Food sums up the culture and history of a people. Just ask the Palestinian family in Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader’s seriocomic new play, “Food and Fadwa,” which opens Off-Broadway in the East Village next week. Even as they struggle with life in the West Bank under the Israeli occupation, the family remains bound together by the food that they prepare and eat together. The groundbreaking production is the first by the Noor Theatre Company, an Arab-American collective sponsored by the New York Theatre Workshop.
“Food and Fadwa,” directed by Shana Gold, centers on Fadwa Faranesh (Issaq), a 35-year-old Palestinian Christian woman living in Bethlehem. Fadwa yearns to have her own cooking show, even as she spends most of her time caring for her ailing father, Baba (Laith Nakli) and preparing baba ganoush, baklava and other treats for the upcoming wedding of her younger sister, Dalal (Maha Chehlaoui). Meanwhile, Dalal’s randy fiancé, Emir (Arian Moayed), faces a daily struggle to get through the Israeli checkpoints to his job as an auto mechanic in Jerusalem.
The plot thickens with the arrival of a sexy cousin, Hayat (Heather Raffo), who has become a successful restaurateur in New York but still retains ties to her family in the West Bank; she has the hots for Youssif (Haaz Sleiman), who is Emir’s older brother — and Fadwa’s boyfriend. A profane, chain-smoking aunt, Samia (Kathryn Kates) who lives next door, breezes in periodically to provide comic relief. Food and politics blend in a masterful scene in which the characters use different kinds of Middle Eastern food to create a map of the occupied territories and Israeli checkpoints.
Issaq, who has appeared in numerous productions in New York (including in Tuvia Tenenbom’s “The Suicide Bomber,” in which she played the sister of a slain would-be terrorist), invented the character of Fadwa for a sketch that she performed in 2004 in the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. It was then that she met Kader, then an aspiring filmmaker, who recorded her doing a pilot for a Palestinian cooking show.
Although the actual cooking show never got funded, the two realized that the comedy sketch had the potential to be a full-length drama. In 2006, the resulting play garnered interest from James Nicola, the artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, which had (bowing to political pressure) first postponed and then canceled its production of “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” a British play about the young American activist run over by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip. (That play later ran in a commercial production at the Minetta Lane Theatre.)
Working with an Arab-American company called Nibras, the workshop produced a reading of “Food and Fadwa,” which was then a one-act play, as part of the Arab-Israeli Festival at the Public Theater. The new three-act version, now under the aegis of Nibras’s successor, a theater group founded by Issaq that is called Noor (meaning “light” in Arabic and Farsi), is intended to be the first of many plays by emerging Arab-American writers.
In an interview, Nicola told The Jewish Week that many audience members who have attended the readings and previews have expressed their surprise that the Palestinian characters are not terrorists. “At first, I was shocked,” he said, noting that his audience is quite “sophisticated,” and contains a significant number of Jewish subscribers. “If the play gets people to realize that a whole group of people are human beings, then it’s worth doing for that reason alone.”
Nicola views the play as Chekhovian in the sense that humor is used by the characters to “mask their pain and anguish.” That the humor revolves around food is fitting, he said, since the rituals of preparing and serving food help to preserve the family members’ sanity in the face of the violence and turmoil around them. He compared “Food and Fadwa” to Robin Soans’ “The Arab-Israeli Cookbook”(first produced in London in 2004), which was based on interviews with Israelis and Arabs about their recipes and food memories. That the food of the Israelis and Arabs is so similar, he said, suggests that “these two cultures who are in such collision have vast and significant things in common.”
Kader was born in Utah, the son of a Palestinian father — whose father had immigrated to America and fought in the First World War — and Mormon mother. (His brother, Aron Kader, is a stand-up comic who mines humor from this mixed heritage.) The playwright said that the play is about the use of food as a means of cultural transmission. “It’s about what the older generation imparts to their children, and whether the children honor or abandon what they’re offered. The family comes from generations of farmers; the daughter is the recipient of what the land offers, and what does she do with it? She cooks.”
Issaq echoed this idea of transmission, pointing out in an e-mail that the play is based in part on the idea of cycles — “cycles of a relationship, cycles of nature, cycles of time and how that weighs down on people.” She feels extremely grateful, she said, “to give voice to this Palestinian family, who love, who hurt, who press on.” Both playwrights hope that “Food and Fadwa” will, in Arabic translation, ultimately be produced in Jordan, Syria and other countries in the Middle East.
Kates, who plays Aunt Samia, is the only Jewish member of the cast. A Great Neck native, she appeared as “The Babka Lady” in the “Seinfeld” episodes “The Marble Rye” and “The Babka.” But while she has played many Italian, Puerto Rican and Albanian mothers and aunts on stage in recent years, she did not expect to win the role of a Palestinian.
“I knew that they wanted it to be really authentic,” she said, “and I didn’t think that I could sing convincingly in Arabic and do a ululation.” After she was cast, she started working with an Arabic coach. “If there were five Arab women in the audience who knew what this was supposed to sound like, I wanted them to say, ‘This is it.’” In return for learning about Arab culture, Kates brought hamantashen to a rehearsal for the rest of the cast to sample.
Last year, Kates appeared in Leila Buck’s “In the Crossing,” playing the aunt of a Jewish photojournalist who turns against Israel after visiting Beirut with his Lebanese-American wife during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War. While she called that play a “very political, thrilling, dangerous, exciting, wonderful piece of theater to do,” she said that “Food and Fadwa” is equally satisfying, this time as “uproarious comedy.” The play, she said, is “important for me as a Jew who identifies with her Jewish heritage and supports Israel.”
Her advice to the producers is to “go after the Jewish audience. This is an important play for Jews to see. This kind of theater will do more for mending fences that any meeting between heads of state.” Ultimately, she concluded, it’s a “story about home — why we stay, why we leave, and how it always remains part of who we are.”
“Food and Fadwa,” which is now in previews, opens on Thursday, June 7 and runs through Sunday, June 24 at the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m. and Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. There are also Saturday matinees at 3, Sunday matinees at 2, and Sunday evening performances at 7. For tickets, $40, call TicketCentral at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com.