When art reaches for the moon

The Kimmel Center presents Amir Nizar Zuabi’s ‘Grey Rock’

4 minute read
A metaphor for art-making under oppression: the characters of ‘Grey Rock’ build a rocket. (Photo by Carlos Cardona.)
A metaphor for art-making under oppression: the characters of ‘Grey Rock’ build a rocket. (Photo by Carlos Cardona.)

I’m having trouble writing this review, and I think it’s because I’m grappling with an issue that is fundamental not only to Grey Rock, but to my understanding of it. I am trying and failing to write around two truths: Grey Rock (now onstage at the Kimmel’s SEI studio) is a Palestinian story, and I am a progressive, American Jew who has a complicated relationship with Israel—and by extension, with Palestine.

So because I can’t get this started any other way, I will say this: I believe in a two-state solution. I believe in Israel’s right to exist, and I believe just as strongly that the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is wrong. And I believe that art has an ability to close gaps and build bridges, to educate and to cultivate empathy. Through art, Grey Rock challenges the expectations Westerners have toward a people usually depicted as either terrorists or impoverished tent-dwellers. And while the play is not perfect, I can’t stop thinking about how effective it is.

Art and spaceflight

Yusuf (Khalifa Natour) is a Palestinian TV repairman and father. His daughter, Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is hopeful that her father, after three years as a widower, is finally dating. Why else would he be sneaking around at night or leaving the room when he takes a call? Yusuf does have a secret—but it’s not a girlfriend. It’s a rocket.

Living in a place where “no” is the default, Yusuf has dared to dream the impossible: he will build a rocket and become the first Palestinian on the moon. It is an endeavor first undertaken in secret, then aided by Lila’s college classmate Fadel (Ivan Kervork Azazian), and finally inspiring underdogs worldwide.

If the plot seems unrealistic, it’s because it’s meant to be. Grey Rock is a metaphor, the unrealistic rocket standing in for the sometimes impossible-seeming act of making art—especially art that makes a difference—in the shadow of oppression.

Inner space

I love black-box theaters, like the one in the basement of the Kimmel, but with the SEI in a traditional proscenium configuration, minus the elevated stage or raked seating, sight lines are frequently challenging. Some of the play’s action takes place on the floor, and from where I sat on opening night, I could only hear these moments, while I stared at Tal Yarden’s beautiful minimalist curtains instead of watching the actors.

The challenges of writer/director Amir Nizar Zuabi’s staging are amplified by the Kimmel’s seating set-up, with chairs placed in direct rows instead of being slightly offset. Even when the actors were standing directly ahead of me, I frequently had to crane my neck to see around the patrons in front of me. These sightlines also made it challenging to fully appreciate the scrim work and projections created by lighting designer Muaz Jubeh—a shame, because it’s clear there was a lot to appreciate about his work.

Just getting here

Lacking money, technology, and know-how, Yusuf manages to build his ship and inspire people worldwide. But it isn’t just Yusuf’s story that inspires. Grey Rock’s landing here in Philly is also remarkable. Palestinians must obtain a visa for travel to the United States (Israelis need visas as well, but the process of being approved as an Israeli is much simpler). Given that the US recently denied visas to a prominent Palestinian negotiator and revoked (and then later restored) the visa of an incoming Harvard freshman (a Palestinian teenager living in Lebanon)—not to mention the scores of musicians and theater artists who have been denied entry to the US since the start of the Trump administration—the mere fact that five Palestinian actors and their writer/director were allowed into the country to perform their play is nothing short of impressive.

Compelling and relevant

To my ears, it’s likely that English is not the first language of the Grey Rock cast. That means the pacing and inflection of certain bits of dialogue sometimes seem slightly off. There were also a few times where the actors faltered. Performers speaking in their first language can easily substitute words to cover a forgotten line without sacrificing meaning, but this swap becomes more challenging in a less familiar language. At least twice during the performance I watched actors look skyward, as if reaching mentally for a difficult word. These small blips aside, though, the Grey Rock cast delivers a compelling, emotionally relevant, and uniquely Palestinian story.

What, When, Where

Grey Rock. By Amir Nizar Zuabi. Commissioned and produced by Remote Theater Project. Through February 9, 2020, at the SEI Innovation Studio at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.

The venue is fully accessible, and some SEI performances are also BYOB.

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