theater (reviews)

Heather Raffo in ‘Noura’ Unpacks Family Legacies with Radical Hope and Forgiveness

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Yazen (Liam Campora) surrounded by his mother Noura (Heather Raffo) one pivotal Christmas Eve. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Noura by Heather Raffo
Directed by Joanna Settle
Featuring Heather Raffo
Playwrights Horizons
November 27, 2018 – December 30, 2018
production site

On the 2017 list by The Kilroys of unproduced and under-produced new works by women, trans and non-binary playwrights, Heather Raffo’s elegantly constructed Noura asks a salient question: Do we live for each other or do we live for ourselves? Modern marriage, repressive legacies, leaving home, shame, violence, assimilation, exile, love, forgiveness — these all inform a story about Iraq’s cultural and political crisis from the perspective of new American citizens grappling with relationships to their homeland.

Directed by Joanna Settle, Noura focuses on an Iraqi Christian immigrant family struggling with their many identities after nearly a decade in America. On Christmas Eve, the family awaits a mysterious visitor — shades of Ebeneezer Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol, musing upon his past, present and future.

Noura (Raffo, in a heartbreaking turn), her husband Tareq (handsome, loving, but steely Nabil Elouahabi), and their son, Yazen (Liam Campora, on the cusp of adolescence), have new names — Nora, Tim and Alex — on the American passports they worked eight years to obtain. Tareq, who embraces his new name and clearly wants to assimilate, continues to mourn the trauma that causes his hands to shake, making his skill a surgeon impossible. Yazen thinks of video games and school, little bothered by whatever name he uses. And Noura resists Nora. She is still pained by decisions she made in Mosul as a younger woman as she attempts to blend her past training as an architect with her current life tutoring high school students in math.

NouraMainstage Theater Written by Heather Raffo Directed by Joanna Settle

Azama, Elouahabi, Raffo, Campora, and David enjoy a Christmas Day meal. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Tareq and Yazen are excited about a painfully constructed terabyte of pages from Noura’s now-destroyed family library, back in Mosul, that have now been digitized and which they plan to gift to her.

Meanwhile, Rafa’a (handsome Matthew David), Noura’s Muslim friend from childhood and now a successfully assimilated, fellow New Yorker, has spent his holidays with this family for decades. Young and pregnant Maryam (beautiful, self-assured Dahlia Azama), raised in a Mosul convent by Noura’s aunt Rana and now a student at Stanford, courtesy of Noura’s sponsorship, also comes for holiday dinner, bringing some family history along with her. Noura is and isn’t about her relationship to Maryam, per se, but it does ponder who and what makes a family, and the role of secrets, lies and surprises in family life.

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Raffo as Noura between past and present. Photo: Joan Marcus.

We begin to wonder whether there will be a Gift of the Magi dimension to the elaborately described gifts between Tareq and Noura. There is, of course, the terabyte of digitized pages, but Noura’s gift for Tareq –a blueprint design for a multifamily house — is equally devotional.

And the real gift, in any event, is the honest set of reflections that are inspired by Maryam’s visit. Old family friend Rafa’a recalls the comfortable cohabitation of Muslims and Christians in their Mosul childhood, the rigid rules social rules they left behind, and how that friendly shared world no longer exists. He reflects back to Noura her rigid judgment and hopes for Noura and Tareq to grow with the presence of Maryam. “It might be good for both of you to sit with a young Iraqi refugee over Christmas. I can’t think of anything more ‘Christmassy’ — welcoming into your home a pregnant woman who has no place to go.” We later have a final Christian parallel revealed: Noura got pregnant with Tareq when they were teenagers, promised to one another, but not yet married. Noura gave the child Maryam to be raised by the nuns in her aunt’s convent. Her child’s decision to keep her own child, now 20 years later, provokes Noura. “I’m an orphan,” Maryam tells Noura, “I want someone of my own.”

Rafa’a discusses with Noura the political context of the choices they make as immigrants — to isolate or to integrate in the face of intolerance of Muslims by Christians. “It’s everywhere Noura. It’s not how we grew up. But I’m telling you, it’s everywhere like an infection. There is no safe place. Are you telling me we have to be careful now too? Go back to our tribes?” Tareq and Noura have opposite instincts about their assimilation. For Tareq their American life is a chance to start over. “I’m grateful there’s a place we can reinvent ourselves, a place we can forget,” he says to Noura. Noura worries worries about the survival of traditions and a past that may be lost forever. “I don’t want to forget,” she tells him. “I’m trying desperately to remember who the hell I am.”

Noura’s gift dream design for Tareq’s family of five sisters and all their kids, currently scattered in Germany, New Zealand, and Sweden, appears to have inspired Andrew Lieberman’s set. In the design there are layers of bedrooms and a ground floor with family sitting rooms open to the courtyard, “so on big occasions if you open the interior doors, it makes a giant circular room.” Andrew Lieberman’s set takes on this “giant circular room” concept with a semi-circular back wall of crosshatched wood, warm and cool at the same time, and temporary spaces mirroring Noura’s ambivalence about her identity, standing between old and new worlds. Movable furniture through which characters move in arcs, circling each other. We’re literal and mythical at once, swooping and symbolic and cold.

Sound design by Obadiah Eaves captures beats of breath, language, and sound surrounding Noura’s efforts to make peace with the whispers of her past. Noura reflects with wonder and concern on the directness of American English in conversation when the family assembles for Christmas dinner. “This dinner in Arabic how different would it be? Circling each other for hours. Gossip thickening underneath each word. In Arabic we wait, we dance, but English doesn’t dance, it flies like an arrow.”

In this delicate memory play, each element crafted is key. Each character’s current passions, past actions, and future dreams are filtered through American politics, different religious traditions, intertwined personal and family histories, and expectations for each other. How do we each acknowledge then let go of our pasts, live lovingly in the present, and prepare ourselves for the future? Noura, her old friend Rafa’a, her husband Tareq, her son Tareq and her Christmas visitor Maryam dance and fly through themes of holidays and family life. In this story of world travelers seeking home, each finds their own story.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 12, 2018)

Playwright | Heather Raffo
Director | Joanna Settle
Set Design | Andrew Lieberman
Costume Design | Tilly Grimes
Lighting Design | Masha Tsimring
Sound Design | Obadiah Eaves

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