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Inside the Process: The Vagrant Trilogy

Playwrights’ Corner
Two actors in modern day costumes sit at the edge of a stage with a backdrop set to look like a view of London.
Hadi Tabbal and Tala Ashe in tech rehearsals for THE VAGRANT TRILOGY.

We here at The Lark have been eagerly following the progression of Mona Mansour’s The Vagrant Trilogy ever since one of the three plays that make up the trilogy came to us through our Roundtables program in 2014, and like many others, were deeply saddened when its New York premiere at The Public Theater was necessarily suspended due to the outbreak of the COVID-19. 
Before the call was made however, I interviewed Mona about the inspiration for and development of her plays. As a process-based organization, we strongly believe in the power of the playwright’s voice, both through their plays, and through the conversations they spark. We also believe in Mona, this play, and its journey, so in anticipation of the next time audiences have the opportunity to experience this beautiful work, we are happy today to still be able to share this conversation with you! Read on to hear about the ways in which the trilogy investigates themes of home, memory, and belonging, and the need for more nuanced representations and narratives of and from the Middle East. 

JENNIFER HALEY: Could you briefly describe the play and its structure as a trilogy. How did it all come together for you? 

MONA MANSOUR: It's a conditional trilogy. You see Palestinian scholar, Adham, and his new wife, Abir, go to London in the first play The Hour of Feeling. It's 1967, and they go to London, where they are outsiders looking in. He delivers a lecture at University College, and near the end of the play, war breaks out in their homeland (the 1967 war). They have to decide whether to go home to be with their families. 

The two plays that follow are two different outcomes of that decision.

The Vagrant, the play that's presented second, you see what would happen if Adham decides to stay in London, to not go back home at all. In Urge for Going, you see what happens if Adham and Abir do go back home in 1967 - and how they end up as refugees. There's a slight, what? - sci-fi element to it? I overuse this, but when I say Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, that seems to click for people.

JH: Where & when did this play start for you? What compelled you to write it?

MM: I wrote Urge for Going first (it's the last play in the trilogy now) after a period of investigation into the Palestinian camp that sits on the edge of my father's village in Southern Lebanon. I was struck that inside the camp were people who'd been there since 1948, and their children, and children's children. It seemed unfathomable that they'd sat there in political limbo, with no room to expand, no statehood, but with some belief that they'd get to go back to Palestine, just across the border. I wrote into that, and at that point, had no idea this would end up being a trilogy. 

JH: Could you describe what it’s been like developing the play over the past decade? What have you learned through the various programs in which you’ve developed it?

MM: I've had great people give input along the way. Ari Roth at Mosaic was an early champion - he's been able to have deep and meaningful conversations with his "audiences" for years, unafraid to put forth works that deal with the Middle East beyond the tropes of ISIS-adjacent stories or abusive Muslim husbands, etc. We have to get theaters to understand that they can help create nuanced conversations about this region - and not program plays that reinforce biases that many Americans already hold about men and women from this part of the world. Oh, sorry, you asked about programs - yes, many great places contributed to my work on this - The Lark, of course; Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, Golden Thread in San Fran; Sundance. I first got to see how it all might work when Emily Morse at New Dramatists encouraged me to do a big reading of all three plays in one day. I got food and booze and put up pictures of the cast's families - it was a great model for how I wanted it all to be presented.  And of course The Public Theater itself has been home, and the anchor to all of this. Urge for Going was the play I submitted to the Emerging Writers Group; they did that play and then commissioned The Vagrant. The Public's company dramaturg, Jesse Alick, came with me to Mosaic when the plays first went up in 2019. He's been an amazing thinker/voice in this process, and I'm hugely grateful.

JH: How has working with Hadi Tabbal (actor and fellow Middle Eastern-American Writers’ Lab member) since the play's early development influenced the play? What has that collaboration been like?

MM: Hadi is like a little brother! He's amazing. So smart. We fight sometimes, of course. He'll weigh in on a rewrite I've just made - like something I literally have just rewritten! But that comes from us having worked on this for years. I would not be cool with that with an actor I'd just met. :) I also am lucky to have the actors Ramsey Faragallah and Tala Ashe, both of whom were in the original production of the full-length Urge For Going. I'm not one of those people who automatically calls fellow theater practitioners fam but in this case, we've all been in the creative stew of these plays for nearly a decade. We're family. At least I feel they are!  

JH: What has it been like so far bringing this to production here in New York? Anything that has surprised you or that you are hoping for with this production?

MM: I think it always surprises you, working on a play again. It should, right? So yes, I've made changes to what the DC production was. I think what's amazing is that we have an all Middle Eastern cast, and they're all superb: Tala Ashe, Osh Ghanimah, Ramsey Faragallah, Nadine Malouf, Rudy Roushdi, Hadi Tabbal, with Caitlin Nassem Cassidy and Bassam Abdelfattah understudying. Mark Wing-Davey is directing, as he did at Mosaic, and Sarah Blush is assisting Mark (female director alert!). The design team is half Middle Eastern, and that's significant. And we have had a dialect coach, Hayat Abu Samra, who has coached the actors in Palestinian dialect. It's all big, it's huge. 

Four actors sit on a red leather bench on a stage set with a backdrop of a tall wood paneled wall. A projection reads "Can we just eat something and have a moment?"
Osh Ghanimah, Hadi Tabbal, Rudy Roushdi, and Tala Ashe in tech rehearsal.

JH: One of the things that really stuck with me in this play was how it deals with identity during times in which it can feel socially or politically dangerous to be “other.” I wonder how these themes of identity and belonging may have been articulated differently over the course of this play’s development? How central were these themes for you initially, and how has it changed over the years?  

MM: Oof, great question. Let me think. To be clear, I'm not Palestinian, I'm Lebanese. I grew up hearing about Palestine, and Palestinians, because of how central the whole issue was during the Lebanese Civil War, when my cousins came to live with us. So in a sense, I was opening myself up to an entirely different narrative than I'd heard growing up. In terms of "otherness," and how to theatricalize that, early on in the process, my director, Mark Wing-Davey, helped create a theatrical language that has stayed in the play. He suggested that in scenes where you see two Arab people, they are speaking Arabic, essentially, so there's no need for them to have accents. In scenes where those characters are with British people, we suddenly hear their accents. 

JH: Another part of what really stood out to me was how we think about home - what evokes notions of home, how we try to make home in places that are not our place of origin. 
Was this something you were interested in from the start? How do location and identity in relation to notions of home play out for you? Or, how would you describe your sense of home and origins?

MM: I was guided a lot in research and spirit by reading a memoir called I Saw Ramallah, by Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, who was studying in Cairo in 1967, and thus unable to get back into Palestine for many years after the war happened. It's just a gorgeous book, and in it is a quote I think about every day: "Politics is the family at breakfast. Who is there, and who is absent and why. Who misses whom when the coffee is poured into the waiting cups. Where are your children who have gone forever from these, their usual chairs?" That, to me, gets to the heart of the matter of the refugee story. Who is there, and who is missing?