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Chocolate in Heat: Growing Up Arab in America

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

After a successful run at the 2001 Fringe Festival and assorted appearances elsewhere since, Chocolate in Heat: Growing Up Arab in America has returned to New York at The Tank on 42nd Street, and not a moment too soon. It's a fresh, vibrant telling of five interlocking stories on the most basic of human themes accentuated with music and dance, and given life by two excellent performers, Shamieh herself and Piter Fattouche.

Many dramatic works carry the message that, fundamentally, people are all the same. But few do it with the brevity, pointedness, and unflinching sense of completeness that Chocolate in Heat does. Though the situations and characters are intimately tied to the Arab-American experience, the ground Shamieh covers is familiar enough for anyone to relate to. Prejudice, sexual assault, duty, loss, revenge, and obligation are a few of the powerful emotions Shamieh touches on in direct, if also occasionally surprising and poetic ways.

Yet she's dramatically astute enough to not dwell on the anger or pain for too long - Chocolate in Heat is as likely to be moving in its depiction of relationships of various sorts as it is to be extremely funny. But whatever attitude Shamieh adopts in her storytelling, she's careful to see that each of her stories makes a sobering point about its subject, often with the appropriate shattering dramatic effects.

"Need" is a takeoff on the centuries-old story of Cinderella, with a chilling sardonic twist; "Love" explores the bonds that can be strengthened or broken between people by one's actions; "Ignorance" examines the depth and danger of preconceptions and a negative self-image; "Sex" is a dissection of responsibility and complacency; and "Justice" focuses on revenge and the dangers that can lurk just around the corner. Though each story stands alone, they all work together (told in something of a reverse chronology) to provide a window into a wide range of emotional experiences, the kind that tend make up everyone's lives. The specifics matter only as far as they go - Shamieh's writing is universal.

The show's billed director is Sam Gold, and he keeps Chocolate in Heat smoothly clicking from one segment to the next. (The show's obligatory - if unnecessary - frame is of Fattouche and Shamieh playing a backgammon-like board game and toasting to each other with the title of the next sequence.) But it's the performers who drive the show, creating a host of colorful characters in situations both familiar and unique. Some secondary characters stand out - Fattouche's depiction of an uppity prostitute and Shamieh's impersonation of a black dance instructor are two of the most incisive creations - but Fattouche's Jordanian prince suffering classism on American shores in "Love" and Shamieh's young girl facing a lecherous liquor store owner in "Justice" are portrayals about as sharp as anything I've seen this summer.

That brings up the production's one significant problem - The Tank is not adequately air conditioned, so some may find that even sitting for 65 minutes might prove something of a chore. Overall, though, that should be a minor consideration - Chocolate in Heat is cool enough to be worth it, and hearty enough to stick to your ribs long after you've left the theater.

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Chocolate in Heat: Growing Up Arab in America
Through September 27
Running Time: 65 minutes with no intermission
The Tank, 432 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444