Across the world from one another, a father and son set out to make a recipe that they both remember differently through a video call. As they start to add each ingredient, memories and opposing perspectives spill out that cut, bleed and later heal in playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi’s beautiful tale, “This Is Who I Am.” The potent 70-minute play — presented by PlayCo and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in association with American Repertory Theater, Guthrie Theater and Oregon Shakespeare Festival — is performed live each night with no intermission and runs now through Jan. 3.
From the start, the differences between the two loved ones couldn’t be starker. Tucked in his cozy kitchen, the father (skillfully played by Ramsey Faragallah) joins the call from Ramallah, Palestine. In his space with its nut-brown cabinets, photos and notes compete for space on the refrigerator and a large cream-colored doily is draped across a counter that houses a framed picture of his now-deceased bride.
His son’s cooking space in New York, with its bright white-tiled backsplash, is tidy and modern. Thoughtfully portrayed by Yousof Sultan, the son — an art curator — comes across as caring but angry and deeply wounded, cutting his father off at times and spitting insults (sometimes good-natured) like “you were always a horrible cook” and “death is definitely one of the consequences that can occur as a result of your lentil soup,” as they gather some of what’s needed for the dish. One calls out, "sugar, flour, milk, yeast, spinach, onion, salt, sumac, chili flakes, lemon and olive oil."
“She used to make such incredible food. Why this, why fteer?” asks the son about the dumpling-like “peasant dish.” “It was the first thing she prepared for me,” his father explains. She said to me, “This is who I am, I am a pocketful of surprises.”’
The play, with focused direction from Evren Odcikin and adroit dramaturgy by Joseph Haj, pulses with emotion. Calm banter gets peppered with explosive rage as the characters delve deeper into the past. The discourse covers money, the father’s health, the son’s job and departure from Palestine and, of course, how to make the dish. Each has tried to make it on their own, and neither has been successful. “It’s because you need me,” Faragallah says. “I’m not sure about that,” his son quips. But they do. Together, they can “fill the gaps.”
Faragallah, a longtime actor, writer and teacher has worked in television, film and onstage. He’s performed at The Public Theater, the Kennedy Center and the Manhattan Theatre Club among others. In “This Is Who I Am,” he delivers his lines, his stories like poetry. Full of color and bite. He tells his son that for olive oil to be good, “it must have memory.” With his earnest enthusiasm, Faragallah pulls viewers into a colorful landscape where a community works together at harvest.
“Don't you miss those days just after the first rain, when everybody gathers together in the olive groves to beat the branches and harvest the olives? That sound of all olives falling from the tree, hitting the tarpaulin? Olive rain. That is one of the best sounds ever,” Faragallah reminisces. “You don’t miss that?”
Sultani’s character remembers too, but he also knows that the “trees are drenched in blood. They live in a land that had so many people claim it, so many people die for it. You walk around those trees and you feel the reverence of history, I walk around those trees and I hear the shouts of slaughtered men that had to sacrifice themselves to keep it. I hear Roman legions, marching. I hear Babylonian trumpets. I hear ancient Jews running, chased by Persians.”
Some might not like the artful volley between the two, but it illustrates vulnerability. It’s one of a few key occurrences that get to the root of who the father and son are fundamentally and what they believe about their lives. Watching the two actors feed off each other’s energy feels intimate. Almost like the stage. Faragallah sobs at one point after he and his son unleash their burdens.
Zuabi, the award-winning playwright, told PlayCo in an article that he was “thrust into a war zone” in his 20s and that life became “very brittle and brutal.” Fear and soldiers appear in his narrative, but we learn more about war’s toll by how it affects this relationship and what each person clings to.
The challenging connection between a parent and child is a universal theme that many can see themselves within, including me. There’s no war in my background, fought on soil that shaped my life with my parents, but the battle to understand, to relate, to forgive and to heal is the most human of tales.
“This Is Who I Am,” with its heft and moments of beauty, helps me understand more fully the power of theater. Not because Zuabi chose to tell some incredulous story, but because he chose to tell an ordinary one. One centered on a family, full of misunderstandings, fierce love and disappointment held together with the smells and sounds of home, shared pain, a familiar dish and old memories cast in a new light. A light that points the way forward.
Before the show began, onscreen text directed audiences to laugh, cry, applaud and react as if the actors could hear us. I for one certainly did.
“This Is Who I Am” runs through Jan. 3.