Articles, Reviews, Volume 13

Performance Review: Wish You Were Here and First Down

First Down. By SEVAN. Directed by Johanna McKeon. Performed at 59E59, produced, and commissioned by Noor Theater, New York City. March 4, 2022.


Wish You Were Here. By Sanaz Toossi. Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Playwright’s Horizons, New York City. April 13, 2022.

Reviewed by Renate Mattar

Wish You Were Here: The group of five friends having fun preparing for Salme’s wedding in the play’s first act, just before the war. LTR: Nazanin (Marjan Neshat), Salme (Roxanna Hope Radja) in her wedding dress, Rana (Nazanin Nour, standing), Shideh (Artemis Pebdani), and Zari (Nikki Massoud). Production photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Blake Zidell.

“Just because there is a war doesn’t mean we have to be boring,” affirms Nazanin, one of the characters in Wish You Were Here, by the middle of the play. This statement could sum up the play’s atmosphere, in which Sanaz Toossi depicts five women, best friends, lively, passionate, and full of humor, evolving from 1978 to 1991 in Iran, amid a revolution, a war, and the ways of exile, absence, and loss. This sentence can also encapsulate First Down, a play written by the Middle Eastern writer SEVAN and commissioned by Noor Theater for their first performance since the start of the pandemic. First Down tells the story of George Berri, a Lebanese and Muslim football player, born in the US to parents who fled the Lebanese Civil War to settle in Montana. On the day of the Superbowl, George, now a prominent football player, plans to kneel and perform a Muslim prayer during the National Anthem. By this strong act, he hopes to publicly reunite two parts of himself that seemed irreconcilable all his life: his American identity and his Muslim and Arab identity. “What good is all of this if I can’t help any of the people in my community?” George asks Marina, his agent and friend, a fellow American of Lebanese descent.

Historical wars figure in both plays: Sanaz Toossi’s play is staged during the Iran-Iraq war, and First Down evokes the Lebanese War as well as the war in Iraq where George’s father dies, “a Muslim‐Refugee‐American soldier.” Both plays also deal with internal struggles: immigration and its consequences, the absence that is left behind by those who fled their country (in Toossi’s play), the brutal necessity of adapting to a country of adoption (in SEVAN’s play), and how language(s) can fail to express those struggles.

Wish You Were Here is filled with the absence of Rana, a young Iranian-Jewish woman, who leaves the country with her family after the play’s first act, right before the beginning of the war, without a warning, leaving her best friend Nazanin heartbroken and bitter — when her friend Salme states that “she will call you one day,” Nazanin answers, “Then I will hang up on her.” When Rana does end up calling Nazanin, almost ten years after having left the country, in the play’s last act, she informs her friend in a beautiful, tender, bittersweet dialogue, punctuated by silences and laughter, that she moved to America, intends to stay, and that she is pregnant and expecting a daughter. “You know, I’m gonna have this girl,” Rana says, “She will have a home. A home, one home. I won’t teach her Farsi. She won’t even know the word revolution. […] She will never know how fast this earth can spin underneath you. How one day you can have a home and the next / as you are hurtling through the air / you will have to vanquish home / the word home / the idea of home / as anything that has ever existed or will exist again.”

SEVAN’s First Down tells a story that comes from a similar place: like Rana, George’s mother Hana doesn’t teach her native language to her child. George taught himself Arabic because he “wanted to feel a deeper connection” to his parents; still, when his father found out, he reacted by saying: “Don’t make yourself unlucky. Be American.” While Wish You Were Here deals with the absence caused by those who leave during a war, First Down explores the hardships immigrants and their children are still dealing with decades after having left their home country. George was born in Montana, white-passing, extremely successful, and he went to the University of Notre Dame (“Great place to hide. Among the Fighting Irish Catholics. Who would suspect anything?” says Marina, who attended the same university); he had to erase everything Arab or Muslim about himself in order to fit in. The word “hiding” is repeated on several occasions during the play, highlighting the fact even if George’s family escaped a war, they are still not safe in a country where Islamophobia is high, or where crimes that happen to Muslims around the world go unnoticed, as George recounts the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand or the war in Yemen (“We get killed halfway across the world and they think: Get the dirty Muslims!”). Yet George’s mother Hana begs him not to go forward with his plan of revealing to the world that he is a Muslim. When he explains to her that he is tired of concealing a part of his identity, she opens up to him, in a passionate monologue, about the anti-Muslim assault she suffered in the US when he was still a toddler.

Each play, in its own way, represents the concept of “double absence” theorized by the Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad: when one leaves a country, one becomes an “absence” to the people left behind, and also becomes absent, because they are never really accepted, in the country where they immigrate. In both plays, this feeling of belonging to two different worlds is embodied through creative uses of language on stage. “I love that language fails us,” said Sanaz Toossi in an interview with Playwright’s Horizons Literary Director, Lizzie Stern, in January 2022. “It should.” In an essay about Wish You Were Here, she explains that idea: “The women of this play speak in an American argot because that is how I have translated them. These characters are actually speaking Farsi, but you get it. It’s theater.” The stage, too, becomes, linguistically speaking, a space of in-betweens and translations, and a re-creation of a world that has been passed on, translated. In Wish You Were Here, Sanaz Toossi, a daughter of immigrants, recreates the world in which her mother grew up, using the language that Toossi herself as she grew up in, English. Yet some expressions and words were employed in Farsi in the play, probably not readily translatable, and not translated for the spectator either, enhancing the idea of the theatrical stage as a space that is double, ambiguous, paradoxical and the result of many stories.

First Down, by SEVAN, directed by Johanna McKeon. In a powerful monologue, Hana (Hend Ayoub) tells her son George (Peter Romano) about the struggles she faced as an immigrant mother moving to the US. Photo by Carol Rosseg, courtesy of Salma Zohdi.

In SEVAN’s play, language is used in a more realistic but still very meaningful way. With his coach Bill, George speaks English; with his friend, Marina, a mix of English and Lebanese Arabic; his mother Hana tries to speak to him in English, but he insists on speaking to her in Lebanese Arabic, which results in a long and passionate dialogue in Arabic between the two of them. It is interesting to note that SEVAN chose not to translate those Arabic dialogues in English, making the play more realistic and enabling the spectator to fully witness what is at stake here: the raw reappropriation of a mother tongue. If Sanaz Toosi creates a language in her play that is a mix of English and Farsi, SEVAN makes another strong choice by having some scenes in Lebanese Arabic only, while subtitling Hana’s monologue (image 3) in English. Thanks to the tender and passionate acting of Hend Ayoub and Peter Romano, the non-Arabic-speaking spectator is still able to grasp the main emotions involved here. Theatrical language becomes a space for revendication, experimentation, and incarnation of the concept of “double absence” for these playwrights, both first-generation Middle Eastern immigrants.

Wish You Were Here by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Act 4, “Then they were two”: By the middle of the play, only Salme (Roxanna Hope Radja) and Nazanin (Marjan Neshat) are left in Iran. They discuss their friendship, the departure of their friends, while Salme waxes Nazanin’s legs. Production photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Blake Zidell.

Like language, the space of the theatrical stage also superbly incarnates the idea of being from a place of in-betweens. Arnulfo Maldonado’s stage design in Wish You Were Here is dazzling and delicate at the same time. Every detail is on point, from the Persian rugs to the little balcony, giving to the spectator the impression of literally stepping into the living room where the events are taking place. Moreover, Reza Behjat’s subtle light design and Brandon Terzic’s beautiful original music coordinate at every transition between acts to mark the passage of time through the decade; strangely enough, they also convey an impression of timelessness. All those elements make the play very immersive; the spectator has the impression that those larger-than-life female characters, who lived decades ago are inviting the audience to spend an afternoon with them, playing backgammon in this sophisticated living room as bombs are falling. The fourth wall can also become a mirror of a sort, as Sanaz Toossi frames it in her January 2022 interview: “I want to tell you now that these girls do not sound like you. You sound like them.” Here, the playwright is addressing this sentence to a Western audience that could have been surprised by the freedom of the women on stage, who talk about their body very easily, for example. Toossi wants to remind the Western audience that those women are as free as any. On the theatrical stage, absence becomes presence, and time is mixed up. This becomes particularly striking during the last scene, where Rana calls Nazanin after ten years of silence: on stage, even if Rana is physically in California while Nazanin is in Iran, they are sitting on the same couch, in the same living room, inches from each other’s body — not miles.

In First Down, the spectator also witnesses this condensation of time and space on the stage, especially through the use of projection and sound design. The final montage, projected as George is about to leave the locker room, features football games, anti-Muslim protests, and football games; we hear overwhelming cheering, and George’s loud breathing; a breathtaking final scene, thanks to the skills of projection designer Stivo Arnoczy and sound design studio Uptown Works.

First Down, by SEVAN, directed by Johanna McKeon. Hana (Hend Ayoub) and George (Peter Romano) embracing at the end of the play. Photo by Carol Rosseg, courtesy of Salma Zohdi.

In these plays, Sanaz Toossi and SEVAN create a world able to express the struggles, poignant relationships, and intense stories experienced by those who had to leave their countries, or those who have to live with the hole that has been left by the others’ absence. Even though each of them has their own language and their own signature, they both reclaim theatrical tools to present, on stage, a world of in-betweens. In both plays, the concept of home is fragile, crumbling; what remains is the theatrical stage and the strong relationships that are at stake, two things with the potential to resist the volatility of spaces, time, and language. As Rana tells Nazanin when she calls her, “I want you to know that when I think about where I’m from, I think of you.”

Renate Mattar is a writer, scholar, and aspiring theater director. She was born in Lebanon, later moved to France, and holds an MA in Comparative Literature from la Sorbonne, Paris. She also recently studied at NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Her interests include performance studies, diaspora studies, and memory studies. Her current research focuses on collective memory and identity following the 4th of August 2020 explosion in Lebanon.

Arab Stages
Volume 13 (Fall 2022)
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founding Editor: Marvin Carlson

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor: Edward Ziter

Performance Reviews Editor: Katherine Hennessey

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian.

Managing Editors: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo


Table of Contents:

Playing the Street: Syrian Musicians in Istanbul by Jonathan H. Shannon

It’s Only Funny with Stage Directions by Laila Sajir, Introduction by Andrew Goldberg

Hotter Than Egypt by Yussef El Guindi, directed by John Langs, reviewed by Michael Malek Najjar

English by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Knud Adams, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Wish You Were Here and First Down reviewed by Renate Mattar

Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, directed by Robert Schuster, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf, reviewer by Samer Al-Saber

Arab and Middle Eastern Productions at the Avignon 2022 Festival by Philipa Wehle and Marvin Carlson

Review of Stories Under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine edited by Samer Al-Saber and Gary M. English, reviewed by Zeina Salame

Review of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula written by Katherine Hennessey, reviewed by George Potter

Review of Middle Eastern American Theatre: Communities, Cultures and Artists written by Michael Malek Najjar, reviewed by Robert Myers

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