Torange Yeghizarian. Photo by David Allen Studio.
As founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions, a Bay Area theater company focused on the Middle East, Torange Yeghiazarian has traveled widely and seen hundreds of productions that have originated in—or focus on themes surrounding—the Middle East. Below she shares her very personal reaction to A.C.T.'s production of Scorched, which introduces playwright Wajdi Mouawad, a powerful Middle Eastern voice, to the Bay Area. For more information on Golden Thread and a list of upcoming productions, visit www.goldenthread.org.
Spoiler alert: Scorched is a mystery about the violent history of a fractured family. The play unfolds as the pieces of the story are reassembled by its characters. The following post reveals some secrets. If you would like to experience the thrill of discovery as the truth is revealed onstage, you may prefer to read this post after you see the show.
After watching the opening night performance of Scorched, I could not be sure which country the play was set in. The performance was so moving and the story so shocking that I thought I missed some details, especially during the more emotional scenes. So I consulted the script. I wanted to see if any of the characters ever actually mention Lebanon, the country I was certain the play is set in. The names of the towns are specified in the play, but not the name of the country. Why does the playwright not mention Lebanon? Why do the twins say "the country my mother came from" and not Lebanon? I found this rather baffling.
There is a beautiful scene in the play, one among many, where Janine, Nawal's daughter, asks Malak, an old peasant, about the child that was born in prison by "the woman who sings." Through a lovely call-and-response-like dialogue, the old peasant asks the name of everyone Janine had encountered on her journey: "And who sent you to the shepherd?" "Fahim, the school janitor . . . " "And who told you about Fahim?" "The prison guard . . . " When the peasant tells her about the twins, he insists their real names are Janaane and Sarwane, not Janine and Simon. In fact, in the script the scene has a title: Real Names, underscoring the importance of names in the play.
Another play on names is Nawal's reputation as "the woman who sings." All through the play, we learn that it is Sawda who sings, Nawal who writes. Naturally, when we hear people mentioning the prisoner known as "the woman who sings," much like Janine we assume they mean Sawda. There is a fleeting mention of Nawal singing. It is in the scene where she describes the path she has chosen. In that moment, Nawal tells Sawda, "When my courage fails, I'll sing." It is a tiny moment in a very emotionally large scene. It is so tiny that it could easily be missed. Because it seems to me that the main point of that scene is about the promise Nawal makes: a promise to not forget, a promise to stay together no matter how far apart they become.
Last Sunday, the Oscar for best foreign film went to Iran for A Separation. We all screamed with joy, with tears rolling down our faces. A Separation is a family drama centered on a young couple's divorce. Their daughter's name is Termeh, my sister's name. Watching the film, every time someone mentioned Termeh's name, it was like they were stabbing me. I kept imagining how difficult it must have been for her when our parents divorced; like the Termeh in the film, my sister was a teenager at the time.
I went to see Scorched with my sister, Termeh. It is her real name, and real names are powerful. It was very powerful to hear Arabic names on A.C.T.'s stage. I believe this may have been the first time that has ever happened, at least as far as I know. To come to know characters named Nawal, Sawda, Malak, Shamseddin . . . to hear Arabic singing, to see an Arab playwright's name on the announcements. Wajdi, the playwright's first name, which means "ardent love," at least according to some web sites. Real names with real meanings.
Films and plays help us tell our stories in our own words. It is a way for us to share our world with others. For some people, Scorched may be the first time they experience a personal story about a contemporary Arab woman. Anyone who sees A Separation will catch a rare glimpse of an urban Iranian family that, surprisingly, shares much in common with its American counterparts.
I still don't know why the playwright chose not to mention the name Lebanon. But I do know that Scorched is a breathtaking play that will keep the audience on the edge of their seats until the final moment. It's a play more about keeping promises than about war, about staying together even when separated, about learning the truth of a name even when it is hidden.