How often do you hear of a dream come true from an open call to “be the next Food Network Star!”? It’s like winning the lottery. Or Arab Idol. Writer/performer Lameece Issaq didn’t get her cooking show optioned, but it was while shooting her submission tape with filmmaker Jacob Kader that a new sketch character, 30-something Palestinian Fadwa, was born. Who could have predicted that Fadwa’s mock culinary routine would lead to a world premiere at the renowned New York Theatre Workshop and the birth of a dynamic new Middle Eastern theater company for New York City artists?
Food and Fadwa, written by Issaq and Kader, directed by Shana Gold, starts previews May 18 on the NYTW main stage as the inaugural full-scale production of Noor Theatre in collaboration with the Workshop. A brilliant balance of dark and light, the play centers on the unmarried Fadwa, who hosts an imaginary cooking show as she prepares a feast for her younger sister’s wedding. True to any family on the cusp of such a major event, tensions both serious and absurd abound. If it weren’t set in modern day Bethlehem, it would be My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets My Best Friend’s Wedding. But roll in the backdrop of the West Bank, and a tragedy of ancient proportions unfolds.
Fadwa (played by Noor Artistic Director and co-writer Lameece Issaq) has sacrificed her own pursuits to stay in Bethlehem and care for Baba, her mentally ailing, thoroughly endearing father. Baba becomes an integral character in Fadwa’s cooking show; in her imagination, he waxes philosophical about the food she cooks and its significance to their family’s roots. He is kind, wise, and vulnerable. Fadwa’s younger sister Dalal (played by Noor Executive Director Maha Chehlaoui) is his most practical caregiver, but after her wedding she will move to New York City to attend Columbia University.
Complex back-story is gently kneaded into the mix as the story develops, and the drama that stems from events in the past now coming to a head is raw and powerful. Who should return for the wedding, all the way from New York, but Fadwa’s former fiancé Yousiff, brother of the groom. Much time has passed, but the connection between Yousiff and Fadwa is riveting, and the sensuality of her cooking says everything she can’t.
Enter Hayat, another wedding guest from across the globe. Fadwa and Dalal’s gorgeous first cousin, Hayat is a Palestinian-American chef thriving in New York City. An up-and-coming restaurateur, she employs Youssif, and will soon take his brother under her wing as well—Emir and Youssif will once again be partners, as they used to be before their father’s Bethlehem restaurant shut down. Hayat urges Dalal to bring Baba to New York for treatment, a notion shocking and distasteful to Fadwa, who knows how closely bound her father is to what’s left of their land.
Hayat, portrayed by the indomitable Heather Raffo, is Fadwa’s ultimate antagonist: Raised in America, she capitalizes on the culinary traditions of a culture she inherited but never lived. Hayat’s American sense of entitlement clashes with their West Bank reality. Upon entering, she complains of her 15-minute detention at the airport. This comically contrasts an earlier conversation, when a concerned Dalal wonders how long Youssif will be detained at the border. Her fiancé Emir responds glibly: “Eh, it’s nothing. Another, seven, eight hours. Maybe 30. Big deal?”
Tensions escalate in the household as Hayat and Dalal gleefully plan their New York adventures, Baba shuffles to and fro in search of his olive oil, Aunt Samia crows over the latest Arab Idol results, and Fadwa cooks. But it’s just after Hayat and Youssif reveal their secret affair that a city-wide curfew—an immediate lockdown—is imposed, and the entire ensemble, sans Emir, is stuck together, for no telling how long. Sparks ignite, simmer and stew, but the comic edge is always present—as when, even after days of confinement, Dalal refuses to take off her wedding gown, despite growing complaints about the smell.
The fact that there is so much lightness within this drama is a tribute to the work of Ms. Issaq and Mr. Kader. Above anything else, the story is a human one. The love between the characters—each his or her own person to a fault—is so strong you can’t help but love them and grieve alongside them when the outside world determines so coldly their fate, bringing the political context to a personal level. As director Shana Gold remarks of the political situation, “It’s just the circumstances they live in. Ultimately, it’s a play about family... It’s subversive and completely accessible at the same time.”
The Fruit of Many Seasons
Gold and Issaq have known each other for 12 years, first working together when both were living in Austin, Texas. Gold made the move to New York shortly after Issaq did, and when she happened upon the New York Arab American Comedy Festival, instinct told her it was the perfect community for the funny playwright and performer Isaaq. She was right. It didn’t take long for Isaaq to become a fixture in the Comedy Festival. After directing Isaaq’s first play at the Festival, Gold became a regular part of the community as well, developing numerous projects with them, including Leila Buck’s In the Crossing which will see a full production at the Culture Project in the fall. The New York Arab-American Comedy Festival originated many working relationships that Noor Theatre continues to cultivate. In fact, it was at the Comedy Festival that Issaq met Jacob Kader, then a film student at Columbia University.
It was also at this moment that a “Food Network Star!” contest caught Issaq’s attention. “Yes! I am clearly perfect for this,” she thought. “I, having no culinary background whatsoever!” So, “I asked Jake if he would film me making some kind of extravagant brownie sensation,” Isaaq explains, “and he very generously offered his skills. Between takes, I started improvising this somewhat solemn Arab cooking show host.” And thus was Fadwa born. Issaq and Kader thought Fadwa could make a good sketch; Kader began writing a piece that ended up being too bittersweet and dramatic for the Comedy Festival—it was rejected. But it was certainly something. As Issaq says, “I think at that point we realized, ‘Oh, this could be an actual play.’”
Their collaboration continued. Going off Kader’s original short piece, Issaq finished a first act featuring Fadwa, Baba, and a few other characters. They submitted it to “Aswat: Voices of Palestine,” a reading series the New York Theatre Workshop was co-producing with Maha Chehlaoui’s Arab-American theater collective, Nibras, in the spring of 2007. It was accepted. Issaq played Fadwa, Gold directed, and the play caught the eye of the Workshop. “Linda Chapman, the Associate Artistic Director of NYTW, expressed great interest in what we’d already done, and asked that we continue to work on it. So we did!” says Issaq.
Over the next five years, the creative team developed Food and Fadwa into the production that audiences will soon have a chance to see. Issaq and Kader fleshed out the story, and Issaq wrote the text, working with director Gold each step of the way. They participated in Summer Artist Residencies at Vassar and Dartmouth through NYTW and continued to receive guidance from the Workshop in the city. Over the years, a creative shorthand between the three has grown; the artistic trust is implicit. Since Issaq is on stage, Kader is the careful listener for both of them, the “outside eye” as to what is working in the overall narrative or what needs adjustment. The role of the Workshop was also integral. Issaq remarks, “I think if it weren’t for Linda Chapman cheering us on year after year, we may not have come this far with it.” Gold concurs: “They are one of the most supportive, creative homes a project could ever have.”
In fact, it was after their second residency at the Workshop that NYTW Artistic Director Jim Nicola expressed interest in supporting not just the play, but a theater company that could nurture Middle Eastern voices. “That got my wheels spinning” Issaq says, “and I approached two of the smartest women I know, Maha Chehlaoui and Nancy Vitale, about starting a company. It felt like the time and space were ripe for it.” It was. Nicola was immediately on board and invited the newly forgedNoor Theatre to be one of two Companies-in-Residence at NYTW. He suggested they co-produce Food and Fadwa as part of NYTW’s main season. “We were thrilled, terrified, and kind of dizzy from it all! It was a gift,” says Isaaq.
A Company Takes Root
Noor means “light” in both Arabic and Farsi and is just what this new company aims for. Noor Theatre is dedicated to supporting, developing, and presenting the work of theater artists of Middle Eastern descent. Producing Artistic Director Nancy Vitale hopes Noor will allow artists to explore fundamentally “what it is to be Middle Eastern, to be an American” and, for many, “to be a woman.” Though men of Middle Eastern descent in New York have found incredible success in film and television, there are not always the most empowering roles for women. Noor hopes to change that by giving voice to a multitude of perspectives in order to further cultural understanding and deepen the human connection between us all.
At two years old, Noor has already hosted a fall reading series of new plays (ranging in subject from ancient Egyptian power struggles to those of modern-day love), been commissioned to present an evening of new work at the New York Center for Architecture, and is about to see its inaugural Off-Broadway show. The goal for years to come is to support as much new work as possible. The vast array of talent in New York’s Middle Eastern community makes this not only possible, but necessary. Vitale notes they continue to discover that many of their friends—amazing women in the community—are writing. “We can’t necessarily afford to produce every play we love,” she remarks, “but we can support it.” Every other spring, they hope to mount a full-scale co-production.
I have no doubt that Food and Fadwa is set to join the ranks of great dramatic culinary works, a theme MoMA honored with a special film series just last summer. Isaaq and Kader’s play shares some of the best traits of these stories—it uses cooking to get under your skin, to awaken your senses, and to nourish its characters and bind them to each other and to the earth. To see the war-torn soil of Bethlehem as a garden—ancient and essential—translates an impossible conflict into the palpable terms of creation’s power. As Baba gently tells his daughter: “Be mindful, the seed is the beginning. Learn to see the tree inside the seed and the seed inside every tree.”A fitting sentiment considering the genesis of Food and Fadwa and of Noor Theatre itself.
Food and Fadwa, written by Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader, directed by Shana Gold, runs May 18 through June 24 at the New York Theater Workshop, in collaboration with Noor Theatre. For tickets and further info, visit www.nytw.org or call (212) 460-5475. For more information about Noor Theatre, please visit www.noortheatre.org
GINNY MOLHER is filmmaker and writer. She is fascinated by untold history and children's education. She is a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts.