jewish Federation, a social welfare and advocacy organization.
Leila (Roxane Assaf) is a glamorous, articulate, well-to-do married woman--a Palestinian whose family fled Beirut in the late 1970s. As it turns out, her wedding ring signifies only a marriage of convenience and respectability for both her and her gay husband, a wealthy attorney. Leila, who has no need for a salary, works as a volunteer for an Arab social welfare organization, and she admits that even if there were a Palestinian state, she would choose the freer American way of life.
The time is the summer of 1989, as the Palestinians' "first intifada" is under way. The naively idealistic Andrea decides to create a "Dialogue Room," bringing together Palestinian-American and Jewish-American women for conversation.
Her first session is with Leila, and once a dialogue begins, sexual sparks follow fairly quickly. For a while, the mix of attraction and debate result in a blissful connection. But Andrea's growing insistence that Leila recognize their relationship in the world beyond the bedroom--and Leila's refusal to break with Arab social norms--results in a massive meltdown full of bitter political venom.
Taking a cue from Anna Deavere Smith, whose multiple character monologues on issues of race in America contained all viewpoints in one morphing body, these very skilled actresses deftly play their somewhat caricatured "opposites." Pitman assumes the role of Leila's husband, as well as a fiercely anti-Israeli and anti-American friend Bassima. Assaf plays Andrea's "dyke" ex-lover, as well as her Jewish boss Esther, who is fiercely protective of Israel.
On the surface, Khoury's play (his first to receive a professional production) is balanced to a fault. Look more closely, however, and you see cracks; for example, the choice of a Jew who does not support Israeli government policies as the counterpart of an Arab who seems to have no conflict with the official Palestinian approach (even if she is not a devout Muslim) is chief among them.
And a slide-show prologue that mixes scores of emblematic mass-media images from a half-century of the conflict does little more than stir up the senses.
From a purely artistic viewpoint, "Precious Stones," directed by Michael Najjar, has both strengths and weaknesses. With a running time of nearly two hours and 45 minutes, it tests the endurance of both the audience and the two actresses (who manage to handle an enormous amount of dialogue with impressive intelligence and style). The clunky ending also needs work.
Nevertheless, "Precious Stones" is an ambitious effort by the Silk Road project, which is "committed to showcasing playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds." It will be interesting to see where it goes next.
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