New Arab American Theatre Festival connects Minnesota and the Middle East

Taous Khazem

Taous Khazem

A trio of plays this month at Mixed Blood Theatre offers a far more nuanced look at the Arab-American experience than anything you are likely to see on TV or at the movies.

The pieces, produced by New American Theatre Works, all have ties to Minnesota and explore the nature of "home." As with any festival, the work is a mixed bag, but there are plenty of moments worth your attention.

In Algeria They Know My Name

Taous Khazem's one-woman show offers a seemingly simple tale of finding love in Algeria and dealing with the in-laws. But this isn't some cheesy sitcom. Khazem takes us through not just the courtship and marriage, but the difficulties she found while adjusting to life in a land with a foreign culture and language.

Khazem is part Algerian but was raised in Minnesota. Her theater career took her to the North African country, where she met Mohamed. The two hit it off, and made plans to marry. That brought her into Mohamed's extended family, and their often confusing customs. From there, we follow her triumphs and failures in a tradition-laden culture.

Khazem is an engaging performer who lets the story unfold in a natural, conversational way. Using a handful of travel crates packed with props from her experiences in Algeria, Khazem builds a rich world full of fussy in-laws, angry journalists (a foreign woman producing theater in Algeria is apparently controversial), and très cool friends.

A Clown in Exile

Mohamed Yabdri's expressive, one-hour exploration of "home" has been stage tested in France, Algeria, and at the 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Yabdri (who is married to Khazem) puts his clowning skills to the test throughout the piece, which opens with the audience making paper airplanes (mine was an abject failure), and then travels to several spaces around the globe.

The "sad clown" is looking for a home, but he isn't able to settle anywhere. There are obstacles, from missing visas to tiny apartments to the constant drone of bad news from the Middle East.

The show manages to be entertaining and confounding at the same time, such as when Yabdri has to give CPR to a wind-up baby chick. Funny? Yes. The meaning? Just a bit out of reach.

Road to the City of Apples

Two friends go on an impromptu car ride from New Jersey to the heart of Wisconsin. However, this isn't your everyday road trip. The pair are Palestinians in America without papers. One, Ahmed, is on the run after stealing $2,000 from his employer. He dreams of meeting up with an aid worker from Appleton (the "city of apples") whom he met in Palestine. The other traveler, Khairy, wants to head to Milwaukee to meet a friend. He is, however, very coy about the nature of the rendezvous.

Playwright Kathryn Haddad sets up a lot of ideas, and then packs the two characters in a car for most of the show. This kills a lot of the energy, as they wander the back roads of Ohio and Indiana on their way to the west side of Lake Michigan. Their circular conversations don't really help.

Haddad has lots of good concepts on the table here, especially as the two navigate pieces of the American dream, from buying cheap goods at Walmart to ordering breakfast sandwiches at Burger King, but the piece can't keep our attention throughout.