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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

El-Far on The Black Eyed: Four Arab women in limbo

Published: November 17, 2006
Section: Arts, Etc.

With opening night a mere two weeks away, Jennie El-Far 07, who is directing The Black Eyed by Betty Shamieh for the Free Play Theatre Collective as her senior thesis, took a few minutes to talk to The Hoot about the upcoming production.

Hoot: What drew you to directing The Black Eyed and making it your senior thesis?

Jennie El-Far: I was drawn to directing The Black Eyed because I attended a reading of it at Harvard last semester, sort of on a whim. It was in the basement of the ART, in one of their rehearsal rooms. It was a staged reading, so the four actresses sat in front of the audience. They had pretty much just learned it and were reading from the script, but just the words of the piece were incredibly moving. Betty Shamieh was there;

I had the opportunity to meet her after the reading, and I was blown away watching it. What drew me to it was the emphasis of the narrative. These four womens narratives all sort of intersect and intertwine in a great way. I felt my own personal life represented in the play. Also, I thought it had a very strong, important message that needed to be communicated. I approached Betty after and told her, I feel like you wrote the play that I was going to write, so can I direct it? She was very excited about the prospect of the play being produced at Brandeis in light of the Palestinian art scandal, and now, several months later, its turning out way better than I ever hoped it would.

Hoot: What should the audience be expecting to see onstage when they attend this production?

JE: You should expect the unexpected. It's not about Islam, but more about the culture, Arab culture and Arab-American culture. You can expect to see four women telling their stories, and what I hope to show is four very distinct women from different time periods who are ultimately of the same mind. Their narratives overlap in a way that allows you to see a sort of common area through the four of them, and that is the narrative of the Palestinian woman through history. It takes place in the afterlife. All they really know is that they are all dead and they are in a place that is what they believe it is. Its this idea that nothing is what it seems;

it is what you believe it to be. Theres sort of a base story of these four women trying to get in the door to the Martyr Room, then each takes a turn telling her story. You see four stories being told in a very theatrical way, then you have that juxtaposed with the harsher reality of where they actually are.

Hoot: You have a small cast for this show and youve been working with them for a while. Would you like to talk about them for a few minutes?

JE: I have an amazing cast. Every one of them is unique and perfect for the role. Candis Bellamy [06] was selected to play Aisha, the female suicide bomber. Candis is doing a fantastic job. She brings a quality to the character which I considered essential at the beginning of the audition process;

she has this rawness and this lyricism, she is a rapper and a poet, a person who is very skilled with words, so she brings this very lyrical element to the piece. Olivia Mell [09], who is playing Tamam, is a superb actress. Her diversity is astounding. She is constantly coming up with creative solutions and really pushing her charactersbecause not only does she play Tamam, but theres also a choral element in the play. Its incredible to watch her transformations;

one moment shes a smarmy old man, then shes a harem girl, and the next second shes Oprah. Meredith Ives [09], who is playing Delilah, brings to the process a kind of energy and commitment that Im so pleased with. Shes very committed to working hard and getting it right. Delilah is a very complicated character and Meredith is doing a great job. She also particularly excels with the humor that is mixed in with the drama. Lastly, I do not have enough good words for Alyssa Avis [07], who is playing the Architect. She is a pleasure to work with. Shes one of those actresses who is cooperative and creative and I dont have to worry about anything, shes just going to do her job.

Hoot: How are you approaching the piece from a design perspective?

JE: I picked up the costumes while I was in Jordan over the summer because I wanted authentic costumes. The concept for the set was also my idea, its just that the implementation of it is being left to someone else. I picked most of the music along with the sound designer and tomorrow Im meeting with the lighting designer to sort of construct this. The idea were working with is that nothing is what it seems;

were in Limbo, so its this idea of smoke and mirrors. Were going to have mirrors on the stage, lots of fog, lots of smoking Were trying to create a world that knows no boundaries. Its infinite, and yet its binding. We have mirrors facing mirrors creating the illusion of space, and also the walls of the Merrick confining us. The lighting is going to highlight this sense of unreality, this fantasy world, but then it will be very different during the stories, with each story also having its own distinctive theme in lighting. We have a soundtrack, pretty much the entire show is choreographed to the music, so music is a huge element.

Hoot: How do you view The Black Eyed as it relates to the Palestinian artwork scandal from last semester?

JE: This has been something that people keep approaching me with. Its funny, because I think people are expecting it to be a bigger deal than it might actually turn out to be. But that anxiety is creating a sensational buzz. People are like, Oh, The Black Eyed is going to be controversial, theres going to be riots, lets go! And I dont want to blow this out of proportion, what happened last semester was ridiculous. Ill come right out and say, I think the powers that be made the wrong decision. Im hoping this play will be a renewal, a second chance for the university to redeem itself. I hope to see a diverse audience at this play. Im not trying to exclude or offend anybody, Im trying to make them think. Im proud of my work, I dont take any shame in what I do. If they take offense, theyre welcome to talk to me, were going to have a talkback discussion after all three shows where people are encouraged to voice their opinions, to discuss and digest the play. Therell be plenty of space and forum for discussion. There will also be Arabic food, courtesy of the Arab culture club, which is sponsoring the post-show talkbacks. In the meantime, I hope it continues to create the buzz that Im looking for, and if there are riots, there are riots.

Hoot: Are there any shows youve seen on campus that you thought were especially powerful or any shows youre really looking forward to seeing?

JE: I thought The Waiting Room was tremendous. Beautiful. I was actually struck by how there are kind of a lot of similarities between The Black Eyed and The Waiting Room, this idea that were waiting for something and also dealing with a lot of womens issues, but I guess I was going into that show expecting it to be very similar and then it was totally different, so I was proven wrong. I am seeing The Physician of his Honor this weekend.

Hoot: Could you quickly give us the vital informationtimes, dates, tickets, location?

JE: This is our pleasure to perform this show for you. It is free. Free! Free! You can call to reserve tickets, which I recommend because theyre going quick. Its two weeks until the show and were already starting to fill up because the Merrick is such a small space. Theres a phone number on the posters. His name is Nick Brown [10], hes my producer, call him to reserve tickets. Its in the Merrick Theater in Spingold, its at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 30, Friday, Dec. 1, and Saturday, Dec. 2, with a talkback after each performance.