STRAIT OF GIBRALTAR at Synchronicity Theatre
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections through May 2017!
Synchronicity Theatre is a professional theater company in Atlanta, GA, with a mission to uplift the voices of women and girls and to build community through theater. Synchronicity is currently producing the World Premiere of Strait of Gibraltar, by Andrea Lepcio. In the play, Miriam, an American Jewish woman, and Sameer, a Muslim man from Morocco, meet at a party and fall in love at first sight. When Sameer tells Miriam he’s undocumented, she offers to help; but, is everything may not be as it seems.
Playwright Andrea Lepcio and Synchronicity’s Producing Artistic Director Rachel May tackle what it means to create a play that is timely and thought-provoking, and how to maximize impact within the community:
RACHEL: Synchronicity’s tagline is smart, gutsy, bold theatre, and we make it a point to find artists like Andrea who are bold enough to write pieces like Gibraltar. For each of our productions, we build partnerships with other nonprofit organizations, in order to use the play as a spark to amplify conversations happening in the larger community. For Strait, we partnered the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, American Jewish Committee, InterfaithFamily/Atlanta, Congregation Bet Haverim, and the Anti-Defamation League. In each case, representatives of each group read the play and approved of participation. Partners aided in the final writing process, offering specific cultural insights; promoted the show to their constituents, and attended to help moderate nightly post-show discussions. In addition, Synchronicity is hosting a free presentation by The Islamic Speakers Bureau titled ‘The American Muslim: Beliefs & Practices,’ twice during the run.
ANDREA: There are things in the play that I knew would be challenging to, particularly, religious people, and other things that might be politically challenging. I was delighted Rachel found so much support for the play. I started the play in 2013, embarrassed that until listening to an NPR program I hadn’t realized the Patriot Act eliminated habeas corpus. When something bothers me, I write a play. As it turns out, not unlike the play, many, many years ago a Moroccan man asked me to deposit money for him in my bank account. We weren’t in love, he didn’t have a good reason, so I said no. That memory collided with my new understanding of the Patriot Act and Strait of Gibraltar was born. I finished the latest draft after a good workshop at Geva Theatre in October 2015. Coming into rehearsals, the reality of life under Trump slammed against the reality in the play. As a law-abiding undocumented person, Sameer could function without threat under the Obama Administration. Suddenly, with ICE officers patrolling the subway platform at Jackson Heights, Sameer could get picked up at anytime. I made numerous changes in the script to bring it up to our current horrific reality.
In the play, I am deliberately setting up a dilemma for the audience. They meet Sameer when Miriam does. She falls in love with him and, likely – unless we are prejudiced – so do we. As they get to know each other, hints are dropped that might make us wonder if he is what he seems. He lives with two men in Jackson Heights in a place he will not take her. We hear him speak Arabic with someone he says is his sister. A low-wage deli worker, he starts a business selling cellphones and suddenly has a bunch of money. Finally, he asks Miriam to deposit money into her account for him. She works at a bank and knows this is money laundering. She immediately doubts his affection for her. After interrogating the friend who introduced them, she is reassured that Sameer didn’t know she worked at a bank and she decides to trust him. He is asking because he wants to bring his lesbian sister to the United States from Morocco. Miriam figures out she can open a business account for his business and become an investor. She believes this is fine. Act One ends with their arrest.
I had the play when I knew Sameer was honest. I also knew I had it when I realized that by the end he will have been deported and Miriam would still be in jail suspected of another money laundering scheme at her bank. In truth, bank money-laundering schemes typically wind up unprosecuted, perhaps a fine. In my telling, the prosecutors are super annoyed at having been wrong about Sameer and are doing what they can to get Miriam. I imagine Sameer is back in Morocco. He has found his way to the Atlas Mountains, a place he longed for in his youth before he made his way to America. As he puts it, “With my nose, I could smell the flowers the bees sucked. Lavender and thyme. Carob and cedar. I longed to walk among such flowers. To crush the leaves with my fingers. To drink with my nose like the bees. Instead, I crossed the sea to this city of garbage and exhaust, shit and piss.” When asked why by Miriam, he explains, “America. All that promise. I am the only male. It was for me to go.”
RACHEL:So about casting...the play calls for a cast of five with the other three actors playing a parent, a friend, a sister and a foe. Sameer’s sister Amina is played by an Arab woman. This same actor must also play the Female Prosecutor. Miriam’s friend Tripp, (an attorney who also ultimately ends up representing Sameer and Miriam) is written to be white, specifically WASP. He is clearly a man of privilege and wealth. I had an actor in mind for this who was perfect for both Tripp and the doubled role of the prosecutor, and I cast him, without thinking that some audience members would consider the casting a controversial choice. The actor I cast is African-American. This has added some really interesting (unintended) layers to the play. One layer is that in Atlanta, the two characters that are the authority are people of color.
ANDREA: We have had specific audience reaction to this casting, primarily positive, but a few responses questioning a person of color in these positions. I have to say for me, these talented actors, fully became The Man. There are people of color who work in law enforcement. Is there a reason we expect people in authority to be white? What does it do to the conversation if they aren’t?
I wrote the play embarrassed by my ignorance of the details of the Patriot Act and what the events of 9/11 had actually wrought on our legal system, and wanting to, frankly, test the prejudices of my audiences. I hope people go through a process of figuring out who they trust and don’t trust. Then I would love them to think through why they thought/felt what they thought/felt at different points in the play. When they leave, I guess I hope they are energized to fight for a fairer world.
RACHEL:Yes! At Synchronicity, we hand out a ‘Spark Guide’ for each show that deals with social justice and other ‘big’ issues. This guide provides some ideas for things that audience members can do in order to get involved and promote change. The guide also presents resources to learn more. It is our hope that by starting with an engaging, powerful theatrical experience, and then providing a safe space for brave conversations…our audience members will challenge their own assumptions, hear other perspectives and leave with new ideas on how to take on the world in a whole new way.