Detroit, 1991. Teenager Irene Yacoub (Sherri Eldin) haunts open-mic night at her local disco, desperate to be the next Billie Holiday. Her father, Ahmed (Joseph Kamal), hopes her talent is the only thing about her that’s discovered. He wants his Palestinian American daughter to pass as Egyptian because, as he puts it, “Who in America has ever heard of a Palestinian blues singer?” His wife Karema’s retort: “Who in America has ever heard of a Palestinian anything?”
Playwright Betty Shamieh is out to change all that, with Roar her second entry this season in America’s dysfunctional-family theatrical sweepstakes, Arab American-style.
After all, Irene’s not the only one with problems. Dad’s shirking maintenance work to jam on his tubleh, while Mom (Sarita Choudhury) buries herself in minding the family store. Something’s gotta give. Enter Auntie Hala (Annabella Sciorra), a singer herself, who was kicked out of Kuwait by her boyfriend during the Gulf War. “It’s unpatriotic to have a Palestinian piece of ass,” she deadpans to sister Karema. Speaking of booty, as soon as Ahmed takes one look at Hala’s vertigo-inducing cleavage and leopard-print pumps, it’s clear where this story is heading.
Shamieh offers a sharp eye for our melting-pot lies. Ahmed cheerfully notes that Karema likes America because “here no one tries to pretend we belong.” Exile—from a homeland and a true self—marks each character. It’s no accident that everyone in this play wants to sing; like August Wilson’s Joe Turner, they’ve lost their internal song, some authentic sense of being rooted in the world.
But given Roar‘s theme of dislocation and its allusions to the Gulf War, Shamieh raises expectations that the Yacoubs will struggle with their perpetually politicized history. Instead she imposes a plot that manages to trivialize almost everyone’s motivations—a tendency made worse by some seriously uneven casting. Director Marion McClinton can’t negotiate Shamieh’s turns from satire to sincerity to heartbreak, which tend to be either over- or underwritten. Amazingly, in a play about people who’ve been tossed from one country to the next like unclaimed luggage, there’s very little genuinely at stake onstage.
Yet even Shamieh’s awkward dramaturgy can’t stifle the irreverent energy of Sciorra and Choudhury’s sister act, a fierce, foxy tangle of opposing feminine forces. Sciorra applies her fatale like all-day foundation: It’s laid on a bit thick, but offers dependable coverage as the evening wears on. Meanwhile, the dark fire in Choudhury’s eyes, at effective odds with her buttoned-up blouses and clipped consonants, threatens to burn down the house.
The play’s title refers to the lyric crescendo of a traditional Arab song. Shamieh tries for lift, but what we mostly get is elevator music.