Golden Thread Productions returns this year with ReOrient, a theatrical equivalent to Micah Bazant’s pro-refugee “Everyone is Welcome Here” poster. This festival of short plays offers nuanced and humane depictions of what it’s like to be both Middle Eastern and American. One spoken word poem and six plays mix humor with thoughtful ruminations on the liminal experience of living between two conflicting cultures. Merely representing this minority — or the many minorities that make up a varied diaspora — on stage feels like an artful victory against casual prejudice, mistrust and tragic headlines.
On a bad day, being Middle Eastern in America means you can be easily vilified as the other. If you don’t look white, even if you were born and raised here, walking through an airport can lead to difficulties. Sharing a similar point of view with Vikas Dhurka’s play Airport Insecurity, produced earlier this year by Naatak in Palo Alto, E.H. Benedict’s War on Terror combines elements of farce that are underlined with anxiety.
When a TSA agent named Darlene (Jessica Lea Risco) spies a Middle Eastern son with his mother in the security line, quivering antennae rise from the top of her head. Her paranoia is fanned by their appearance, and by the mother’s inability to speak English. They don’t look like real Americans to her because of their dark hair and eyes and their foreign surname. The agent’s ignorance hums around Mr. Sadat (Mohamed Chakmakchi) and his mother (Bella Warda) like white noise that never stops. More than anything, Sadat is fed up with the constant scrutiny and he just wants to get on the flight.
A is for Ali by Sevan K. Greene begins with an innocuous disagreement that gets layered over with complications. A pregnant Naomi (Atosa Babaoff, a standout in the ensemble cast who all play several roles) sits with her husband Waleed (Chakmakchi again) at the dinner table. When the conversation moves toward potential baby names, a rift opens up between them. Actually, it’s more of a ripple. Greene hasn’t written them as melodramatic caricatures or as antagonists. They’re just trying to get on the same page. Would it be better for the child if he didn’t stand out in school with an anglicized name? Naomi thinks Jonathan — rather than Ali — would be more suitable to their present day lives.
The dilemma becomes — do you forge a future unfettered from your heritage or do you honor it and risk being identified as an outsider? Naomi and Waleed might benefit from meeting Fay (Babaoff once more). In Thanksgiving at Khodabakhshian’s by Torange Yeghiazarian (also the founding artistic director of Golden Thread), Fay’s Iranian mother Dina (Warda again) is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner. Dina’s new boss Peter (Lawrence Radecker) and his wife Bridget (Risco) have just moved to California from the Midwest. When their conservative values piss Fay off, she articulates the liberal case against Trump’s America in a diatribe that ends in a personal attack.
She abandons her mother’s, meaning her inherited culture’s, custom of hospitality and deference to household guests. Dina, who is no stranger to pain or trauma, packs an enormous bag of leftovers for them, a telling detail that’s familiar to anyone with an Iranian auntie. And she does this despite their cluelessness about American interventionism in the Middle East. She’s also able to practice a sense of restraint, a quality that’s undervalued or considered to be passive if not un-American. With her outspokenness, it’s obvious that Fay has assimilated. She’s been translated from the old country to the new. That’s what stands at the center of Naomi and Waleed’s debate — is the inevitability of their child’s integration a good or a bad thing?
But Fay, in defending her parents’ homeland, makes a strong case that her cultural identity hasn’t been entirely subsumed by the West. What the plays in ReOrient collectively reflect is that the war on terror goes both ways. Just because you wear a hijab or you have an accent or a multisyllabic name doesn’t mean that you should be thought of as suspect. Being put in that defensive position is wearing, and it damages the psyche. It’s a simple point that these smart plays repeat — don’t judge a book by its unfamiliar cover.
ReOrient 2017 Festival of Short Plays, through Dec. 10, at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th Street, 415-626-4061, goldenthread.org