Re-Orienting the story

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Re-Orienting the story

“Oh, I like to tell this story.”

Playwright Mona Mansour leans back in the theater seat at Project Artaud and stretches her legs. She’s black-clad, wearing tights and boots in an unexpectedly hot San Francisco October. Having flown in from New York to see the staged reading of her play The Hour of Feeling, Mansour explains how she came to know theatre company Golden Thread Productions.

Word of mouth and a mouth full of tacos launched an artistic partnership between Mansour and Golden Thread. In 2009, a friend of Mansour’s told her of a group producing plays about the Middle East and urged her to submit work. She did: “And then I didn’t hear anything… I thought… well, what do you do?”

You call.

“It mattered to me that we spoke,” recalls Golden Thread’s Founding Artistic Director Torange Yeghiazarian. “We both operate best with personal contact. To me, considering someone’s work is more than just credentials and kudos. It’s about cultivating a personal relationship. I relate to Mona’s writing and to her as a person.”

Their conversation coincided with the company’s staging of its short play festival, ReOrient. “Next thing I know I’m flying out to California to see ReOrient,” says Mansour. “Torange and I got to know each other over tacos.” In Golden Thread Productions, Mansour discovered a space for artists whose work addresses the Middle East. The company also produces plays from Middle Eastern artists who write on topics having nothing to do with the region.

Since that first meeting, the playwright and company have partnered on two readings and two upcoming productions. Mansour will bring The Letter, a short play she co-authored with Tala Manassah, to next month’s ReOrient Festival 2012. It’s based on a derogatory comment about Palestinians by a trustee of City University of New York (CUNY) in the wake of playwright Tony Kushner’s criticism of Israel. (Kushner’s remarks resulted in CUNY denying him an honorary degree). In Mansour and Manassah’s piece, Palestinian-American physicist Kamal and his philosopher daughter Alia make the debate personal.

Sometimes characters won’t obey their authors. In such cases, the writer re-orients the story to meet the character’s urging

Tonight, Mansour awaits the staged reading of the second play in her trilogy about a different Palestinian character. In The Hour of Feeling, it’s 1967, and as political forces redefine Middle Eastern borders, English Romantic poetry scholar Adham travels to London from his native Palestine to deliver a career-defining lecture with his new wife, Abir. As war breaks out and the pull of family and home weighs heavily on him, can he take this chance to leave them behind?

“Because it’s about Palestinians, it’s a heightened version of the immigrant story,” Mansour says of the play.  “The hurt is both completely particular to each person and completely universal. You know, you go back home – if you can go home – and it breaks your heart.” Damned if you leave, damned if you stay.

The Hour of Feeling serves as the prequel to Adham and Abir’s life in Mansour’s first major play, Urge for Going. Centered on the couple’s children, that play came out of Mansour’s participation in the Emerging Writer’s Group at Public Theater in New York. Evren Odcikin directed the readings of both Golden Thread Productions.

Sometimes characters won’t obey their authors. In such cases, the writer re-orients the story to meet the character’s urging. Mansour is now busy with the third and final play featuring Adham, listening to what motivates him and how migration and Palestine define his course.

Scheduled for 1–18 November, 2012 in San Francisco, the ReOrient theatre festival and forum e features 10 fully-produced works by writers such as MacArthur “Genius” Award winner Naomi Wallace, Steinberg Best New Play Award winner Yussef El Guindi, and foremost  Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim. Paired with the festival’s performenaces, the ReOrient Forum (Nov. 17-18) includes panel discussions, readings and special presentations featuring international artists, activists and scholars. Columbia University’s Hamid Dabashi, internationally renowned cultural critic and award-winning author, will deliver the Forum’s keynote address.

It looks set to be an interesting and enthralling couple of weeks.

Haleh Hatami’s poems, essays, and translations have been published in various journals, including Brooklyn Review, Phoebe, Faultline, Chain, FO A RM, ZZYZYVA, and Fourteen Hills. She received the CPIC Life Poetry Award at San Francisco State University and the Ann Fields Poetry Award judged by Gillian Conoley. She has taught courses in Creative Writing at San Francisco State and at Mills College. Currently, she applies her poetics to the production of short videos.