The writer and director Amir Nizar Zuabi’s play Oh My Sweet Land has no fixed address. Instead of being housed in a theater, it is being performed every night in the kitchen of a different New York apartment or community space. This movement around the city mirrors the plight of Syrian refugees, the subject of the piece, who have been pushed out of their homes by war and forced into a nomadic existence. The unsettled nature of the story’s characters neatly gel with its peripatetic premise: In just 65 minutes, Zuabi sends his audience across time and space, through vivid storytelling, aggressive smells and sounds, and descriptive detail — all imbued with a furious intensity that is not easily shaken.
In the solo show, our unnamed host (Nadine Malouf), a Syrian-American New Yorker, voices the characters she meets, which include Ashraf, a married man and Syrian refugee whom she comes across in Brooklyn. The two embark on an affair until Ashraf, drawn back home to help others, disappears. As the woman relays her journey to look for him in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, she prepares and cooks kibbe — a traditional Syrian food she once learned to make from her grandmother. Driven by muscle memory and perhaps something deeper in her blood, she dices onions, kneads dough, and sculpts the kibbe, while rarely taking her eyes off the riveted audience.
Guided by Malouf’s relentless stare, we become passengers on her character’s impulsive and complicated voyage, which turns out to be less about romance and more about identity, memory, borders, and the blurred lines between them. There are stories she hears on her quest that need to be told so that other people can share the burden of them, and, indeed, we feel their psychic weight in spades. (Over the course of the evening, Malouf adeptly embodies a precocious Syrian child, a vain Syrian actor, and other various roles, in addition to the garrulous host.)
Furthermore, as the copious chopped onions sting our eyes and the smell of burning food fills the room, this production physically impacts us. Zuabi wants us shaken from our inertia and any sense that this civil war is happening somewhere else. He finds a way to bring a violence, of sorts, to us: Sweet smells of allspice and pine nuts give over to a sharp acridity; the host’s pleasant cooking bleeds into panic. We become trapped in this sensory overload that is also our host’s, as she pushes forward on her uncomfortable odyssey. Only in the final, staged gesture does the well-calibrated symbolism of the production tip into the obvious.
Centering the story on an American confronting her long-ignored familial connection to Syria allows the political to be personal without veering into lecturing. With this framing, Zuabi addresses American immigration and refugee policy without saying a single thing directly about U.S. politics. Moreover, seated in such close, visceral proximity to these characters, we cannot ignore what is in front of us, and the passivity with which we might have walked in vanishes.
Oh My Sweet Land
Through October 22
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 20, 2017