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A CLOSER LOOK: We Talk, We Swim, We Go to War

Playwrights’ Corner
Evren Odcikin and Mona Mansour

Mona’s plays feel like home to me. Yes, because she writes about “our people” with such complexity, truth, and compassion. But also because I recognize a fellow theatermaker behind her writing. Her plays can’t live anywhere else but on the stage. I love her unspoken moments of love, brutality, community. I want to parse my way through her messy arguments that don’t add up perfectly. So when Mona asked me to be a part of We Talk, We Swim, We Go to War, I said yes before I read a single word. She told me the play was about an aunt and her nephew swimming in the open ocean and talking. One scene?, I asked. No, she said, the whole play. Deep breath. Eventually, she sent me sketches of scenes that were unstageable… and beautiful. With two very different people speaking untidy truths to each other despite themselves, with space around them for everything to bubble over. And when we did an excerpt reading at the Middle East America Convening earlier this year, the two actors “swam” on two rolling chairs. No lights. No sound. And yes, it was all perfectly clear. As we take this next step in the development of We Talk..., there is still a lot unknown, but I feel perfectly home because it’s Mona.

And this play especially feels like home because it’s Mona’s Middle East America Initiative commission, created by The Lark, Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco, and Silk Road Rising in Chicago. It feels like this play couldn’t be written for anyone else, and both Mona and I are so thankful for the generosity of these three companies that have spent decades developing and supporting artists from this region we call the Middle East.

What I love about all your plays, and this applies certainly to this piece, is that they make the political personal and the personal political.  Can you speak a little bit about that? 

I think this play has everything to do with the fact that I grew up in a city (San Diego) that had a very pro-military, yellow-ribbon vibe. But in a home that was very much Middle Eastern, by way of my father. So from the Gulf War onward, I began to feel a profound disconnect from my city and country of origin.

That dual perspective is so central to this play. Most multi-ethnic playwrights such as yourself are forced to choose an identity and check one box with each play, but in this play, both characters are multi-ethnic, and have very different relationships to their identities. How has that impacted the writing process, if at all?

I couldn't choose either identity — I would fail at both! My father was definitely in the 'assimilation' generation, so while we heard Arabic every day, he absolutely didn't think it important for us to speak it or learn it. So there are huge swaths of Arabic culture I know nothing about. But as a kid, I never felt fully "American" either. In the play, the aunt is very connected to her Lebanese roots — she loves Fairuz; it's marked her. The nephew, only a quarter Arabic, regards it as a strange slab in his biography, a fun oddity, but not much more. 

Although the characters and their relationship are very much rooted in reality, the style and the atmosphere of this piece feel particularly theatrical. How did you arrive at this play's stylistic container?

I am still and the play is still arriving at its container. I try to be open to what the play wants — from where I'm sitting, each play does seem to be its own animal. I don't think I have a prevailing pedagogical/theoretical opinion or mandate about what theater should be or contain. I would say I haven't been very interested in plays that are strictly realistic. I would also say that thing people often say about TV and theater: "I don't write plays that could be a TV show, on a single set” — but lately TV has trumped theater in its risk-taking and ability to take the viewer to all sorts of imaginative places. 

For this play, part of your research has included talking to vets, and people who have enlisted. What's that been like?

It took me a bit of time to find people who had enlisted and were open to talking to me.  I have now really started to talk to a few people and am very much excited to see where this goes in the play. One of the things I'm trying to do in this play is find out what it is that makes a young man or woman want to join the military, in addition to money. And I very much am hoping to skewer some of my knee-jerk liberal responses to all that. 

In the great Lark tradition, we'll be sharing this piece with an audience at a very early developmental stage. There is a good deal of the play that is not written, or even imagined. What do you want the audience to bring to these presentations? 

A sense of fun, an open mind, and a touch of Bourbon.