In Kathryn Haddad's disturbing play Zafira the Olive Oil Warrior she imagines a world where, following an attack by a series of suicide bombers across the United States, Arab and Muslim Americans are rounded up in internment camps where they suffer unconscionable treatment. Though it's not based on a true story, there are elements that are hauntingly similar to what has happened in the United States in the 10 years since 9/11, where Arab and Muslim Americans have dealt with harassment and abuse, as well as discrimination in schools and the workplace. [jump]
The play's main character, Zafira, narrates the story from her hovel under the 35W bridge. She has gone slightly mad, and tells the audience how she came to be in her state of dishevelment.
Zafira remembers that she once was a Lebanese-American named Vicki Khoury, a teacher of world literature at an American high school. When U.S. is attacked, the xenophobic climate gets so bad that even her students turn on her.
Young actors Emma Palmer and Jose Manuel Hernandez play the high-school students. Their characters are such evil little brats, but they play their parts with such effortlessness that they are very believable.
Vicki can do nothing about her student tormentors, since the school's principal, played by Nadia Boufous Phelps, and her fellow teachers are suspicious of Vicki too. One of the teachers, played by Katie Herron Robb, advises a student club where she encourages their nationalism.
As the political climate worsens, Vicki ends up in an internment camp with a group of women very different from her, barring their connections to the Middle East. They are tormented by the evil Guard 1, played by Garry Geiken, who is so good in his role that you just have to hate him.
Some of the best scenes in the play occur within the camp, where the group of women struggle to make sense of what has happened. They have conflicts amongst each other and each finds her own way of dealing with their situation. Teenager Magda Khaled (played with a spirited fire by Fatima Zahra El Filali) flirts with one of the guards in hopes she will be saved through him. Shahnaz Khan (Aamera Siddiqui) is pregnant; her husband was taken away by the police for suspicion of terrorism. Siddiqui plays her role with strength and warmth, as Shahnaz chides Marissa for causing trouble. Sam Issa plays Reema Khamis, a Palestinian woman who speaks no English, and has a great scene where she tries to communicate her deep felt feelings of loss to the other women, to no avail. As for Vicki, she continually defies the guards, while trying to care for the others in the camp.
Taous Claire Khazem is perfect for Vicki/Zafira. She is an actor with wonderful range, switching from Zafira's out-there state to Vicki's articulate and grounded presence. In the transitions between the past and present, Khazem exhibits wonderful movement. It would have been nice if that could have been expanded more, as it was one of the most interesting parts of the show.
There were some odd blocking choices by Dipankar Mukherjee, who often had the actors facing directly upstage, where their voices were completely lost. Still, Mukherjee did a good job casting this large ensemble piece, and drew excellent performances from all of the actors.
There's a danger when doing political theater of making it too preachy, but in this production, playwright Kathryn Haddad, along with a great cast of actors, creates something more. Does it have a political message? Yes. It's harrowing, scary, and utterly difficult to watch. But the strength of the characters, and the believable interactions between the actors, make the play engaging.
Zafira the Olive Oil Warrior runs through October 2 at the Avalon Theatre (In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre) at 1500 E. Lake St. in Minneapolis. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. See Pangea's website for a list of associated events.